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Surf, Sand, and Solidarity

Surf, Sand, and Solidarity

Courtesy of Kathy Valentine.

I remember the crying the most. There were a sobbing 7-year-old, a teary-eyed middle schooler, and even a glum collection of adults in the elevator with me. This is not how my vacations usually end. 

I saw sullen teenagers, too, a few exchanging phone numbers in the lobby, others doing one last dip in the pool with friends, all with an air of resignation. I assumed that after this long week of celebration and frivolity, we were all just exhausted, sunburned, fulfilled but ready to go back to regular life. I had just spent the week snorkeling and body surfing and boogieing to the oldies with dance partners young and old (and the one I’m married to). I had at least two dozen piña coladas and enough food to feed a football team. We were all just drained, sun burned, and happy, but ready to go back to regular life. I assumed the kids were too.

It wasn’t until I spoke to a group of the older kids, who were bracing themselves for the trip back to the heartland, that I finally got it. What was a delightful vacation for me — an out queer person who lives near other queers and works full time with LGBT people — was, for some of these kids, their one respite from a world of homophobia and bullying. It was a break from living in states that are battling over bathroom access, among neighbors with campaign posters for “build a wall” politicians, going to schools where lockers are routinely emblazoned with slurs like “faggot,” even when the locker user isn’t gay. 

This week in Puerto Vallarta was, as one mom explained on Facebook later, a rare time when the kids were “free to make connections without explanation or otherness,” and a week when they felt “unconditional love in every smile, hug, and hello.”

Let me back up. My co-pilot and I have just spent a week in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, at a Hard Rock resort with hundreds of LGBT families of at least a dozen different configurations. It’s a combination trip, officially the first Olivia and R Family LGBT Family & Friends Puerto Vallarta vacation. It combined elements of Olivia Travel (great entertainment and excursions, lots of powerful queer women) and R Family Vacations (lots of LGBT parents and kids and programs for them) and some elements of both (growing diversity, safety in numbers, and socially conscious programming). 

For me, it was the first chance to really see the kinds of families queer people have created over the generations. While Olivia trips are usually adults only, 80% of these vacationers had kids with them. Even the headliners, Alec Mapa and Elvira Kurt, had their kids and partners with them, as did cruise staffers including Tisha Floratos-Silano, Olivia’s vice president of travel and business operations, and her wife DJ Rockaway. 

I expected there would be a lot of lesbian or gay male couples with kids, but there were also tons of families that included both gay men and queer women and children that belonged to all of them. There were also big families supporting older LGBT people. There were families made through adoption, surrogacy, in vitro, and plain old doing it. I met two grown daughters who were there with their husbands and kids — nine of them, all straight — all in support of their lesbian mom’s 70th birthday. For someone who long ago thought that being gay meant you would forgo having kids, it was an eye-opening experience to see how many of us are parents and grandparents — and that we’re parenting differently too. 

In a post-marriage-equality world, parenting is the next venture for some. But this trip underscored how we’ve been creating family in our own way forever, really. For good chunks of the trip I got an “it takes a village” feel and didn’t know to whom many of the kids belonged. There were just groups of men and women, queer and straight, cis and trans, in a multitude of configurations, parenting.

Canadian comic Elvira Kurt let loose both about how
workaday patterns go out the window on vacation (“Ice cream for breakfast? Sure!”) and about how queer parents are reinventing the rules for raising kids. The parents in the audience laughed and nodded and clapped as Kurt mimicked her seemingly endless negotiation with her child, something, she admitted, none of our parents would have done. As much as we’re alike, LGBT parents are different too, and dare I say, it may make our kids better people.

On this trip, there were scores of teens and younger kids, many who looked and sounded more fluid in both orientation and gender expression than I see in my Southern California city. That meant that in addition to butchy soccer players of all genders, there were boys with pink hair doing cartwheels and girls with short hair going surfing. The Olivia–R Family team had their own teen program (many parents hardly saw their kids all week); judging from one pop in on it, it was quite clear that the teens and millennials, even those who were straight, were really smartly accepting and progressive.

“These trips have been life-changing and inspirational to me in so many ways,” says Zoe Chaney, a teen from Erie, Pa. She’s been on R Family Vacations trips each year for the past 10 years, and her lesbian grandmothers have traveled with Olivia on 23 trips. “The diversity and culture brought to these trips from all over have given us a chance to engage in all types of life in a short, fun, loving week. The love that comes with these trips is amazing. R Family is truly my family. I’m so thankful for my grandmothers that let my sisters and me experience this.”

 Chaney’s experience isn’t unique. Micah
McKinney, a teen from Atlanta who has traveled with R Family for seven years, told me, “These R Family trips really mean a lot to me. I look forward to them all year. I get to have a lot of freedom. I meet new friends and get to see all my old friends. We grew up together.”

Parents profoundly affect the culture’s progressiveness, the values of the next generation, and how we got here. The children of LGBTs, and their millennial friends, are leading us someplace that sounds inherently different, and fluid, and accepting, but they’re getting there in small bursts. 

My nephew, who just graduated, told me his high school in Washington state didn’t have
“popular kids” or any of the tropes of teen movies like mean jocks. If nobody is the outcast, I wonder, will this generation have nothing to prove? Will they grow up happy and content?

Well, maybe. Culture is more accepting than it was in the 1980s, when I came out, and certainly more so than the Stonewall generation when they were booted out. But it’s not all pure acceptance — or I wouldn’t have been surrounded by sad kids on the last day of vacation. 

“These trips are important for the kids with LGBT parents to experience a week with hundreds of families that look just like their own. Two mommies and two daddies everywhere!” says Gregg Kaminsky, a founding partner of R Family Vacations. Kaminsky began his gay-travel career in the ’90s at Atlantis Events. “I think I’m the luckiest man working in gay travel. I’ve been educated by the best in the business.   My first job in gay travel began with 1996 with many years with Atlantis Events and Rich Campbell.   He’s a brilliant entrepreneur who taught me to always focus on the smallest detail.” 

Kaminsky says Charlie Rounds, one of the original partners at RSVP Vacations, “influenced me over the years to never forget that LGBT travel companies are much more than just a business — they change lives and change the way the world sees us.”

Since he and his lesbian bestie Kelli Carpenter started R Family Vacations, they have spoken every day for the past 15 years. Now he and Carpenter have what he calls a “successful partnership with Olivia Travel and Judy Dlugacz, one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met.”

Dlugacz, who founded Olivia more than 40 years ago and grew it into the largest lesbian travel company in the country, knows how to effect change both on the world and among the people in her trips. The fact that she’s opened up Olivia to LGBT families just might change more than her company’s bottom line. 

She says that she and Kaminsky and Carpenter “have the same values and work incredibly well together. The love and respect is all part of the spirit of these family trips. Together we were able to bring over 800 parents and kids, grandparents and friends, LGBT and straight families of all kinds together for the greatest experience for everyone.”

Dlugacz says the trip was “a dream come true” and one that will be repeated next year and perhaps for years to come. She had her niece and siblings aboard, an amazing reminder that even one of the most powerful lesbians in America has a family just like yours, one that needs to be in an unconditionally supportive LGBT-friendly environment. That it happened at a Hard Rock in Puerto Vallarta is just icing on the cake.

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