Fred A. Bernstein

In Provincetown, an Unlikely Gay Marriage

Rosie O'Donnell puts her stamp on Family Week

Published in The New York Times, July 23, 2007

IN 1996, Tim Fisher and Scott Davenport, a couple living in New Jersey, brought their daughter, Kati, and son, Fritz, to Provincetown for a vacation. After a week of meeting other gay and lesbian parents at the beach, they invited about 15 families to their rented house for dinner. It was a magical event, Mr. Davenport recalled, at which children of gay parents - many of whom didn't know other families like theirs - suddenly felt less alone.

Over the next decade, the event - which came to be known as Family Week - grew so large that by last summer a family parade seemed to stretch from one end of Provincetown to the other. Among those working as volunteers were Kati and Fritz, now teenagers. They had become used to Family Week's low-key style; the annual highlights included a fish fry at the Provincetown Inn.

This year, Family Week has bigger fish to fry. R Family Vacations, a company founded, in part, by Rosie O'Donnell, has taken over the running of Family Week from the nonprofit Family Pride Coalition. And that means that the whole event is being redesigned with more razzle-dazzle. "Rosie's idea is that if we're going to do it, we have to be the biggest and the best," said Gregg Kaminsky, one of the three principals of R Family, along with Ms. O'Donnell and her partner, Kelli O'Donnell. The fish fry, for example, has been replaced by a circus-themed party, Mr. Kaminsky said. His tasks include finding accommodations for the performers who will be on hand to provide Broadway-style entertainment.

In a culture clash - between less and more - more seems to be winning. Mr. Kaminsky said that R Family had not yet made a profit, and he acknowledged that Family Week would not help that. "We'll be lucky to break even," he said, adding, "Rosie is very generous."

Ironically, R Family had its genesis at Family Week. In 2002, the O'Donnells attended the event with their three children. (They have since had a fourth.) The oldest, Parker, then 7, was amazed to see so many other same-sex couples with kids, said Mr. Kaminsky, a family friend. "He kept pointing and saying, ‘Two mommies. Two mommies.' " Within a year, the O'Donnells and Mr. Kaminsky, a veteran travel executive, had decided to try to offer other children the same opportunity. Their first trip was a Caribbean cruise in 2004. Since then, R Family has offered half a dozen trips.

There have been a few bumps along the way. When the first R Family cruise arrived in Nassau three years ago, the ship was met by protesters carrying signs denouncing homosexuality. Their loud taunts caused some children on the ship to cry and induced Rosie O'Donnell to remain on deck - rather than enter into what was certain to be a televised shouting match.

This year, the company avoided another shouting match - or worse - by canceling a planned stop in Bermuda. In February, that country's leading newspaper, The Royal Gazette, published the news that a ship chartered by R Family would be visiting the island in July. A religious group said to represent some 80 Bermudian churches announced its opposition. Soon the letters column of The Gazette had turned into a forum on homosexuality. By the time Ewart Brown, the minister of tourism - now also Bermuda's premier - said he would be happy to welcome R Family, the company had decided to substitute a stop in Port Canaveral, Fla. "People save up all year for our trips, and they deserve incident-free vacations," Mr. Kaminsky said. But the flare-up had a cost: some people who had signed up for the cruise - in part to see Bermuda - canceled their reservations, he said.

And the company has had less luck running land vacations than cruises. Though a weekend in Philadelphia in March was a modest success, the company canceled plans for a trip to Albuquerque during International Balloon Fiesta in October.

But Mr. Kaminsky is optimistic about the company's future. For one thing, he points out, trips for gay parents attract many people who are not gay parents. They include gay men and lesbians who don't have children but like being around those who do. And they include straight friends and relatives. Next March, R Family will be host to a cruise to the Mexican Riviera in conjunction with Pflag - Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays - which has chapters in 50 states.

There has also been an increase in the number of gay dads seeking out others like them. "The first time we came to Family Week, three years ago, there were maybe one gay couple for every 10 lesbian couples," said Jason Charette, of Windsor, Conn., who was in Provincetown last summer with his partner, Eric Lazarus, and their daughter, Rebecca Lazarus, 12.

By last summer, the ratio seemed to be about one to three, Mr. Charette and others observed. Among the gay dads in town was Cory Provost, from Warwick, R.I. At the Provincetown Inn pool one afternoon, he watched as his sons, Dashawn, 9, and Troy, 10, did jackknife dives into the pool, while Troy's twin, Eva, floated in a rubber tube. "It's such a welcoming environment," said Mr. Provost.

The single gay dads in attendance included Howard Huberty, of Wilton, Conn., who had become expert on pushing a double stroller - containing his 7-month-old sons, George and Nick - down Provincetown's narrow streets.

But most of the parents were moms. Stacey Harris of Boston was crowded into a restaurant booth with her partner, Jessie Harris, their son, Zion, 6, and their daughter, Torin, 3. Ms. Harris said that Family Week gave children like hers a chance to focus on "similarity instead of difference."

All that conviviality comes at a price. The bigger the Provincetown gathering has become, the more it has cost Family Pride to run. "We were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on Family Week," said the organization's executive director, Jennifer Chrisler, in a telephone interview, "and it isn't our core business." The size of Family Week, she said, was making it hard for the organization to focus on education and advocacy around the country.

Family Pride already had a partnership with R Family - providing seminars on the company's cruises. During the Philadelphia weekend, Ms. Chrisler gave a talk at the National Constitution Center. "When the Constitution was written, as great a document as it was, it wasn't perfect," she told the crowd during lunch - a buffet that, in typical R Family style, seemed to provide more food than the crowd could eat in a week. Family Pride will continue to provide educational events at Family Week, which this year will begin on July 28.

Mr. Davenport, who was present at the creation, said he wasn't unhappy that Family Week was changing. "Gregg and Kelli have been to enough Family Weeks that I think they understand the magic," he said.

Besides, Mr. Davenport (who now lives in Maryland) said, it didn't matter if children who attended Family Week went to a fish fry or a circus. What matters, he said, "is that they get to grow up knowing other families like theirs."