Kelli Carpenter has been preaching the gospel of gay families for years, and in 2015, the Supreme Court finally caught up with her.

Carpenter has been passionate about serving LGBT people (especially couples, their children and their often-straight extended families) since co-founding the travel company R Family Vacations 11 years ago. With her wife Anne Steele, Carpenter is rearing four children of her own, and appreciates the value of a holiday adventure the entire family can enjoy, but which still appeals specifically to a queer sensibility.

“Gay travel companies started as a place you could feel safe while traveling,” Carpenter — who attended college in Dallas and still has family here — says from her home in New Jersey. “Now [that gay rights have become more mainstream], it’s more about a sense of community — a certain kind of comedy, an essence that is different for gay people.”

Take, for instance, one of the frequent performers at R Family events: the gay comedian and actor Alec Mapa.

“Alec Mapa, like several couples, came with us [on vacations] for years and then decided to have children — Alec even ‘blames’ us for adopting a foster child in his act,” she says.


Kelli Carpenter

Mapa will be on hand — along with comedian Vicki Shaw, singer-activist-athlete Esera Tuaolo and others when R Family Vacations sails into its latest adventure, a week-long trip to the Hard Rock Resort in Puerto Vallerta this summer. And for the first time, R Family is teaming with the premiere lesbian-specific travel company, Olivia.

“It’s been in the works about three years,” Carpenter says. “We decided that as a partnership, we are stronger doing family vacation together than individually.”

It’s something of a comeback for R Family, which started off doing full cruise ship charters but had to cut back substantially following the financial crisis; since then, groups and smaller charters have been its bread and butter. But this is the biggest event “of this size in many years. And we’re already planning 2017; in 2018, we hope to book a full ship charter.”

Although R Family is open to everyone — “we are the only company that does gay and lesbian travel — many gay male couples looking to have a great time feel comfortable [on our vacations], and about 15 percent of the people on our trips are not gay, but extended family and friends” — the emphasis is always on folks with little ones, which presents a unique business challenge.

“We can only charter in the summer, and even then only about a six-week period, because that’s when all kids around the country are out of school,” Carpenter says. (The PV trip will take place July 9–16.) “It’s like a reunion that happens every year — we have a 30 percent repeat business. These kids have grown up together.”

But it’s just as appealing for parents who want to get away from the kids … sort of. “Not only do you get family time, but the programming comes with a full kids’ program so you can do stuff with or without your children and enjoy a date night,” Carpenter says.

In other words, it’s like a vacation with complimentary babysitting? “…And liquor is included,” adds Carpenter.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

For more information and to book the July trip, visit RFamilyVacations.com or Olivia.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 15, 2016.