Sarasota – Five years ago a small festival in downtown Sarasota caught the attention of music acts around the country. In 2014, the Harvey Milk Festival is set to be the largest event ever in the festival’s history—so much so that it extended the hours of its main festival by two hours to midnight.
“I’m a musician myself and I’m a promoter,” says festival organizer Shannon Fortner. “I do bookings so that’s my forte and this kind of combines my activism with being a musician and promoter.”
The festival honoring politician and civil rights activist Harvey Milk was the brainchild of Fortner, who wanted to create an event recognizing the late San Francisco official’s large involvement in the civil rights movement but also recognizing his love of the arts.
“Milk was big into theater and the arts,” Fortner says. “That first year I had a theater group participate. This year we have a group from Orlando doing an interpretive call and response. It’s a way to create a solution of love without limits.”
The festival returns to Five Points Park on Saturday, May 17 at 2:30 p.m. Headliners this year include Ghost Beach and Slow Magic, but there are plenty of local performers as well, Fortner says.
“The headliners have been getting a lot of attention, which has helped us get a lot of attention as well,” says Fortner, who adds that submissions to participate in this year’s festival came from as far away as Italy. “We still want to give a local showcase as well, but we like to bring down regional and national acts.”
The free festival—donation boxes will be available throughout the park and donors can also give through HarveyMilkFestival.com—is actually a three-day event, beginning on Thursday, May 15, with a showing of the film The Dog at Burns Court Cinema at 9:30 p.m.
The film documents the life of John Wojtowicz, who in the 1970s attempted to rob a bank to finance his partner’s sex-reassignment surgery. The act resulted in a 14-hour hostage situation broadcast on national television. A film starring Al Pacino told the story three days later.
Archival footage and interviews with Wojtowicz will over viewers a unique look at the gay liberation movement in New York City.
The film, Fortner says, fits naturally with the theme of the Harvey Milk Festival, which embraces all forms of art.
“It’s all intigrated,” she says. “Film, music, art. But the film admittedly kind of rides solo and leads into the kick-off party.”
The ArtFest gallery opening follows on Friday, May 16, at Circus City Architectural Salvage at 1001 Central Avenue. The 7 p.m. reception has a theme of “Love Without Limits” and live art installations with a theme of “Change & Equality” will be available for viewing throughout the music festival on May 17.
“These will be more interactive for the audience and give people more to do,” Fortner explains. “And we’re going to have a special feature that mixes things up.”
While art is everywhere during the festival, Fortner is quick to point out that the Harvey Milk Festival’s main purpose is to honor its namesake and to motivate people to get involved.
There will be a candlelight vigil honoring Milk at 9:15 p.m. on May 15, and several guest speakers, including opening remarks by Sarasota City Commissioner Susan Atwell at 2:30 p.m. and keynote speaker Gina Duncan at 6:10 p.m.
Duncan, of Orlando, is a representative of Equality Florida and is currently working on bringing transgender protections into Florida’s workplace.
“We’re still fighting the good cause,” Fortner says. “DOMA was repealed last year, which is great, but we’re trying to wake up people and let them know their voices can be heard.”
Fortner points to 2013’s Soapbox Project, which gave festival goers a chance to stand on a physical soapbox and awaken their inner activist. Some of those speeches were recorded and will be shown during the candlelight vigil.
“When you can step up and take that time to dedicate yourself to use your voice to make change, it’s a powerful feeling,” Fortner says.
And while many members of the LGBT community are working to pull together the festival, Fortner says it is not only for those who identify as LGBT.
For a full schedule of events, artists and entertainers, visit HarveyMilkFestival.com.