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Reel Pride turns 25
by Kelley Campos McCoy
The young woman rushed into the theater after the lights had dimmed so no one would see her. It took all the courage she could muster just to enter this place.
She watched as more and more people arrived. Their ease and camaraderie were unmistakable as they sat together and greeted each other.
Observing them – these men and women of all ages, most of whom had come to see stories about people like them rarely played out onscreen – she was suddenly struck by a realization that was as overwhelming as it was comforting.
She was not alone.
Her sense of isolation diminished, she broke down and cried.
Jon Carroll has often told others about this young woman’s experience – her first – at Fresno’s Reel Pride Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. For him, it exemplifies why the festival, held Sept. 17-21 this year, is so much more than a celebration of movies. With its focus on films that tell the stories of a community whose members have long been marginalized, misunderstood and worse, the festival provides a vital sense of affirmation and belonging for individuals for whom acceptance remains elusive in many ways.
Carroll suggests the films screened at Reel Pride and similar festivals around the country also give heterosexuals an opportunity to see the LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community in human rather than stereotypical terms.
“What a film festival can provide is the opportunity to learn about others and to be taken on a journey to experience life through another perspective,” says Carroll, who has been involved with Reel Pride since 2000 and serves as the festival’s vice-president and programming director. “Film has a unique ability to reach and move people when sometimes simple dialogue fails.”
Reel Pride celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It is the sixth oldest and one of the largest gay and lesbian film festivals in the country – achievements that festival director Peter Robertson finds both humbling and incredible.
“There have been a lot of people who sweat tears and money to keep this going,” says Robertson, who co-founded the festival with fellow college student Ken Fries at Fresno State in 1990. “To have survived with an all-volunteer board and because of donors and sponsors that stepped up to sustain the festival – What a remarkable testament to the fortitude of our community and its allies.”
Reel Pride’s roots
Fortitude was something Robertson and other openly gay and lesbian students were often called upon to demonstrate at Fresno State in the late 1980s – a decade in which being open about such things, especially on a college campus in a conservative region, was relatively rare.
“I went to a meeting [to start a gay club on campus] and there were over 100 people on the second floor of the Student Union,” Robertson says. At least 14 students would need to sign the charter and provide their names and student ID numbers for the group to become a university-recognized student organization.
“I got there and I thought, ‘Wow, this is great. This is going to be easy,’” he says. “They passed out the clipboard and it got to me in the back of the room and I was only number 11 on the form. I could not believe it.
“They all wanted to be part of it, but no one wanted to put their name to it.”
It would take two more weeks to get the last few signatures needed to form the Gay, Lesbian Student Alliance (GLSA) that fall of 1987. It would take much longer for the campus climate to shift. The fledgling GLSA club built a booth in the university’s Free Speech Area, a designated space where recognized student organizations could congregate and disseminate information. Robertson says passersby routinely spat upon and yelled bible verses at students sitting in the structure. The booth itself was tagged, turned over and, one Thanksgiving weekend, burned down. (The culprits were never found.)
More than two decades later, memories of many of these incidents are still painful for Robertson. His voice turns raw with emotion when he recalls the events of February 1989 in particular.
Fresno State was hosting a conference involving several national and international LGBT leaders and about 300 gay and lesbian college students from California and Oregon. During one of the sessions – there were several in different rooms across campus – a university police officer parked his cruiser on the sidewalk of the Speech Arts building, stepped out and approached Robertson, who was standing by the door with a Walkie-Talkie and a clipboard.
“He said, ‘There’s a truck with the KKK in it, circling the campus, so we’re going to put everyone on lockdown,’” Robertson recalls. “I had to go in and tell the people in the session what was going on, because [the police officer] had to go warn others.
“‘We’re on lockdown and no one can leave.’”
Students and speakers were stunned by Robertson’s announcement. Some started to cry. Others started to pray.
The Ku Klux Klan’s threat would amount to little more than driving the perimeter of the campus – one man at the wheel and four men standing in the back of a truck, hidden behind telltale robes, masks and conical hats, holding a large a sign declaring their opposition to homosexuality.
With each incident, though – the spitting and yelling in the Free Speech Area, the defacing and destruction of the club booth, the intimidating presence of a hate group targeting gays and lesbians – the number of students involved with GLSA fell, Robertson says.
Those who remained in the student group had been steeled by the experiences of the previous couple years. One was Ken Fries, a film buff who attended his first gay and lesbian film festival in San Francisco in the summer of 1990 and had been profoundly impacted by the encounter.
“It was, for me, a magical new experience to see movies about people like me up on the screen,” Fries recalls. “I thought Fresno was no San Francisco, but maybe a festival could move Fresno just a little bit closer to becoming a more accepting place for GLBT people.”
A film festival is born
Robertson remembers the conversation well. He, Fries and another student were having coffee before class when the subject of hosting a gay and lesbian film festival on campus was raised.
“Ken was so excited and exuberant and overwhelmed, having just spent a few days in San Francisco at their film festival,” Robertson says.
The more the three students talked about the possibilities, the more hopeful and determined they became. Robertson and Fries approached the student group – now called GLBSA (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Student Alliance) – and the decision was made to hold the festival in conjunction with National Coming Out Day in October. They would have only two months to plan the event. Fries was responsible for selecting and getting the films; Robertson’s tasks were to get the word out, secure the audiovisual equipment and book the rooms where the movies would be screened.
“It was a totally busy, exciting and anxious time,” Fries recalls, adding that he wasn’t always sure what he was doing. “My biggest concern was what would happen if no one came.”
He needn’t have worried. The GLBSA’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which 25 years later would be known as Fresno’s Reel Pride Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, showed 11 films from five countries twice a day across six days. While attendance for some of the shows was sparse – “less than 10,” Robertson says – others drew more than 100 attendees. All screenings were free-of-charge since it was a campus event.
“We thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is great,’” Robertson says of the well-attended shows. “We’d go up there with our bucket and say, ‘We need to pay for these movies. Just give us some money.’”
During the course of the next two decades, the festival underwent changes in name, leadership and venue. What stayed constant was its march toward becoming a mainstay of local entertainment. Fries says increasingly more members of the LGBT community felt comfortable attending the event as the years passed. Members of the broader community also became more accepting if not outright supportive of the festival, something Fries attributes to several factors: better quality films, positive reviews in The Fresno Bee, and a move from the Fresno State venue “into mainstream Fresno” – cinemas in Fig Garden and Northgate.
This year, Reel Pride is screening more than 27 feature films and 29 shorts across three venues: the Tower Theatre, the Severance Building and The Voice Shop. Carroll says the film lineup is more diverse than in years past, featuring mainstream stars like Nia Vardalos, Mo’nique, Gabourey Sidibe and Ben Whitlaw in stories that played at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals. Organizers expect a diverse crowd of thousands from across the region to pass through the turnstiles.
It’s a far different scene from fall 1990.
“Reel Pride has certainly become more of a community event in its 25 years,” Carroll observes. He added, “It’s also become a more mainstream event – 25 percent of our audience identifies as straight!”
Festival organizers say Reel Pride’s success is a testament to the enduring passion and commitment of a diverse array of individuals and groups: board members, who have donated their time from the beginning; volunteers, who serve as ushers, take tickets, run projectors and clean venues between shows; audiences, who demonstrate their support in growing numbers each year; and donors and sponsors, whose cash and especially in-kind contributions cover most of the festival’s expenses, which Reel Pride president Kathleen Reyna says can run between $50-$60,000 at minimum. (An endowment was recently established to help defray the costs of future festivals.)
“The list is so incredibly long,” Reyna says of this year’s sponsors, mentioning The Painted Table, Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino and Donaghy Sales before her voice trails off in a tone that bespeaks both amazement and gratitude.
“They help us to put this party on. Their motivation truly is community [in the broadest sense].”
Robertson believes increasingly strong support for Reel Pride over the years, particularly among the LGBT community’s straight allies, is also reflective of changing attitudes across the country and in the Central Valley. He mentions the rise in support for same-sex marriage nationwide and, locally, Visalia’s openly lesbian mayor, Roosevelt High School’s transgender prom queen (“In Fresno!”) and Fresno State’s first LGBT graduation ceremony last May. All signs that the cultural pendulum has swung toward a more progressive era.
Reyna, who teaches political science courses at Reedley Junior College, says most campus climates for LGBT students are significantly different than they were when the film festival was in its infancy at Fresno State.
“Younger people can see they’re no longer the only gay kid on campus. There’s no longer as much of a stigma attached to it,” she says, adding that contemporary struggles are “more intimate than social – within families.”
That there still are struggles is something both Robertson and Reyna emphasize. More to the point, although progress has been made, there is still work to be done, both in terms of legislation and on a more deeply personal level. It’s in this context – by creating what Carroll calls “a sense of empathy and belonging” – that Fresno’s Reel Pride Gay & Lesbian Film Festival arguably performs its most important function: highlighting what we have in common while celebrating what makes us unique, and in the process bringing us closer together.
“The film festival provides young people especially with a safe community where they can see there are others around the world just like them – people who have the same feelings and same struggles,” Reyna says. “This festival also puts us out there, so people will see that we’re just like anyone else. We are doctors. We are lawyers. We are teachers. We are ditch-diggers. We are just like everybody else.
“That’s something they need to see.”
For more information about Fresno’s Reel Pride Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, including the film schedule and ticket prices, go to reelpride.com or call (559) 999-7971.