In 1982, when Outfest first premiered on the campuses of UCLA as the Gay and Lesbian Media Festival and Conference, the landscape of LGBT-themed media looked vastly different. Breakthrough blockbusters like Philadelphia were still years away, and the only exposure most Americans had to a homosexual character was Billy Crystal in the sitcom Soap.
But audiences, especially younger ones, had a growing appetite for something more substantial, according to Larry Horne, who founded the festival with four friends while he was a doctoral student. People were really hungry for gay and lesbian films, Horn told the Los Angeles Times. And there were films and images we wanted people to see.
Outfest, which kicks off on Thursday at various venues around Los Angeles, turns 30 this year, a milestone that presents its organizers with the opportunity to reflect upon both where it's been and where it's heading. One of the oldest gay and lesbian film festivals in the country (San Francisco's International LGBT Film Festival predates it by five years), Outfest has presided over an unprecedented sea change of cultural attitudes and gay civil rights. While the festival was already more than a decade old in 1996 when Ellen DeGeneres's famous coming out episode evoked ire from conservative groups, Outfest today is part of a media landscape in which gay characters on movies and television barely raise an eyebrow. Shows like Glee and Modern Family routinely incorporate gay-themed storylines, much to the dismay of pretty much no one.
And yet that picture of tolerance is admittedly very different on the frontlines of civil rights, where battles to legalize same-sex marriages are being fought in almost every state. Meanwhile, a more subtle brand of anti-gay sentiment seems to rear its head at every turn.
However one choses to look at the progression of gay culture, Outfest's mission to foster artistic expression of gender, sexuality and LGBTQ culture is clearly still a vital one, even in a world where casual come-outs by celebrities from Anderson Cooper to Jim Parsons cause few cultural tremors. It's really important to look back 30 years later and just see how the culture has evolved, how the storytelling has evolved and in some ways, how some things are still the same, Kirsten Schaffer, the festival's executive director, told Variety.
This year's Outfest includes 147 films including three films from Outfest's inaugural year: Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, Making Love and Taxi Zum Klo. The festival's theme this year is family dysfunction, a decidedly relatable subject with universal appeal for an event that once existed on the cultural fringes.
Other highlights include Brian Dannelly's Struck by Lightning, which marks the first starring role from Glee's Chris Colfer, and a potential comeback from former child star Haley Joel Osment, who stars in Coley Sohn's Sassy Pants.
Check out the complete festival schedule here.