One of my first visits to Austin was in October of 2005 when my film Life in a Box was screened in aGLIFF -- the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival. (A testament to the great appeal of Austin, Texas is that I decided to move here despite the fact that during the 3 or 4 days of my visit that fall, the afternoon temperature never got below 107 degrees. In the middle of October.)
The aGLIFF folks treated me like a movie star, and the festival was great fun, but — maybe it was because I had just come from a screening in San Francisco — I found it odd that the festival was tucked away at a suburban multiplex (the Arbor Cinemas). When I drove up to the theater, I wasn't sure I was in the right place. The only evidence of a film festival was "Welcome aGLIFF," spelled out in small, almost apologetic letters on the marquee.
Considering that Austin is a city full of artists and media professionals working at the cutting edges of their fields, I've never quite been able to figure out why the mainstream gay and lesbian presence here — events, media, organizations — has at times seemed so out of date and closeted.
I'm fairly new here. (I moved here 3 1/2 years ago but only recently feel like I'm making connections that might be lasting.) I'll admit that I don't have a deep sense of Austin gay history to compare the present moment to. But this year, things feel different. There's some kind of groundswell of change. It feels like Austin is on the verge of a queer Renaissance.
Last year aGLIFF moved to Alamo Drafthouse – a huge improvement in the location and vibe of the festival. (The Alamo is a treasure; it's one of those places, like Barton Springs, that Austinites take visitors to, to show them what's uniquely wonderful about our city. The Alamo spoils you for any other theater - nothing comes close for an ideal movie-going experience.) And aGLIFF has a new team in charge this year, working non-stop with a raft of volunteers to raise money, create new programs, and turn it into the premiere festival Austin deserves.
I'm volunteering in the programming group (taking the attitude that getting involved is better than complaining). At the first meeting, Jake Gonzalez, the programming director for the festival, told us that aGLIFF's new mission is to make the festival one of the top-three LGBT festivals in the country – with Frameline in San Francisco and Outfest in L.A. It's a tall order, and there's a lot of work to be done, but there's absolutely no reason why Austin shouldn't have one of the top queer film festivals, with such a concentration of film, video, and new media people living and working here, and the graduate program in film production at U.T., which is one of the most well-regarded and competitive film schools in the U.S.
Not to mention that Austin is a town of film fans. The fact that the Alamo theaters do such eclectic programming and pack houses every night is a testament to the fact that Austin loves and supports movies of all kinds.
And there is amazing queer performance and theater here, too – Camp Camp (a long-running queer talent show that took a hiatus but has started up again -- the crazy-friendliest genderqueer crowd I've seen since maybe The Pyramid Club in New York in the mid-80s), Gay Bi Gay Gay (a queer music and performance love-fest that closes unofficial South by Southwest every year in East Austin), Paul Soileau's Rebecca Havemeyer and Christeene, just to name a few things off the top of my head. Why does it seem to be such a small segment of Austin's "gay community" who know about and support this stuff?
I have high hopes for QueerBomb, the alternative march and celebration launching this year, which seems to be setting itself up in direct opposition to the officially sanctioned pride parade and festival. Like I said, I'm new here, and I don't know much about the history and politics of these organizations, but the Pride festivities, when I've attended, have seemed small, old-fashioned, and slightly embarrassed to be here. It could just as easily have been Cincinnati in 1985. Which makes no sense at all in Austin, the capital of Texas, with a massive university, huge "creative class," and mecca for Texas liberals.
(And to add insult to injury, I found out yesterday that that there's a $10 admission charge for the official gay pride celebration. It's hard to even reckon what all sucks about that, but this blog post by Andy Campbell on the Austin Chronicle's LGBT blog outlines one of the most insidious effects of making it expensive to participate in gay pride.)
I like that QueerBomb's message strikes a tone that's defiant and transgressive, but inclusive. It has a slight whiff of academia (the queer studies jargon, the hint of Marxism), but the spirit feels generous, as if to say, Let's do something radical and fun, something everybody can enjoy:
QueerBomb is a flash force assembly of LGBTQIA individuals within the community who have found the current strategy and structure of Austin Pride to be non-inclusive, capitalist, heteronormative, safe, and unchallenging. QueerBomb has been assembled with boisterous urgency in organizing a counter 'Pride' procession that carries a strong Queer message to the streets of Downtown Austin reclaiming the radical, carnal and transgressive lineage of our ever changing community, while celebrating every facet and form of our people as a unique and vibrant whole.
This sounds like exactly what Austin needs right now. I'll be there Friday. If you live in Texas or happen to be visiting this weekend, I hope you will be, too. Even if you don't consider yourself radical and transgressive. Especially if you don't consider yourself radical and transgressive.
(Cross-posted in a modified form at The Gay Place, the Austin Chronicle's LGBT blog)