After 25 years, is Tampa's gay film festival still relevant?

Tampa's annual event opens in a cultural climate so unlike what it was 25 years ago.
Published September 29 2014
Updated September 30 2014

Twenty-five years ago, Tampa's shunned gay and lesbian community drew a line in the sand using a film festival.

A cultural tide shifting toward the mainstream has smoothed the line since then, raising a silver anniversary question:

How can the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival stay relevant? Or even necessary?

"If the gay struggle continues successfully there won't be gay bars or gay film festivals," said filmmaker, actor and author John Waters, who will appear Saturday at Tampa Theatre. "You simply won't need them anymore."

Organizers of Tampa's festival don't believe their mission is accomplished. But the event's future greatly depends on reaching out to future generations of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lives, people too young to remember why these festivals ever began.

Not like 1989, when gay rights had been voted down by Tampa and Hillsborough county officials, and the specter of AIDS hung heavy.

The Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival was founded as a rainbow-hued rallying call: "We're here, we're queer, we want movies about us. Get used to it."

In some ways the world has, with marriage equality rights gaining momentum, and occasional reversals of anti-gay measures. The turnaround is especially visible in popular entertainment where LGBT themes are increasingly commonplace. This year, Dallas Buyers Club won three Academy Awards for a drama of AIDS and transgender acceptance. Benedict Cumberbatch is now getting Oscar buzz for The Imitation Game, playing gay mathematician and World War II hero Alan Turing.

Video-on-demand technology also makes readily available independently produced movies that used to be available only at gay festivals and video stores.

"Everyone's streaming movies on the phones and iPads," said Ed Lally of Equality Florida, and a festival board member.

"The challenge for us is to reintroduce the excitement of sitting in a theater with a thousand people who are just like you, on your side, just to be able to laugh and cry together."

That means altering the viewing habits of the next generation of LGBT lives, including teenagers living through electronics. To that end, the festival offers free admission at Tampa Theatre to anyone 18 and under to age-appropriate films, workshops and lectures.

"It's important because they don't even know about the AIDS epidemic, or the impact it had as a death sentence," Lally said. "They don't know about Stonewall and Harvey Milk. It's part of our job, our responsibility, to get LGBT youth involved."

Matt Kane of the gay rights organization GLAAD agrees, since mainstream depictions of gay culture are often insignificant or insulting.

"These festivals expose younger audiences to ways of telling our stories that really gives us control and authorship and authority over how we're depicted," Kane said. "Those are the ones that can often have the most positive effect on a young LGBT person, as it did for me."

As it also did for Tampa performance artist Zachary Hines, half of the cabaret act Coco & Homo. Hines was born 25 years ago, same as the festival, too early to understand why it needed to happen.

Growing up in New Jersey, Hines would drive to New York or Philadelphia for gay entertainment. As a University of Tampa freshman in 2007, the festival introduced him to that city's version.

"I didn't know anyone, or where anything was happening," he said. "(The festival) provided that kind of gateway into Tampa culture and LGBT life here."

The more Hines learned, the more he felt at home.

"It's amazing," he said, "hearing the festival's history, which is really the history of gay life in Tampa. You can pretty much see the history of the gay rights movement in the films.

"The festival is staying relevant to our generation, telling stories that are important to us … real, in-depth films about fully fleshed out characters that are the center of each story. That's a big difference for young gay people."

And the best chance for Tampa's International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival to survive another 25 years.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365.

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