LGBT-themed films are quickly coming into the mainstream. This is a wonderful thing – as homosexuality becomes more accepted among the masses, progress towards complete gay rights marches forward. I remember the furor over Brokeback Mountain in 2005, in which two well-known heterosexual actors portrayed two men caught in a forbidden love. Notable examples since then include Gus Van Sant’s Milk, Lisa Chodolenko’s The Kids Are All Right, and the exquisitely beautiful A Single Man – all of which received prominent Oscar nominations, which ensured their exposure to society.
This past weekend witnessed a celebration of gay film with the second annual Louisville LGBT Film Festival . I spoke with Travis Myles, one of the founders of the festival and this year’s chairman. Neither Travis nor any of the other founders had had any prior experience in festival curation, but after attending several LGBT Film Fests (specifically one in Bloomington, Indiana) they decided they wanted to make it happen here in Louisville. Now in its second year, the festival has expanded notably since the beginning: last year 75 films were submitted and around 30 were screened, while this year over 100 submissions were received and an extra day had to be added to the festival to accommodate the 48 films selected. When asked about prospects for next year’s festival, Myles informed me that they had already received many screener DVDs from hopeful participants.
I was also able to speak with actor Tyler Ross (who starred in two films at the festival: The Wise Kids  and Nate & Margaret ) about the concept of “LGBT Film” and whether it is a viable genre label, considering there is often much more going on than just gay issues. On the topic of The Wise Kids, for example, he said, “I don’t know that I would call it an LGBT film. It’s about so much more than that.”
It’s true: The Wise Kids takes place in the summer between high school and the start of college for three youths – Brea (Molly Kunz), Tim (Ross), and Laura (Allison Torem) – and their relationship with each other. While the main conflict seems to center around Tim coming to terms with his homosexuality (a struggle shared by a married church leader), the story is just as much about Brea dealing with the impending loss of her faith in God and Laura’s attempts to deal with the double shock of her best friends being gay and atheistic, respectively. While there are LGBT themes, the film is ultimately about what it means to question your most cherished beliefs in the confusing time between adolescence and adulthood.
However, many of the films were, in fact, LGBT-specific. Take, for example, the German film Romeos , which tells the story of a boy named Lukas and his romance with the sexy Fabio. However, Lukas is not your typical male – he was born female and is in the process of switching gender. Desperate to be on the outside what he is on the inside, Lukas tries desperately to keep his secret from emerging. It is not a conflict many can relate to personally, but it is still a very powerful story. After all, everybody struggles for acceptance – but some roads are harder than others.
This was also the subject of the Trans , winner the juror award for Best Documentary Feature. The film is a straightforward exploration of the plight of transgendered individuals in our society. While homosexuality is becoming more commonly accepted, transexualism is still a very uncomfortable topic for people, largely due to the fact that its very nature denies labels – and if there is anything that makes Americans feel comfortable it’s neat, tidy labels to stick on people. As a result, there are incredibly high rates of violence and suicide amongst transgendered peoples – but there are also burgeoning places of support for those struggling with gender identity. Lecture series, support groups, and even transgender-friendly churches are emerging, helping to bring acceptance to this group of people.
And acceptance is coming, though sometimes progress can be infuriatingly slow. Take, for example, the documentary Unfit: Ward vs. Ward . The subject is a custody battle in Pensacola, Flordia, in 1995 between Mary Ward and her ex-husband John. The verdict should have been simple: John Ward was a convicted murderer who had spent eight years in prison for killing his first wife (over a custody dispute, incidentally). It should have been an open-and-shut case… but this is the south, and the judge – and the public – didn’t like that Mary was a lesbian. Despite the fact that there is zero reputable evidence that shows that gay people are less capable of raising a child than straight people, the court ruled that the child would be better off in her father’s care. It is this kind of gross injustice which makes it so essential for all people, straight or gay, to support equality, because it can affect everyone.
While most people do what they can to promote change through voting or attending demonstrations, some people are in the position to have a greater platform than others. Thus is the subject of the documentary Wish Me Away , which received a standing ovation from the sizable audience. Chely Wright is the first mainstream country musician to come out as gay – a potentially career-shattering move, considering so many fans of this particular genre tend towards the conservative ideals. After a lifetime of hiding and struggling with her true identity, Wright wrote a memoir outing herself and appeared on the Today Show to do so officially in the public eye. Since then she has worked heavily with LGBT activism, using her celebrity status to bring awareness to this important issue.
Ms. Wright was in attendance at the festival for a Q&A following the film, and there was a lot of love in the room for her and her work. Many people took the opportunity to express tearful thanks for her support and her example. Wright is especially concerned with teenagers who don’t know how to come out and fear rejection. She herself once had a gun in her mouth – she has been in the darkest of the dark and understands the struggle on that deep level. Wright says she always encourages those who are “safe and able” to come out. Though it will undoubtedly be hard, those who are openly gay have the potential to alter the mindset of those who were previously misunderstanding of these people. It contributes to progress – and, as Wright said, “Progress is hard to hold back, isn’t it?”
The festival closed on a refreshingly light-hearted note with the dramedy Cloudburst , starring Academy Award winners Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker. They portray Stella and Dottie, respectively, an elderly lesbian couple who have been together for 31 years. After Dottie’s granddaughter puts her in a nursing home, Stella liberates her with the intention of escaping to Canada where they can be legally married. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker, the “dancer” Prentice, who has family issues of his own to deal with. Dukakis is especially brilliant as the more masculine of the two (in one scene being mistaken for a “sir” at a diner) whose intensely foul mouth left the film’s other characters in awkward discomfort while we, the audience, howled with laughter.
Mostly, it was pleasant to view a film in which the fact of Stella and Dottie’s homosexuality was not the central conflict. Many of the films are about the struggles inherent in being gay, which is important to portray but can be emotionally draining. Cloudburst, on the other hand, was a story in which the love between these two women was not an issue – it’s just a fact. Love is love – and that’s how it should be.
This is why LGBT film is so important. Movies are a great vehicle to reach audiences with stories, messages, and affirmations of what is good and right. We are quickly approaching a day when being gay or transgendered will no longer be seen as an aberration, and when love will be recognized as love no matter what form it takes.
In the meantime, while the next festival is a full year away, the committee will be presenting an LGBT film series which is to screen at the University of Louisville  Floyd Theater in October. Details have yet to be announced, but updates will be forthcoming.
Images: LGBT Film Fest Facebook page