Four years ago, I received a community service award from the organizers of Indigenous House, one of the city’s biggest outdoor house music parties. I am grateful to have been given my roses while I breathe, a rarity among black gay men of my generation or older and no less deserving. In addition to a lovely crystal trophy, I was given free admission to the first SGL (Same Gender Loving) Family Cruise. As an underpaid AIDS field dinosaur, I immediately assessed the monetary value of the ticket for an excursion that I could not have afforded. It would take years to appreciate the gift’s real worth.

Life partners Keith Sibley and Mark Elliott are the founding organizers for SGLFC. In 2011, they started joining friends for restorative getaways in Ellijay, GA. They wanted to extend the intimacy to others through a cruise. “We got 85 folks all by word-of-mouth,” Keith recalls. There was no internet. You had to talk to someone. It was real old school.” Mark came up with the name. “I thought SGL would fit in for everybody,” he says. “It was also a way of not having to use the word ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual.’ ‘Same gender loving’ is an identifier adopted by same sex attracted black men who desired a self-determined term and regarded ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ as Eurocentric and incompatible with their cultural locations.”

From the onset, the pair invited those who were not cisgender black gay men. They regarded black LGBTQ friends who include heterosexual, other people of color, and white people in their closest circles. Keith pointed out, “There are straight and other people who love us. As long as you come with an open heart and mind, you are welcome.”

With over 30 years’ experience as a professional entertainer, Keith is a natural host. He emcees most of the activities and performs in and out of drag. Not quite the extrovert, Mark is a meticulous planner who covers logistics and pre-event communication. Every year, the pair take the 10-hour drive to Miami “loaded like the Clampetts” to lay the setting for countless memories.

From the cruise port hotel dinner to the closing wrap-up session, they are constantly on. Evening activities after port stops or a laidback day at sea keep members connected outside of their cliques. A unforced camaraderie grows through the in-between moments on deck or some serene shore. First timers are shown the ropes by recurring members. There is a shared sense of responsibility for everyone’s experience.

Mainstays include a very festive Family Feud, a dance party featuring DJ Ron Pullman, and the “Keith and Friends” showcase hosted by luminaries Miss Sophia McIntosh and Neisha Dupree. Performers donate their cash tips to designated nonprofits like Southern Unity Movement (organizers of the Rustin-Lorde Breakfast).

On that last night at sea the “Let’s Talk About It” discussion solicits spoken feedback while the experience is still fresh. A procession of cheers, recommendations, and complaints flows. At one such debrief, a performer thanked the group for the affection she and other trans women received. She noted that she rarely felt such warmth in Atlanta unless she was on stage. Another member spoke about the friends she lost in the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, expressing gratitude for the new friends she met on the ship.

Keith and Mark recognize the measure of what they created. “This is a missionary,” Mark concluded. “We’ve had people tell us, if it wasn’t for us, they probably wouldn’t be here. When we get frustrated, we think about them.”

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