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Tampa Bay’s LGBTQ film festival celebrates 30 years

“Queer film, especially, is a really perfect time capsule," says an official of the festival starting Friday.
Set in the Philippines in the mid 1990s, "Billie & Emma" (2018) follows how smart, popular and pregnant Emma (Gabby Padilla, right) falls in love with Billie (Zar Donato), the new girl at her Catholic school. [Courtesy of the Tampa Bay International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival]
Published Oct. 3
Updated Oct. 3

When the Tampa Bay International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival was born in 1990, the region wasn’t quite ready to embrace it.

“It’s a completely different world than it was for our first festival,” said KJ Mohr, the director of programming since 2011. “Particularly in Tampa, where the festival was regularly protested ... in the early years. Folks were closeted and scared, because it was a radical act to be out and to come to an LGBT film festival.”

Life has changed for the LGBTQ community in the last three decades, mostly for the best. Gay and trans talent are being cast in major works, on camera and behind it. And today, St. Petersburg and Tampa are among city governments that publicly support events such as Pride.

Most of the more than 90 films from 17 countries in the 30th annual film festival — which runs Friday through Oct. 12, with most events at the Tampa Theatre — have at least one of three goals:

1. Celebrate victories: If a person can barely remember when marriage equality was illegal, they need a history lesson.

2. Move forward: There’s still equality to achieve, with new “religious freedom” laws legalizing discrimination, the Trump administration banning trans troops, 40 percent of trans people driven to attempt suicide, and many states, including Florida, not including sexual orientation and gender identity in equality laws.

3. Just tell a good story.

A majority of the feature films take place in the current or recent past, allowing viewers to compare progress in the United States with that of several others. Some take attendees back (1986 in This Is Not Berlin, the mid ’90s in Billie & Emma, 1999 in End of the Century, 2006 in Adam, and various times in documentaries and the shorts program History Lessons), forward to the future (Paradise Hills) and sideways to an alternate universe (Bit). There also are retrospective films from 45 (A Bigger Splash), 30 (Tongues Untied) and 20 (Trick) years ago.

In "This Is Not Berlin," 17-year-old Carlos doesn't fit in anywhere — until he enters a mythical queer nightclub in 1980s Mexico City. [Courtesy of the Tampa Bay International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival]

“Queer film, especially, is a really perfect time capsule for reflecting what’s going on in queer lives at any given time,” Mohr said. This includes how trans rights and societal attitudes have changed.

“If anything, I think our audience is generally more accepting of the T in LGBT now,” she added. “And, more importantly, more interested in trans stories in a way they weren’t even five years ago. All of this is great; the stories are richer and more complex, and we can get to the next level.”

This can be seen in festival offerings such as Changing the Game, Seahorse, Zen in the Ice Rift and For They Know Not What They Do.

RELATED STORY: Tampa Bay’s LGBTQ film festival will show 90 films. Here are short reviews.

And, of course, there are plenty of the usual girl-meets-girl (Same but Different: A True New Zealand Love Story, More Beautiful for Having Been Broken, Clementine) and boy-meets-boy (Last Ferry, José, Benjamin, Song Lang, And Then We Danced) love stories with various twists that make them unusual.

While LGBTQ viewers are a given, “these are extraordinary stories of universal interest,” Mohr stressed. “LGBT content and images are ubiquitous now. People of all genders and sexualities are interested in films like this and realize how much these films have to offer.”

She added the festival is a “singular opportunity to see much of this work, not only with an engaged audience in a top-notch venue, but often with the filmmakers and actors present, with discussions and insights that you’re not going to find anywhere else.”

"Good Kisser" from director Wendy Jo Carlton stars Tampa native Rachel Paulson, center, who will attend the 8 p.m. Sunday screening. [Courtesy of the Tampa Bay International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival]

Some of those guests at the Tampa Theatre are lesbian comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer with a live show at 8 p.m. Oct. 11; writer-director-performer Del Shores with a film of his show, Six Characters in Search of a Play, at 3:45 p.m. Sunday; actress and Tampa native Rachel Paulson with her film, Good Kisser, at 8 p.m. Sunday; and actor-filmmaker James Sweeney with his film and the festival’s Narrative Centerpiece, Straight Up, at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Several other actors and filmmakers will accompany their films, as well.

Complete programs for the festival are available around Tampa Bay, or learn more at

If you go

The festival will screen more than 90 films from 17 countries. Most events are at the Tampa Theatre (711 N Franklin St.) with some at Metro Inclusive Health (3251 Third Ave. N, St. Pete). For the full program and to purchase tickets, visit

Opening night, Friday: Kick-off party with drinks, light bites and a DJ at 6 p.m.; Mayor Jane Castor helps open the festival with Sell By. 7:30 p.m., Tampa Theatre. $15.

TIGLFF: Next Scene, Oct. 12: Short films showcasing younger creators from Florida and beyond. 11 a.m. Tampa Theatre. Free.

Closing night, Oct. 12: Tampa Bay Gay Men’s Chorus performs before screening of documentary Gay Chorus Deep South. 8 p.m. Tampa Theatre. $15. A talk with the director follows, then a gathering at Bizou Brasserie at Le Méridien (601 N Florida Ave. in Tampa).

Steve Warren is a tbt* correspondent. Contact Steve at


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