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Gay fest about more than film

During its third year, the Tampa Bay Lesbian and Gay Pride Film Festival came into its own as a full-fledged cultural fair, celebrating gay society through the visual arts, music, theater and film.

The Pride Film Festival, held Thursday through Sunday at the Tampa Theater and TECO Hall, was an opportunity for more than 6,150 people to meet, mingle and reaffirm gay and lesbian rights.

The film component was the best ever. More than two dozen gay-themed movies were shown, including the new lesbian coming-out film Claire of the Moon, which recently premiered at the Toronto and Boston film festivals. (Claire was greeted with cat calls and hoots because of its preachy nature and chaste presentation of its culminating tryst.)

The mesmerizingly chic Swoon transfixed the audience with its beauty, but left some disturbed by its failure to illuminate the psychological motives for Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb's kidnapping and murder of a neighborhood boy in 1924 just for the thrill of it. At the time of their trial, the crime was attributed to Leopold and Loeb's sexuality rather than their sociopathic nature.

Some 1,200 people packed Tampa Theater on Saturday night to see Gregg Araki's gleefully irresponsible movie, The Living End, about two HIV positives who challenge destiny during a road trip to nowhere.

The festival's cinematic highlight, oddly, was not the critically acclaimed Swoon, The Living End or The Hours and Times, a movie speculating on what might have happened when John Lennon and gay Beatles' manager Brian Epstein escaped Liverpool for a quiet weekend together in Barcelona in 1963.

The topper was Sunday night's pair of documentaries, Before Stonewall and Changing Our Minds: The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker, movies that chronicled the birth of the gay rights movement and the pioneering research of the Los Angeles psychologist who proved homosexuality was not a mental illness.

The double-bill ended a 10-hour celebration of National Coming Out Day that drew roughly 2,000 people.

"Attending the festival is a two-tiered statement," said festival committee member Keith Roberts. "It says we're here, we're queer and we're part of life. And it makes a statement to ourselves that we are in this movement together."

Together meant hundreds of couples gyrating to disco and Country & Western in TECO Plaza during a Sunday afternoon dance. Together meant signing the "Come Out, Come Out" board on Oct. 11, National Coming Out Day. Together meant attending a concert by the Tampa Bay Gay Men's and Tampa Bay Womyn's choruses.

Together meant browsing the artwork by lesbian and gay artists that lined Franklin Mall. Together meant perusing booths representing the Tampa AIDS Network, the Loft Theater, the Tampa Bay Business Guild, the Front Runners (a gay and lesbian jogging group) and the 1 in 10 Players, a gay and lesbian theater company. The 1 in 10 Players performed Wednesday to a sellout house at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center as part of the festival.

"I had the impression Tampa Bay wasn't as progressive as South Florida. But I'm impressed by the number of people, particularly on a rainy day," Robert Lee, 32, of Fort Lauderdale said on Sunday. Lee had flown to Tampa on Friday specifically to attend the fest.

Bill Cosgriff, a 38-year-old who maintains residences in New York and Orlando, agreed. He attended the festival, even though he had already seen The Living End in New York City, to tour Tampa and learn more about its gay culture.

"The festival is part of the acceptance and normalization of gay life," Cosgriff said. "It ceases to be this weird thing and becomes another part of ethnicity."

Pride Film Festival committee member Patricia Pettijohn said it was important to note this year's festival was not limited to cinema.

"Gays and lesbians are beginning to identify as a people and as a minority group with our own art, music and film," Pettijohn said. "Our creations aren't necessarily meant to be judged by the heterosexual world. We've evolved to the point where we're creating a culture for ourselves."

Festival organizers said they plan to continue holding the festival in October, to coincide with National Coming Out Day, rather than in June when most fests are held in conjunction with Gay Pride Week. The nation's largest fests have the clout to demand exclusive showings of new movies. By fall, another crop of films, such as Nicole Conn's Claire of the Moon, are beginning to make the mainstream festival circuit.

After scanning a sample of audience surveys, organizers estimated half the crowd was from Hillsborough County, with the remainder from Pinellas, Pasco, Sarasota counties, as well as Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and from out of state.

Film committee member Mark Puig said hotel registrations exceeded expectations.

"We're stronger and more visible than ever. And, we're helping to educate the mainstream community that our culture and art is nothing to be afraid of," Puig said.