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Tampa's Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival celebrates 20 years

Tampa Theatre rolls out the red carpet Thursday for opening night of the most enduring film festival in the Tampa Bay region.

That carpet may as well be rainbow colored.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival has not only survived but thrived, presenting art that imitates lives long ignored or underestimated by mainstream movies.

Or, to update a previous festival slogan: 20 straight years of queer cinema.

Born in less tolerant times, Tampa's gay film showcase helped bridge the cultural gap, first politically, then socially and financially, as private lives became public and their commercial viability was realized.

They're here, they're queer and the world by and large has gotten used to it.

On the cusp of the festival's platinum anniversary, the St. Petersburg Times contacted six key players making it happen, then and now. In their own words, they explain why the festival has mattered so much for so long to so many.

Keith Roberts, festival co-founder

If you put it in the context of everything going on (in 1990), the festival was created after amendments to the city (of Tampa and Hillsborough) county human rights ordinances had been proposed to include sexual orientation, and had been defeated. In time, they were subsequently reconsidered by those bodies and passed.

We had an energized gay and lesbian community participating in the political process, and we helped elect a number of county commissioners and city council people, basically a new slate, that would support us and did.

The film festival (began) between those two events. It was a way of presenting a community . . . bound and determined to participate and be visible and celebrate our culture.

James Harper, co-founder of the producing Friends of the Festival

If I had to name just one person who really set the festival on its solid course — a visionary who was willing to take risks and not just to pander to the lowest common denominator of the audience — it would be (former program director) Dorothy Abbott.

Dorothy built the relationships that really put (the festival) on the national map. She also put the word "international" in our name. And she always made sure we strived for diversity in our programming and outreach among women and men; gay and straight; rich and poor; American and foreign; white, black and brown.

I'm not sure the festival would be here today if it weren't for Dorothy. (Editor's note: We were unable to contact Abbott for this article.)

Margaret Murray, former executive director and current programming director

My first time at the festival (in 1993), I remember just being amazed. You had queer punks, elderly gay men, lesbians, just such a cool community coming out and you never saw those people all together in the same place. I remember someone standing on the street protesting with one of those old-fashioned speakers he could run a bullhorn through. But I remember that nobody paid attention to that.

One of the cool things about the festival is that you really do get a sense of empowerment, a sense of community. You realize when you're inside that bubble how pathetic and pointless those protests are.

HARPER: Everybody in the world likes to see herself or himself, or someone like themselves, or someone they might like to be, at the movies. Gay people are no exception. Some straight folks still tell me they don't quite get what a "gay and lesbian film festival" might be about. They think the movies must be all about sex. Maybe they're even pornography.

Well, yeah, sometimes the movies are about sex. But so are a lot of "straight" movies . . . Every human being on the planet thinks about love, commitment, conflict, desire and sex, along with many other things.

(Festival) films include those concerns, but are usually much broader than that. They are, in fact, about the endless sampling of life situations and experiences of true people — people who sometimes happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. These experiences and stories are so varied, and yet in some ways so similar to my own, that I identify with almost all of them and yet I learn something new every year.

Sunny Hall, former programming director and current volunteer manager

I've been involved for all those years because it meant so much for so many. It was a different way of getting together, making a statement, sending a message.

Quite honestly, what better place to hide than in a movie theater in the dark with other gay people? And watching gay people on screen. That was amazing, and very empowering for a lot of people, to feel like you were where you belonged. The film festival kind of mirrors the progression of society in general.

We still have a protester who stands on the street corner with a big bullhorn and screams at us. But we get permits (to play loud music outside the theater) and drown him out.

Chuck Henson, in his third year as festival executive director

I've only lived in Tampa for five years, moving here from Indianapolis, which is a wonderful community with a lot of great things going on. But it doesn't have nearly the cohesiveness that the gay and lesbian community has here.

There's a maturity to the community here, and I don't know how I mean that, frankly. It's not an age thing, it's part of the fabric of the community; much like it was when I lived in Chicago. You get this sense of "we're all in this together" here.

Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at

What about the future?

Three people we contacted did have some thoughts about changes in the media landscape and economy that could impact the festival.

Jim Harper: When the festival began 20 years ago, there was no other place to see these movies. That was a large reason for the festival's early popularity. We gay folks in Tampa Bay and beyond had a hunger for these stories. And the film festival gave us what we craved.

Now it's not uncommon to find good (gay-themed) movies in mainstream theaters, or clever gay-lesbian sitcoms on TV. We also have cable channels, both premium and regular, that have gay-lesbian and sometimes transgender content. And of course there's always the not-quite-complete convenience of Netflix. In other words, nobody has to schlep downtown to see a (gay-themed) movie anymore.

John Thomas, current president of Friends of the Festival: We've had to revise budget a few times seeing the recession coming. One thing I've always known, that was reinforced when we dug into the donor aspect of things, is that this community really does support the festival. The roots are deep and strong. When we see our donor dollars triple at a time when our corporate dollars have fallen . . . that means we're still relevant in a community that supports us.

Keith Roberts: The mainstreaming of gay entertainment is an ongoing issue, to continue to present a viable and relevant product in an age where so much of what the film festival was built on is now so widely available.

As much as the product might be available through other media, nothing compares to getting together with like-minded members of your community and enjoying, in a filled movie theater, these representations of your life that you can uniquely relate to on screen. It's the communal experience vs. the solitary, in-your-living-room experience. There's nothing like it.

If you go

The 20th Annual Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival runs Thursday through Oct. 18 at Tampa Theatre. The events kicks off with a 6 p.m. red carpet event Thursday night and the featured film is Englishman in New York at 7. Tickets are $9.50, available at the box office or online at Look for the schedule of movies and events Thursday in our Weekend section, or go to

Tampa's Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival celebrates 20 years 10/02/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 5, 2009 3:14pm]
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