When the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival first appeared, "don't ask, don't tell" was three years on the books, the Defense of Marriage Act had just been signed into law, and consensual gay sex was still outlawed in many states. The year was 1996—and out of this retrograde political climate, a new era of queer and queer-friendly film was blooming.
And 1995 was a banner year, bringing the classic documentary The Celluloid Closet, the charming indie The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, and the impressively star-packed (and crappy) Hollywood pandering of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. The trend toward artfully entertaining gay films and higher-profile pandering carried into 1996, which brought the crowd-pleasing British romance Beautiful Thing, Cheryl Dunye's history-making, genre-bending The Watermelon Woman, the Wachowski brothers' hot-shit lesbian crime thriller Bound, the European trans comedy Different for Girls, and, yes, the impressively star-packed (and crappy) Hollywood pandering of The Birdcage.
It was a perfect time to be a lesbian and gay film festival, with the new crop of LGBT films appealing to ever-wider audiences while still proving too hot for mainstream media. (In the gay-acceptance time line, 1996 fell two years after Roseanne's prime-time kiss with Mariel Hemingway caused a Chick-fil-A-sized shitstorm and two years before the arrival of Will & Grace signaled a new age of mainstream acceptance.) The majority of films in Seattle's and other cities' LGBT film festivals couldn't be seen anywhere else.
Now it's 17 years later. Films like Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are All Right, Far from Heaven, A Single Man, and Beginners have made movies by and about gays and lesbians the stuff of Cineplexes and Oscar ceremonies. Independent films that would once have been relegated primarily to gay film fests—Keep the Lights On, Weekend, Tarnation, Hedwig and the Angry Inch—now find happy homes at Cannes and Sundance and SIFF. Indeed, a number of films that will be featured in this year's SLGFF have screened previously in Seattle. I Stand Corrected (a documentary about the brilliant transgender jazz bassist Jennifer Leitham) played the Translations Transgender Film Festival, while Love Free or Die (a doc about the openly gay Anglican bishop Gene Robinson) and Cloudburst (a romantic dramedy starring Oscar winners Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker as an aging lesbian couple on a life-changing road trip) both played at this year's SIFF. (All are recommended.)
With the driving necessity of LGBT-specific film festivals diluted by ever-more-widespread acceptance, it's fair to ask: What's the point of a specifically LGBT film festival? Might such fests be a necessary casualty of progress, like the "Best Black Female" category at the American Music Awards? Don't be stupid. A thousand non-gay film fests could screen a thousand totally gay films, and actual LGBT humans would still crave the pleasures of watching films by and about LGBT folk in an audience full of LGBT folk. It's the essence of community and the best way to meet the film-loving queer you've been dreaming of.
This year's Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival kicks off October 11, which also happens to be National Coming Out Day. (Spiritual queen of this year's Coming Out Day: Cheryl Chow.) Here's a guided tour of fest highlights.
Struck by Lightning
This coming-of-age dramedy was written and produced by Glee's Chris Colfer, who stars as a high-school student who methodically blackmails his classmates into contributing to the school's literary magazine. Early reviews decried the strained quality of the writing while praising the supporting turns by Allison Janney and Christina Hendricks. Whatever the case, Struck by Lighting is a historical first: a young, out gay actor, who's famous for playing a young, out gay character on network TV, writing, producing, and starring in his own feature film. (And getting Allison Motherfucking Janney in his cast.)
Call Me Kuchu
Gays grown complacent with American acceptance need only to cast their eyes to Uganda for a chilling lesson in how far the rest of the world lags behind. In Uganda, not only is homosexuality illegal, but those found guilty of it have their faces published on the front page of a newspaper, and recent years have seen pushes to make homosexuality a crime punishable by death. Winner of best documentary at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival, Call Me Kuchu offers a glimpse into the life of LGBT Ugandans with a special focus on the 2011 murder of LGBT activist David Kato.
Mommy Is Coming
Cheryl "Watermelon Woman" Dunye directs and costars in this "self-confidently queer interpretation of a porn scenario," in which a pair of monogamous lesbians in Berlin branch out into a new world of sexual adventure. (For those who like less postmodernism in their porn, SLGFF also features I Want Your Love, a "sexually explicit relationship drama" produced by the bareback porn company NakedSword.)
As glam-rock die-hards know, Jobriath was the flamboyant New York singer-songwriter whom Elektra Records spent millions to promote in the early 1970s as "an authentically gay David Bowie." Instead, Jobriath smashed into a wall of homophobia that ended his career before his eventual death from AIDS. Kieran Turner's documentary aims to tell the Jobriath tale in full through archival footage of the man in action and contemporary interviews with such fans as Marc Almond, Jake Shears, Stephin Merritt, and Henry Rollins.
In a gesture of solidarity among overlapping city festivals, the Seattle Latino Film Festival joins forces with SLGFF to present this film about an Argentinean transvestite whose discovery of a young woman's dead body casts her into musical raptures of motherhood.
Waxie Moon in Fallen Jewel
Seattle's and the world's boylesque sensation Waxie Moon hits the big screen in this locally made film that casts our lovely Ms. Moon as the Carrie figure in a Seattley spin on Sex and the City. Supporting players include Sarah Rudinoff, Marya Sea Kaminski, Keira McDonald, and many other locals you love, and the whole thing is built on such a charmingly quirky concept that it rolls along funnily for a good stretch. The first cut of the film found director Wes Hurley seemingly paying cast members in screen time, to the detriment of his film's momentum—while parts of it were super weird and good, the whole thing was at least 30 minutes too long. Happily, SLGFF will be screening the new 30-minutes-shorter version.
Young and Wild
SLGFF's closing-night film is based on a popular blog from Chile, written by the 17-year-old daughter of a highly religious family in Santiago who anonymously rises to fame blogging about her sexual thoughts and actions.
Conflict of interest alert: This commemorative screening of Mr. Wrong, the 1996 romantic comedy starring a still-closeted Ellen DeGeneres as a wedding- hungry woman whose quest for a husband goes hideously awry, will be hosted by me, because I am obsessed with Mr. Wrong. At the time of its release, it was a strenuously unfunny comedy about a mannish woman's high-jinks-packed hunt for a husband. In 2012, it's a harrowing portrait of life in the 1990s closet, from the psycho-ridden dating pool to oblivious family members forever wondering if their clearly-a-lesbian daughter/sister/aunt will ever find the right man. It's a hilariously awful head trip. (In support of its efforts to make sure no other lesbian ever has to marry a man she doesn't love, this screening will benefit Washington United for Marriage.)
Other promising attractions include Yossi, Eytan Fox's sequel to his 2002 gay-Israeli-soldier romance Yossi & Jagger; the Sundance crowd-pleaser My Best Day; a film version of Matthew Bourne's Tony Award–winning all-male Swan Lake; and BearCity 2, another sunny blast of gay love, body hair, and casual urethral torture. For the full Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival 2012 schedule, see www.threedollarbillcinema.org.