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Tampa’s gay and lesbian film festival celebrates 25 years

TAMPA — No one can seem to remember the exact year Ku Klux Klan members donned white caps and stood in protest at opening night of the Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.

Was it 1990? 1992?

“It was considered normal,” said Ed Lally, vice president of the festival board, who has attended every year since the festival started in 1989. “We expected it to happen sooner or later, so it didn’t stand out even then.”

Today, though, normal has changed. The festival kicks off its 25th year at 6 p.m. Friday with a street party at Tampa Theatre and if Klan members make an appearance now, Lally said, they’ll be the objects of shock and disgust.

In fact, he said, social attitudes toward same-sex relationships have changed so dramatically that festival organizers have made it a goal this year to show younger people it hasn’t always been this way — that gay people were once ostracized over the HIV scare, that San Francisco council member Harvey Milk was slain over his sexual orientation.

“Young gay men and women are luckily growing up in a different time,” Lally said. “Some may not even remember.”

Toward that end, the festival will offer free admission to anyone under 18.

Nearly 100 films from more 20 countries will be screened from Friday through Oct. 11 at the Tampa Theatre downtown, and at freeFall Theatre and the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg.

Signs of the historic change in attitudes during the last quarter-century are everywhere. Gays and lesbians can adopt children in Florida and may be on the verge of marriage equality. The St. Petersburg gay pride parade in June drew a crowd estimated at 175,000.

The film festival is the right forum for a history lesson, said Executive Director Margaret Murray.

“If you are gay, that part of you does not necessarily come from your family,” said Murray. “So it is up to the gay and lesbian community to pass that history on. Film tells those stories.”

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Here are some of the historical documentaries scheduled for the festival:

♦ “Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story,” 12:45 p.m. Oct. 5 at Tampa Theatre, about a transgender ex-Navy Seal.

♦ “Letter to Anita,” 2:45 p.m. Oct. 5 at Tampa Theatre. This is the story of Ronni Sanlo, who came out as a lesbian in Florida in 1978 and five months later lost custody of her two young children in the midst of entertainer Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign. Bryant succeeded in winning repeal of anti-discrimination laws.

♦ “Out In The Night,” 7 p.m. Oct. 8 at Tampa Theatre, the story of four African-American lesbians in Greenwich Village charged with a 2006 attack they claimed was self-defense against a hate crime.

♦ “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth,” 8:30 p.m. Oct. 9 at St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Art. The movie chronicles the first African-American winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, who had a biracial marriage, a biracial child and a lesbian relationship with singer Tracy Chapman. Walker campaigned against violence and gender discrimination.

♦ “Folsom Forever,” 11 p.m. Oct. 10 at Tampa Theatre, looks back at the 1984 founding of the Folsom Festival in San Francisco — one of the first events to raise money for AIDS charities.

A full festival schedule is at tiglff.com.

Andrea Meyerson, director of “Letter to Anita,” said she doesn’t like dwelling on the past.

“But I also don’t think it should be forgotten,” Meyerson said. “It’s why I make documentaries on the gay and lesbian community.”

Ronni Sanlo, the subject of “Letter to Anita,” will attend the screening and a question and answer session afterward.

“I personally met few people so directly affected by the very hateful political work of anti-gay organizations in the 1970s,” Meyerson said. “Ronni Sanlo lost her kids. It’s heartbreaking.”

Sanlo fought back and became one of the nation’s premiere gay rights activists. Her accomplishments include organizing the first “Queer Prom.”

“These are the types of people the young generation needs to know about,” Meyerson said.

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Keeping history alive is a new mission for the Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.

“It’s a natural evolution,” said Keith Roberts, one of the festival’s founders. “There is now a younger generation for whom there is vital and vibrant history that they were not a part of but contributes to what they see around them.”

Founded in 1989, the festival originally was called the “Pride Film Festival” and showcased one double feature a night for three days.

“It was obviously much smaller than what we have today but it was part of a larger puzzle,” Roberts said. “We already had a few pride events. This was a way to expand our role in the community.”

In its first year, protestors, media representatives and law enforcement outnumbered the attendees, recalled Lally, the festival vice president, even though the area’s gay and lesbian population was estimated at 200,000.

Many people feared the possible consequences of being seen there — getting fired or even attacked, Lally said.

Roberts said he and others pointed this out to reporters and camera crews covering the event.

Still, Lally said, it was a special weekend.

Attendees sat in the Tampa Theatre and laughed at the same jokes, cried at the same sad scenes, and related to the characters. In that era, Roberts said, gays and lesbians appeared mainly for comic relief in mainstream productions.

“It inspired a sense of pride in us to see men and women like us depicted in a positive way in film,” Lally said.

It also helped a community understand itself better.

Lally, for instance, said he came to understand the plight of transgendered people by watching a film on the issue.

“I like to think we brought that pride and togetherness with us outside the theater and that led to a movement. The area sensed that times were changing and changes were then made.”

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In 1990, Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman proclaimed a week in June as the city’s first Gay and Lesbian Rights Week.

Thousands of people marched through downtown Tampa in support of gay rights, ending with a rally at Pepin-Rood Stadium at the University of Tampa.

The film festival was held that week and attendance grew to a few thousand.

Roberts drafted the resolution signed by the mayor.

“It was all part of the plan,” he said. “We were slowly increasing our number of cultural and social events as a way to announce we were part of the larger community.”

More than 5,000 people showed up for the festival in 1992.

In 1993, opponents of gay rights lobbied the Hillsborough County Arts Council to take back its $28,500 grant to the festival. They failed. That year’s festival attendance doubled to 10,000.

In 1998, the film festival sold more than 18,000 tickets. Now it averages 12,000 to 15,000 a year.

As attendance has risen, protests have dwindled. There were none the past two years.

“I think most people noticed the silence,” Lally said. “And it felt good. No one wants to hear some guy on a megaphone telling you you’re going to hell.”

Murray, the executive director, said the festival has played a major role in raising gay pride — in part because of the unique appeal of movies.

“Film has a unique way of seducing viewers into activism,” Murray said. “You’re sitting in a dark room watching these wonderful stories about people all over the world doing brave things — whether a fictional film or documentary — to combat hatred, and it inspires you to do your part.”

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