Outfest Attendees Call for More LGBT Stories in Wake of Orlando Tragedy: "The World Is Ready for More of Us"

Outfest opening night - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Outfest opening night - Getty - H 2016

"Our community has experienced so much darkness recently," said Clea DuVall, whose 'The Intervention' opened Outfest on Thursday night. The fest runs through July 17.

Hundreds of Hollywood types, film lovers, festival staff and volunteers filled the vintage jewel that is the Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A. on Thursday night for the opening-night celebration of the 2016 edition of Outfest, this city's annual LGBT film festival. 

At times, it did feel like a real celebration. There were lots of laughs for Clea DuVall's well-received fest opener, her directorial debut The Intervention, starring the filmmaker alongside Cobie Smulders, Natasha Lyonne, Jason Ritter, Vincent Piazza, Ben Schwartz, Alia Shawkat and audience favorite Melanie Lynskey. There was also the huge post-screening afterparty in a spacious parking lot behind the Orpheum. There was music too, put to good use by spandex-clad dancers waving light-filled capes and weaving their way through the bash. 

But it also felt like an emotionally charged political summit, one that saw presenters on the verge of tears as they put out calls for action to the storytellers in the room. This event, as it turned out, unspooled on July 7, just 25 days after the tragedy in Orlando where 49 gay nightclub revelers were gunned down on Latin night in what has been referred to as "an act of terror, an act of hate" by President Obama. 

It also came on a night when U.S. citizens were on high alert following the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota in police shootings. And while presenters such as Wilson Cruz and Outfest's Christopher Racster and Lucy Mukerjee-Brown were on stage, phones were lighting up with push alert updates of another breaking tragedy -- this one in Dallas, where five police officers were murdered by a sniper during peaceful protests for Sterling and Castile. 

While Dallas was not mentioned onstage, Orlando and the Black Lives Matter movement were. And the messages are what turned this opening night into something else completely, making it feel urgent and necessary, even if it was not quite celebratory throughout. Emotional pauses replaced the typical applause moments, designed to help those in attendance reflect on how a film festival that features stories (and storytellers) from a minority group can effect positive change in this country, or the world.

Racster was among the first to the stage to deliver the official opening remarks on behalf of Outfest. He said that with the rash of violence in the U.S., it's "hard to find a space for love," but that for 34 years that's exactly what Outfest has stood for. It's "a safe place for the LGBT community to come together, and we do so again tonight despite whatever struggles we face. When I look at this year's festival and I look at our stories reflected in film, all I see is love."

Cruz followed Racster, and he looked in a different direction. He remembered the morning of June 12, as news started to filter out from Orlando of what had happened inside Pulse nightclub. "We lost 49 people that bloody Sunday," he said, his eyes often filling with tears like when he mentioned the death of his mother's step-sister, Brenda McCool, who was gunned down inside Pulse while protecting her gay son. "These people whom we’ve collectively mourned and for whom we’ve wept are basically invisible on our screens and in the discourse of our community. Their faces and their stories are rich with character, determination and resilience, and it shouldn’t take their murders for them to be worthy of our attention."

Wilson Cruz arrives 2016 Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival opening night gala at Orpheum Theatre on July 7, 2016. (Photo by Jennifer Lourie/Getty Images)

The actor then urged the writers, directors and other storytelling talents in the room to get to work by creating works that include people of color, like those killed in Orlando. "We are here tonight to celebrate storytelling — that’s why Outfest exists. To support and highlight the LGBT experience by creating the space for us to tell our stories. Our stories change the world," he proclaimed. "I hope, I hope that upon this scorched Earth we have planted the seeds of ideas that will bear fruit of more diverse and inclusive stories that will include people of color in the LGBT community. If we do that, their lives will not have been lost in vain. This is the challenge. I believe that you are up to the task."

Filmmaker Rose Troche followed Cruz with a job all her own — introducing the night's top (and only) honoree, Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper, who was awarded Outfest's Achievement Award. Sundance vet Cooper has been with the Park City-based festival for 27 years, rising through the ranks to the top job working for founder Robert Redford.

During that time, he programmed films featuring LGBT storylines and/or characters when it wasn't popular or as widely accepted. "It is an enormous responsibility to program films, to give those in the margins a voice. We're not marginalized voices, we are just in the margins," Troche said in praise of Cooper (aka "Coop" to close friends). "He brings us into the center and gives us space and lets us be seen, and that is an amazing thing. He’s courageous and relentlessly passionate in supporting new voices and old ones…such as myself."

The punchline garnered another round of laughter in the room. It didn't last long, though, as Cooper took to the stage to accept his trophy and he, too, fought back tears as he recounted his career path. But rather than just deliver a speech, Cooper said he wanted to offer a lesson he's learned along the way.

To do so, he told how Sundance showed one of the first prominent gay films, Longtime Companion, in January 1990. But before it screened, fest officials presented the program's slate to Redford, and Cooper had the task of describing what it was about.

"I said, 'It's gay. It’s very gay. It’s set during the AIDS crisis and it might be kind of controversial.' I wasn’t even sure you could play this film in Utah at that time — it was so long ago," recalled Cooper, who was accompanied to the festivities by his own longtime partner, their daughters, and his mother and sister. "Redford took this long pause, like he does, and he gave me one of his iconic sideways glances and said, 'Isn't that what we do?' … What I really learned was…a life lesson for me: Never ask for permission."

John Cooper arrives 2016 Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival opening night gala at Orpheum Theatre on July 7, 2016. (Photo by Jennifer Lourie/Getty Images)

He then closed his speech by falling in line with the night's big theme of pushing for more inclusive stories. "Maybe I’m an optimist, but I believe that artists' stories are the only true way to change the world. This is no time for us — and this is real — this is no time for us to fall out of the diversity conversation happening in our industry. This is the time we join the other others, and we take our place with them. Because I think we all know the world is ready for more of us. Together we can make that happen."

And an opening night can't happen without a film to show, so then came Mukerjee-Brown, who would introduce DuVall and her comedy. "Being able to laugh together right now is a very good thing for all of us," Mukerjee-Brown said, adding that Outfest (presented by HBO and grand sponsors Delta, Entertainment Partners and Frontiers Media) would open with a comedy, close with a comedy (Chirs Kelly's Other People) and feature a high-profile one in the middle (Paul Feig's Ghostbusters at the newly renovated Ford Ampitheatre). 

DuVall came out to introduce her cast as well as her Samuel Goldwyn Films release. "Our community has experienced so much darkness recently that to have the opportunity to love and celebrate and support each other means so much to me," she said.

And no doubt the laughter she heard during the screening also meant something, as it clearly did for those inside the Orpheum.