Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, 20 years out 

Tampa's gay filmfest celebrates a major milestone.

The Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival changed Margaret Murray's life.

How?

She saw a really good movie.

It was 1993. Murray had just begun to realize there was "something called art film out there," something different from the multiplex fare she'd grown up with. Then she went to a screening at TIGLFF — her first film festival ever — and saw Warrior Marks, Pratibha Parmar's documentary about female genital mutilation.

"I just sat there in the audience crying my eyes out."

Murray went on to head TIGLFF in 2001-2002, and is now executive director of Reel Affirmations, the gay filmfest in Washington, D.C. She's making a welcome (if brief) return to Tampa this season as TIGLFF programming director.

And it all started with a movie.

There are many reasons why the Tampa festival has endured for two decades. Even now, after all the progress that has been made in 20 years, politicians and pundits still treat LGBTs as easy targets; mainstream media (c.f. WFLA) still feel the need to present opposing points of view on our right to exist; our defeats (California) and our success stories (Neil Patrick Harris) still make headlines. So it remains a kick and a comfort to gather together in public for films that are unapologetically, unremarkably about our lives.

But, finally, what keeps us coming back — and what has made this festival a must for film aficionados of all persuasions — is the quality of the movies.

Granted, there are challenges for programmers in the era of Netflix and Bravo and Logo, with gay-centric entertainment available 24-7 on home screens. But Murray, along with TIGLFF Executive Director Chuck Henson, says the festival is meeting the challenge by growing along with the community.

For instance, as LGBT couples deal increasingly with issues of parenting and family, Murray sees those issues surfacing more and more in gay film. And many of the best selections in this year's festival, she says, have "underlying universal themes that can resonate with anyone."

Hannah Free (starring Sharon Gless) "is about two women but it's also about aging." Prodigal Sons began as a documentary about transgender director Kimberly Reed's return home for a high school reunion, "but it turned into the most amazing examination of sibling rivalry I've ever seen on film." Love of Siam, Thailand's 2008 submission to the Academy Awards, focuses on two boys in love, "but really the larger story is what happens to their families."

Family-friendly events have also become a part of the programming, says Henson. He points to a Saturday-morning screening Oct. 17 of Marlo Thomas' Free to Be... You and Me as one example; he calls it "creative recycling." (The idea of bringing back vintage flicks with gay appeal should be recycled for adults, too; how about a double bill weep-a-thon of Imitation of Life and The Best of Everything?)

Of course, there's lots in the filmfest that is anything but family fare. Look for plenty of ogle-worthy same-sex skin on screen (Eating Out 3, And Then Came Lola) and off: The men's and women's parties, Surge and Sugar, take place at GaYbor hot spots Czar and Honey Pot on Saturday night Oct. 17.

For Murray's part, she's glad to be back in Tampa Bay even for a little while because it gives her a chance to spend time with her family (she was born in Jacksonville and raised in St. Petersburg). She likes D.C. and just bought a house there with her partner, social worker Leesil Ainslee, but she cops to being homesick for St. Pete all the time. "My partner and I often scheme about how we can make it back there."

Running a filmfest in the nation's capital also poses some unique challenges. Her audience is sometimes so busy setting policy that they don't have time to go to the movies. One year "the whole ENDA [Employee Non-Discrimination Act] debate happened right in the middle of our opening weekend"; this year the D.C. festival will be competing with the march on Washington, which takes place the week before Reel Affirmations starts. She's worried that both media and moviegoers will be suffering gay fatigue, begging off with excuses like "I just did all the gay activist stuff last week," or "I just marched."

It'll be interesting to see whether the Oct. 11 march draws any of TIGLFF's opening-weekend audience away. Judging by advance interest, it doesn't seem likely. According to Henson, "In a year when our corporate dollars are down 40 percent over last year, our personal giving is up over 100 percent."

He attributes that support in some degree to excitement over the anniversary. "There is a real sense of joy surrounding this year's festival."

And why not? After 20 years of movies — and occasional life-changing moments — TIGLFF has reason to celebrate.

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