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A fan and a leader of the Tampa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival

The Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival has drawn thousands of attendees, but one man has been sitting in the theater seats for all 24 years.

Ed Lally, an Equality Florida development officer, has been going to TIGLFF since it started in 1990. Seven years ago, he started an annual fundraiser for the festival. He became a board member this year.

The festival, which started Friday and runs through Oct. 12, has screened everything from gay underground staples like Poison and The Living End to Oscar-nominated films such as Gods and Monsters and Transamerica. Next year it celebrates its 25th anniversary.

Lally spoke with Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jimmy Geurts about TIGLFF's early years, the most significant films he has seen there and the evolution from festival patron to an active participant.

What are your memories of the first year of the festival?

Well, definitely a very different time. This goes back to 1990. I know the guys that started up the film festival — it was just two of them — and the first festival was just a one-day event. At the time in 1989, they had just gone to Hillsborough County to get a human rights ordinance passed and it was turned down. That caused a big reaction in 1990 and a push to get more progressive people elected in the City Council and County Commission.

These folks that started (the festival) had no idea if anybody would even come because it was going to be a very public event in downtown Tampa and even then people were still closeted in some regards. Those fears went away and a big crowd showed up the very first day. There were lots of media there. I was talking to my friend that started the festival and he said that's all he remembers — the amount of media there because it was the first big publicly gay event in downtown Tampa.

And were the films being screened in the first years mainly underground films or similar to what's being shown now?

Similar, but all around what was currently going on within the LGBT community. Obviously with the AIDS epidemic, there was at least a year or two where they were kind of doom and gloom. Several people went away wanting more upbeat movies, but that was just the nature of the time. Stories needed to be told about people with AIDS and living with AIDS and the challenges politically about getting help medically.

So it did kind of always correlate with the gay rights movement, to where now the movies are very upbeat. Of course right now, the big hot-button issue is marriage, but those are pretty upbeat movies because you have gay marriage in 13 states now. So you'll see political, you'll see comedy, you'll see drama, you'll see love stories, you'll see some of the best documentaries you've ever seen. A lot of foreign films — so it's nice to get that perspective of LGBT people in other countries and how they endure.

What would you consider the first great or significant film that you saw screened at the festival?

That's a good question. I believe it was in 1991, and it was Changing Our Minds: The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker, about a woman activist and the work she had done.

I can go back on more recent movies and tell you the impact of those. As an example, we had the movie Transamerica several years back, which was obviously about transgender people and Felicity Huffman was the star of that movie. Here I am, I work for Equality Florida and even I didn't have an understanding of the transgender community and what they go through.

But that movie moved me in ways I'd never thought I'd be moved, to this really true understanding of what a transgender person goes through just to live the life they were supposed to live. That was very impactful.

In the early years, the festival was still being protested, right?

That's correct. I don't recall protesters on the first night, but I know every year after that there were protesters, all the way up to 2010. That was the first year that protesters quit showing up. And in the last few years, it was just one person with a bullhorn quoting his Bible verses and telling everybody they were going to hell. But I think they finally gave up.

Was there a moment — a certain speaker or high-profile film screened — where you felt the festival had gone from the underground to the mainstream?

I'd have to say when our mayor, Pam Iorio, came to the festival to welcome everybody opening night. Then she did it every year after that and she was mayor for eight years. Now Bob Buckhorn does the same thing.

How did you go from just attending the festival to becoming a member of it?

My partner of 35 years and I, we'd been going for 24 years and were just huge fans of the festival. And they always struggled financially, being a nonprofit, to put on this event. I had offered to their president at the time, saying, "I'd like to put together a fundraiser for you guys." So we put our heads together and started a fundraiser. That was seven years ago, and it's grown. We just had it at the Tampa Museum of Art and it's grown from about 70 people to 300 people. We raised about $40,000.

I think it was just I wanted to see that film festival would always be in existence and they needed help raising money — hence why I also joined their board this year. People say, "Oh, I can get these movies on Netflix," but nobody can go to a gay film with a thousand other people and watch it together.

Sunday conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.