The Tampa Bay International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival turns 30

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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Police officers and protesters far outnumbered patrons during the inaugural Tampa Bay International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (TIGLFF) in 1990.

It was the result of animus and interest surrounding one of the earliest publicized LGBTQ gatherings in downtown Tampa. While details surrounding TIGLFF’s founding are scarce, early accounts advise leaders from the Tampa Bay Gay Men’s Chorus, Bay Area Human Rights Coalition and Tampa Bay Business Guild formed the festival for two purposes.

The first was to extend the city’s Pride celebration in October by three days; the second was to serve as a fundraising tool for the LGBTQ community, particularly for organizations serving those living with HIV/AIDS.

Crescendo, the Tampa Bay Women’s Chorus, joined the efforts to support the festival in 1992. Its founding artistic director Sunny Hall has been involved with TIGLFF ever since, currently serving as the board’s secretary.

“It is remarkable that after all this time and with all of the challenges, TIGLFF is still around and thriving,” she says. “In the early years, protesters from the KKK and the American Family Association stood on the street with bullhorns as patrons entered the historic Tampa Theatre. There were times when there were more protesters outside than patrons inside.”

Ed Lally, who now serves as TIGLFF’s co-president, was one of the festival’s first filmgoers. “Thirty years ago people were still closeted, and I remember my husband being concerned,” he recalls. “It was a big deal that they showed films on Franklin Street at the Tampa Theatre. There was a lot of press about it and a lot of protesting. I remember my husband being worried someone from his work might see him.”

The experience cemented TIGLFF’s bond with the Tampa Theatre and relationships were soon cultivated with Tampa Bay at large. Or as Hall sees it, “LGBT people were afraid. Yet, TIGLFF stayed and the crowds grew.”


TIGLFF Director of Programming KJ Mohr (L) and Co-President Ed Lally direct the festival’s 30th anniversary launch party Sept. 12. Photo by Ryan Williams-Jent.

TIGLFF will be held Oct. 4-12, but its 30th year began in late 2018 when it announced that Lally and fellow co-president Mariruth Kennedy would lead the festival through the milestone. Kennedy had previously served on the board for eight years, including four as president. After Lally’s early patronage, he served for two years as vice president and created TIGLFF’s largest fundraiser; its annual launch party which he continues to chair, most recently on Sept. 12.

Tampa’s progressive changes over the decades will be particularly evident Oct. 4, Lally shares excitedly. That’s when the city’s 59th and first openly LGBTQ Mayor Jane Castor will open this year’s festival at the Tampa Theatre.

“It’s one of the most exciting things about this year,” he says. “She’s opened it a few times as police chief but this takes it to a whole new level.”

“As a city that prides itself on its inclusiveness, the City of Tampa is proud of the association we have had with this festival through the past three decades, and commend the many sponsors for their continued support,” Castor said in a statement. “Since its founding in 1990, the film festival is known as an event that entertains, empowers and enlightens its audience and it has become one of the largest gay and lesbian film festivals in the United States and one of Tampa’s premier cultural events.

“We are proud of Tampa’s reputation as a city with a wealth of cultural richness and diversity,” Castor concluded, “and we are honored to host this popular festival in the Tampa Bay area that provides an opportunity to showcase how our region is enriched by those who call our community home.”

While the festivities begin at TIGLFF’s historic home in Tampa, they continue in its 30th year at a second venue in St. Petersburg: Metro Inclusive Health’s state-of-the-art health and community center. “We are very excited about this connection,” Kennedy says. “Metro is such a force in the community, it is great to bring some of our audience to them and introduce the festival to some of their folks.”

Longtime festival supporter and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman will open and close films in the city, something he touts as an honor. “This 30th year of TIGLFF is a very special one for us here in the Sunshine City,” he shared in a statement.

“Our city has emerged as a city of the arts and welcoming the film festival here is a welcome privilege,” Kriseman continued. “You join an esteemed group of cultural organizations that excel in presenting the visual and performing arts, and we are proud to welcome the addition of TIGLFF to our inclusive community.”


“Our programming reflects our audience, honed to specific tastes and communities locally and internationally, reflecting our diversity and interests,” Hall says. “Through the latest narrative, documentary and experimental work, our programming goal is to provide a welcoming, celebratory environment for attendees to see cutting edge queer films for the first time with an audience of our peers and allies.”

Planning for each year’s lineup, which has been overseen by TIGLFF Director of Programming KJ Mohr since 2011, begins as soon as the previous year’s program is locked in place. Mohr programs for festivals across the country, working year-round with distributors and filmmakers to cultivate the best films by and for the LGBTQ community.

Along with TIGLFF’s screening committee, she says each feature or short chosen for the festival is reviewed at least four times. “This year our call for entries opened in March, then the committee gets going in April,” Mohr explains. “The train really moves fast from April to October, but it’s year-round.”

“KJ has done a great job all year and now for the festival has brought us the best slate of films available,” Kennedy says. “We have terrific movies, some great panels and lots of talent and filmmakers attending. I’m just especially excited to be a part of bringing these great stories to our area, and giving voice to the filmmakers.”

“She’s one of the best programmers in the country,” Lally adds. “People want to see films about themselves and about people that support them. I think this will be a banner year for us.”

This year’s festival will showcase 97 films from 25 different countries. It will also screen five collections of short films, present live performances, host discussions with filmmakers and more. You can view the full schedule of features and shorts here; a diverse lineup of entertainment representing a diverse community.

“TIGLFF has always been a safe haven and a place of comfort, where you can breathe a sigh of relief and be with your community,” Mohr says. “More than ever, it’s a celebratory experience where we can just enjoy our time together without feeling angst, concern and anxiety about coming out.

“First and foremost, this is a community event,” she continues. “Audiences want to be entertained and they want to come together to talk about it afterwards.” That begins with opening night and continues with the festival’s centerpieces.


“Sell By” opens the 30th annual TIGLFF. Photo courtesy TIGLFF.

To find the perfect opening night film, Mohr says she looks for crowd pleasing films that represent TIGLFF’s audience as a whole. “Sell By,” released this year and marking the directorial debut of Mike Doyle, was a clear standout.

The ensemble film introduces audiences to Adam and his insta-gay boyfriend Marklin, who have been together for five years. “They love each other,” the synopsis reads, but “their relationship is so bored and aimless, they consider marriage just because ‘it’s time.’”

The movie stars vets like Scott Evans from “Grace and Frankie,” Patricia Clarkson from “Sharp Objects” and Kate Walsh from “Grey’s Anatomy” and “13 Reasons Why.” Their characters navigate “the precarious journey toward middle age” and their “flailing attempts at finding themselves.”

The film screens Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m. and cast members are scheduled to appear. It will be preceded by an opening reception kick-off party beginning at 6 p.m. in front of the Tampa Theatre. TIGLFF will offer drinks for donation, complimentary appetizers and DJ Hurai Knight will provide music.

“It’s perfect for kicking off TIGLFF and getting in the mood,” Mohr says, turning toward other festival focal points.

TIGLFF’s Narrative Centerpiece, “Straight Up,” was released in 2019 and screens at the Tampa Theatre Oct. 8 at 7 p.m. While it’s another entertaining romantic comedy, it has a twist—it’s “a love story without the thrill of copulation.”

“Hyper-articulate, obsessive compulsive gay twenty-something Todd wants to try being straight,” its synopsis explains. “Not because he thinks being gay is bad. He just thinks he is bad at being gay.”

He soon connects with an aspiring actress “who hates meeting people” and the two forge a relationship “that’s all talk and no sex.” It’s described as “equal parts Classical Hollywood and distinctly 21st century, exploring just how elastic our definitions of love and sexuality can get.”

TIGLFF will welcome director and actor James Sweeney to discuss his film, his directorial debut. “The fact that he wrote it and stars it in just blows my mind because it’s so well done,” Mohr says. “It’s relatable and funny, but more than anything it’s just a really well-crafted film. That’s what makes it the centerpiece.”

TIGLFF’s Documentary Centerpiece “Seahorse” is “cinematically fantastic,” Mohr says. The film screens Oct. 9 at 5 p.m. at the Tampa Theatre.

“This highly personal and intimate film tackles universal themes,” filmmakers explain. “Its account of a pregnancy will be familiar to anyone who has navigated the path to parenthood, but this timeless journey is made entirely fresh by seeing it through the perspective of a transgender man.”

The film was shot over a three-year period and is described as an uplifting story of the birth of a much-wanted baby, depicting “the most challenging, emotional moments of Freddy’s journey” to give birth as a transgender father. It challenges his understanding of masculinity, gender and parenthood.

“It’s outstanding,” Mohr summarizes. “Audiences need to see this.”

“Song Lang” rounds out the festival as the International Centerpiece, premiering Oct. 10 at 8:30 p.m. at Metro Inclusive Health. The Vietnamese film, a rarity in itself, is a visually stunning award winner.

The film introduces filmgoers to “a hunky, brooding, and hardened debt collector and martial arts practitioner who threatens to set fire to a pile of traditional opera costumes for an upcoming performance.” After one of the actors steps in to stop him, audiences undergo a “non-traditional meeting [that] ignites a slow burn between the two men, set against a lush and gritty 1980s Vietnam.”

“I wasn’t expecting anything when I walked into it,” Mohr says, “but it blew my mind. Not only is it beautiful but it’s a technically excellent film. It’s one of my favorites this year.”

Mohr notes that while audiences will be introduced to new favorites like “Song Lang,” they’ll also be given the opportunity to enjoy old favorites in honor of TIGLFF’s 30th.


1999’s “Trick.” Photo courtesy TIGLFF.

Mohr included three features designated as retro screenings for this year’s lineup. “Since it’s our anniversary, we wanted to screen films that were TIGLFF favorites from over the years,” she explains.

The first is “Trick,” the romantic comedy directed by Jim Fall first released in 1999. Starring Christian Campbell, Coco Peru and Tori Spelling, the LGBTQ “romp full of sexual obstructions, mishaps and friendships” will be displayed on 35mm film—a treat in today’s digital age—in honor of its 20th anniversary. Fall will also attend the screening, held Oct. 5 at 11:30 a.m. at the Tampa Theatre.

“If someone had told me 20 years ago that today there would be this wonderful parade of screenings across the country of my film, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Fall says. “We loved the movie, and the movie was like such a labor of love for everybody involved. It’s thrilling to make a movie and have people remember it and remember it fondly.”

The director adds that he hopes to spend as much time at TIGLFF as possible, participating in discussions and meeting with fans. “One of the biggest joys of going to film festivals is hearing from people who saw the movie 20 years ago,” he says. “I’ve heard so many wonderful stories of people who said ‘Trick’ was one of the first gay movies, if not the first gay movie, that they ever saw. I never get tired of hearing those stories.”

Fall will likely discuss “Trick 2” with fans, announced last year, which he confirmed to Watermark is still in the works. “I wrote the script,” he says. “The whole cast is coming back and we’re all really excited about it.”

TIGLFF will also screen two of his short films in an effort to show “what directors are working on and where careers go over the span of decades,” Mohr says. “‘Trick’ was one of the great seminal festival favorites. We really wanted to bring it in.”

“A Bigger Splash” is the festival’s next retro screening, held Oct. 6 at 11:45 at the Tampa Theatre. The 1973 film by Jack Hazan documented David Hockney, still fruitful at 81, a great American artist who was also gay. It chronicles his evolving relationship with a young man who was once his lover and remained his muse.

1989’s “Tongues Untied” will follow at the same venue Oct. 7 at 5 p.m. The documentary details filmmaker Marlon Riggs’ experiences as a gay, African American man coming to terms with his sexual identity while highlighting his losses during the AIDS crisis.

“These are films in formats people won’t get a chance to see anywhere else, at least not anytime soon,” Mohr says. “These are important milestones in our community’s history over the years.”

In honoring TIGLFF’s anniversary, Mohr also sought to mark another milestone in LGBTQ history. To commemorate 50 years since the Stonewall riots, she utilized a series of short films—one of five collections highlighted in this year’s film lineup.


JC Calciano’s “The Handyman.” Photo courtesy TIGLFF.

“Something to Cry About: Drama in Your Shorts” is the first collection of shorts screening at TIGLFF this year. On Oct. 5 at 4 p.m. at the Tampa Theatre, filmgoers can enjoy the collection of eight dramatic short films that celebrate members of the LGBTQ community of diverse backgrounds and experiences.

“Universal Drama” follows Oct. 8 at 8:30 p.m. at Metro Inclusive Health. The collection of six short films celebrates members of the LGBTQ community from around the world.

The aforementioned “History Lessons” follows at the St. Petersburg venue Oct. 10 at 6:30 p.m., showcasing six short films celebrating LGBTQ history from Stonewall to the present day. Highlights include “Happy Birthday, Marsha,” imagining the iconic activist Marsha P. Johnson’s life in the hours before 1969’s Stonewall Riots and “The Gay Rub,” which features University of South Florida (USF) graduate Steven Reigns and Professor David K. Johnson.

“Tickle in Your Shorts” will be screened Oct. 12 at 5:45 p.m. in Tampa, lightening up the mood with eleven quirky short films including “The Handyman.” Filmmaker JC Calciano, a TIGLFF favorite director known for “10 Year Plan, Is It Just Me?” and “E-Cupid,” is thrilled to be included.

“TIGLFF is the embodiment of what my films represent,” Calciano shares. “The festival is about bringing the community together, sharing stories, representing the value of loving yourself and each other. I think that’s why my films and I have always felt so welcome at this festival.”

“We have more shorts programs than usual because there was just so much great material in our submissions,” Mohr says. “It’s very strong work.”

She points to TIGLFF: Next Scene as a prime example.


TIGLFF: Next Scene is a new initiative for the festival, a free collection of shorts screening Oct. 12 beginning at 11 a.m. at the Tampa Theatre. The program aims to bring TIGLFF into the future, marrying the next chapter of LGBTQ filmmakers and filmgoers and steering them into the next decade.

“The festival is going to be all about young adults going forward,” Lally says. “They need to come in and make it what the wan it to be—many of us are ready to pass the torch and there’s a whole different perspective out there.”

TIGLFF partnered with Tampa filmmaker Leo Fowler on the initiative, a local activist and animation student at USF. “One of our main focuses with this initiative is to get local young people involved with the festival at large but also in the movie making process,” he explains, “which can be inaccessible to a lot of people. Our workshops aim to educate others on the basics of filmmaking.”

He believes it’s critical for young LGBTQ filmmakers to be able to create stories about themselves and others like them. “Representation is so important, especially to kids of marginalized groups,” Fowler explains. “It feels good to be able to have some impact on young creators.”

“About half of the shorts are from young, local filmmakers and about half are submissions or films I’ve cultivated from elsewhere,” Mohr says of this year’s shorts screening. “This is where we go next with TIGLFF.”


“Gay Chorus Deep South” closes out the 30th annual TIGLFF. Photo courtesy TIGLFF.

The 30th annual TIGLFF will close as it began: surrounded by song. “Gay Chorus Deep South,” 2019’s celebrated documentary chronicling the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’ message of hope in response to the 2016 presidential election, rounds out this year’s programming at the Tampa Theatre Oct. 12 at 10 p.m.

“Over 300 singers travelled from Mississippi to Tennessee, through the Carolinas, and over the bridge in Selma,” the film’s description details. “They performed in churches, community centers and concert halls in hopes of uniting us in a time of difference. The conversations and connections that emerge offer a glimpse of a less divided America, where the things that divide us—faith, politics, sexual identity—are set aside by the soaring power of music, humanity and a little drag.”

The South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus Director Tim Seelig is scheduled to Skype with the audience after the film—and in honor of TIGLFF’s musical roots and founding, the Tampa Bay Gay Men’s Chorus will perform prior to the screening. “Women Making Music—25 Years of Crescendo: The Tampa Bay women’s Chorus,” a short collection of clips and commentary, will also be presented.

“Tampa used to have two thriving LGBT choruses, so we wanted to honor that tradition prior to the screening of ‘Gay Chorus Deep South,’” Hall says. “The men’s chorus will sing, but Crescendo is no more—so TIGLFF wanted something to reflect her presence and impact.”

“It all speaks to the history of TIGLFF and starting the festival,” Mohr adds. “It’s an uplifting way to conclude as we think about where we’ve come over the last 30 years.”

“TIGLFF is still around because of the hundreds of people through the years that stepped up, stepped out and held on tight to the notion that LGBT stories matter,” Hall asserts. “Those stories deserve to be told.”

The 30th annual Tampa Bay International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival will be held Oct. 4-12, 2019 at the Tampa Theatre and Metro Inclusive Health, located at 711 N. Franklin St. in Tampa and 3251 3rd Ave. N. in St. Petersburg. For more information and to purchase event and festival tickets, visit

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