History boy: A prime mover of Tampa's gay filmfest reflects on the past 20 years

[Editor's Note: We asked Jim Harper, the first president of Friends of the Festival, Inc., to reflect on why the Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival has endured for two decades. This is his reply.]

WHY THE FESTIVAL HAS SUCCEEDED AND PROSPERED OVER THE YEARS

At every moment in the film festival's history, a number of people have stepped up and done whatever needed to be done. Some gave more time and money than they could afford. They did it because they loved this festival, and they wanted to see it survive and prosper. This is true no matter which era or which producing organization we're talking about; whether it was the Tampa Bay Business Guild; Crescendo—The Tampa Bay Womyn's Chorus; the Tampa Bay Gay Men's Chorus; the Human Rights Task Force (now known as Equality Florida); Tampa Bay Arts; or the women and men who started Friends of the Festival during a period of crisis 10 years after the festival's founding. Dedicated volunteers in each of these groups played a crucial role in protecting and growing this film festival.

Some of the key names I remember from the first 12 or 13 years: Mark Puig, Dorothy Abbott, Keith Roberts, Sunny Hall, Bob Pope, Richard Waugh, Chuck Wilhelm, Larry Fischer (a St. Pete CPA who, in addition to serving many years as the festival's volunteer treasurer, came almost every night to work the carousel slide projector in the balcony, so that our sponsors and business partners could be recognized between films). Martin Padgett, Amy Nestor, Lex Poppens, Cathy Prance, Victoria Jorgensen, Brian Winfield, Robert Geller, Michele Greenberg. There are many more I haven't named.

And, of course, the many rank-and-file volunteers — the people who take tickets, pick up empty cups and popcorn bags between films, manage the waiting lines, fetch filmmakers from the airport, work in the office, take film canisters back to Federal Express, hand out free refreshments to Crown Circle passholders, and do all the other things that must be done when you're moving thousands of people, and their money, and rare copies of precious films, in and out of several theaters over the space of 11 days. There have been hundreds and hundreds of volunteers. People really do see this as a community service. They want to help. I don't think we've ever had trouble recruiting volunteers.

CRISIS AND TRANSITION

I am sometimes asked how the film festival survived a major financial crisis and gained its independence earlier this decade. (The festival had started, in part, as a fundraiser for other groups.) Here's my perspective.

During its first ten years, the festival had become quite a success — largely through Dorothy Abbott's programming, the commitment of countless volunteers, and the hunger that so many people had for the communal experience of seeing lesbian, gay, bisexual and (occasionally) transgender stories on the big screen. Our audience was growing, our reputation was spreading, and we had only begun to experience the competition that was emerging from the mainstreaming of LGBT movies and television programs and the easy access of Netflix. In 1998, for example, we gave the Southeastern premiere of Gods and Monsters. That would never happen today. Shortbus, yes. Brokeback Mountain? No way.

(My personal involvement in the festival before 1999 was mainly as an enthusiastic ticket-buyer, although I was good friends with some of its early leaders.)

So the festival was a success. But the non-profit 501(c)3 organization that produced it was struggling to keep a lot of other balls in the air. Tampa Bay Arts, as that organization was called, was a well-intentioned umbrella organization that had taken responsibility for the Tampa Bay Gay Men's Chorus and several other activities. It had hoped to provide a full-range of performing arts programs in the local LGBT community. A few years before, the Gay Men's Chorus (led by Mark Puig) had brought an international gay and lesbian choral convention to Tampa. At that time, it was the largest convention that had ever come to Tampa. (A good many political obstacles had to be overcome. National LGBT groups had called for a boycott of Tampa because voters had repealed our human rights ordinance in 1992. The local Human Rights Task Force — Nadine Smith, Todd Simmons, Amy Mandel and others — countered with an innovative idea called a "Buycott." They signed up businesses, including the Tampa-Hillsborough Convention and Visitors Bureau, as well as other local and national corporations, that had non-discrimination clauses for gays and lesbians in their corporate policies. The Buycott encouraged LGBT people and their allies to patronize those businesses, including the convention center, the performing arts center and the hotels that served them. The choral convention came, as planned, during the week of Tampa's LGBT Pride Parade.

I still remember some local television coverage of that year's parade, which included the Los Angeles gay men's chorus singing "We Shall Overcome," in exquisite four-part-harmony, just outside the new Tampa Convention Center. Their audience was a small group of robed and partially hooded Ku Klux Klansmen, who watched and listened in stony silence. A few moments later, Mayor Dick Greco welcomed the parade and the choruses inside the convention center. It was a sea-change for Tampa!

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