Programming the Public (1999)

pp. 73-93
Copyright © 1999 by Duke University Press

Programming the Public by Richard Fung

Whenever I go to a gay bathhouse, I'm struck by the ordinariness of so many of the men, who seem to evade all recognizable gay styles of masculinity and femininity: they aren't swishy or hypermasculine; they don't even have that soft butchness so well depicted by Paul Rudd in The Object of My Affection. Beyond the erotically imagined "straight-looking, straight-acting" men heavily sought in gay personal ads, these men exude a regular guyness that seems just plain, well, straight, which is no doubt how some of them identify themselves.

If I were being rigorous, I'd contexualize this observation by pointing out that each such establishment has its own ambience and clientele or that in the unclothed environment of a steam bath, signs of gay acculturation must be detected right on the body: haircuts, piercings, neo-Celtic tattoos encircling the upper arm, evidence of the gym in the pecs, stiffness or flexibility in the hip. But rigor is not my aim. I recount this little epiphany merely as an example of the times when, for whatever reason, one is moved to ponder how extensive queer practice, if not community, must be: detectable gay men and lesbians represent only the tip of the queer iceberg.

Gay liberation has long used the slogan We Are Everywhere. But unlike women or "visible minorities," the preferred term for "people of color" in Canadian race-relations discourse, queers for the most part form an "invisible" minority that reveals itself, even to other queers, only through acts of queerness (from the use of discreet rainbow bumper stickers to the very public declarations of entertainers and politicians) or sites of community (Pride Day events, bars, community groups, women's golf tournaments, tearooms, film and video festivals). The more "underground" the venue, the lower the degree of identifiable gay and lesbian acculturation.

In this economy of queer visibility, gay and lesbian film and video festivals are especially important because they constitute a kind of double representation on and in front of the screen. So when one programs a festival, one also programs the audience and the community. One presents queer community to itself and then, as a festival becomes more "mainstream," to the larger public as well. In the work that is selected and the way in which it is grouped and promoted, one not only represents but also produces specific instances and interpretations of queerness in the same manner as a leather bar, a gay and lesbian synagogue, or a softball match does.

In 1997, the Inside Out Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival of Toronto programmed Out at Work, a film about gay and lesbian labor activists. Together with my partner, Tim McCaskell, I had previously worked with trade unions to bring gay labor historian Allan Bérubé to Toronto, so it was relatively easy to enlist organized labor in promoting the screening within union networks and in financing trips to Toronto for one of the film's codirectors, Kelly Anderson (the other is Tami Gold), and one of its subjects, auto worker Ron Woods. This screening was one of those rare sites at which gay and lesbian identities become articulated with labor issues.

The 1998 Inside Out festival featured several programs on transgender issues and one youth-curated program on work by and about young queers. As with Out of Work, these screenings and the process of producing them served, through cosponsorships, speakers, and other efforts associated with them, to affirm, organize, and produce infrastructure for identities marginalized and/or emerging within gay and lesbian communities.

How one programs film and video in a festival both reflects and engages specific understandings of who queers are. Over the years the slotting of work by race and gender has shifted at Inside Out. Past programs have been segregated by gender, with men's and women's productions screened at different locations. In part this approach catered to a generation accustomed to gender-separate gay and lesbian social spaces, but it also made the offerings by and for lesbians more prominent in a context dominated by men's work. That this model of programming has persisted beyond the conditions that gave rise to it, however, betrays the mistaken assumption that identification is the principal or the only reason to choose a screening: people are interested only in seeing work about others like themselves. Most of our programs are now gender-mixed.

Inside Out has also largely moved away from ethnic or race-specific programming. Many film and video makers "of color" resent dedicated screenings. In part, their resentment is a reaction to the "ghettoization" arising from curatorial laziness—it's Asian, so let's put it with other Asian work and include rice in the program title. But in the context of the art-world backlash of the 1980s (U.S.-style) "multiculturalism," artists are also mindful of the lower status accorded racially hyphenated artists relative to "just artists." Never mind that a gay and lesbian festival is already identity-based and "segregated"; there is a well-gounded concern that race-dedicated programs may spell smaller audiences and marginality within the festival. Yet a program of Asian shorts at the 1997 Inside Out festival drew a significant number of Asian viewers who did not attend any other screening, which points to identification as one important factor in how viewers select screenings.

In the post-gay liberation era, with its fragmentation of community and social groups, civil rights campaigns, and academic studies, gay and lesbian film and video festivals are among the few sites where different queer interests and communities intersect and interact (for the price of a ticket). They are also crucial sites of queer pedagogy, classrooms of queer images. But work, programming, and audience are interdependent. For example, how does Inside Out continue its support of queer workers without an Out at Work each year?

I've noticed two trends in the work submitted to and screened at gay and lesbian festivals, and each suggests different audience directions: the feature film and the fiesty do-it-yourself short produced on super-8 or low-end video.

The blossoming of the gay and lesbian feature film is important to the widening of the audience at queer festivals; many people, even those with otherwise radical politics, want to see "real" movies. This trend is therefore exhilarating not only because of the strength of the works themselves but because of their growing legitimacy. As a maker of short videos, however, I am apprehensive about what the rise of the feature film may mean for the politics of queer representation. Although a handful of great filmmakers can offset a low budget with their creativity, feature filmmaking in general requires a level of financing and infrastructure that demands a return on the investment. This imperative may force gay and lesbian filmmaking towards the codification and demographic appeal of the Hollywood feature, with its predictable plot and its good-looking, young, white, middle-class protagonist. The difficulty of finding a distributor for an accomplished film such as The Watermelon Woman (which won Inside Out's audience award), a feature with a good-looking young black protagonist in mostly middle-class surroundings, raises my suspicions. In the meantime I've noticed the increasingly frequent appearance of the black best friend in "white" queer feature offerings, a phenomenon that mirrors the rise of the gay best friend in recent Hollywood fare.

Short experimental or documentary films or videotapes are not by nature free of these problems—God forbid that I should propose a determinism based on size or length. While the cheapness of do-it-yourself formats suggests their accessiblity, the demographics behind the camera, in the image, and in front of the screen don't imply racial diversity any more than those of other formats. And let's not forget the artists who have recently made aesthetically and/or politically challenging films in long format, including Yvonne Rainer, Quentin Lee, John Greyson, and, of course, Cheryl Dunye.

In 1997 Inside Out hired a new executive director, Ellen Flanders, who oversaw a number of changes: the staff was expanded (for instance, the position of program coordinator, which I was offered, was created); the festival moved from its art-community venues to a center-city cinema complex that also houses the Toronto International Film Festival; significant corporate sponsorship was snagged; and the number of screenings and the proportion of feature films among them were increased. The festival audience nearly tripled. In such a case "mainstreaming" doesn't mean less gay or lesbian culture. There is a reciprocal relationship between the high profile now possible for gay and lesbian productions and the gay and lesbian festivals sometimes seen as launching grounds for them. It is possible, therefore, that features can be privileged over shorter work in publicity and venue. Corporate sponsorship also raises the question of political and aesthetic (self-) policing and further favors the promotion of the feature.

Although they cannot be resolved simply through the will of festival organizers, the decision makers at Inside Out have recognized these problems and have designed productive strategies with which to address them. As Inside Out becomes more prominent in Toronto and as its audiences grow and begin to attract even "straight-identified" attention and attendance, it is an interesting possibility that—to borrow from Teresa de Lauertis—the festival will address its viewers as queer in an increasingly public space.1 It will play it's part in queering the public.


This essay is informed by my participation in gay and lesbian film and video festivals as a video maker and especially by my association with the Inside Out festival, as program coordinator in 1997 and as a member of the programming committee in 1998.

1. See Teresa de Lauretis, "Rethinking Women's Cinema: Aesthetics and Feminist Theory," in Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 127-48.