Dayton LGBTQ Adult Film Festival

Photo: Martin L. Washington and Maya Washington in “Alaska Is a Drag”

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Intersectionality is  the buzzword of this cultural moment. The term, coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, an American feminist legal scholar, critical race theorist, and civil rights advocate describes the “overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. (It) is the idea that multiple identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities. Rather than being “unitary, mutually exclusive entities,” their union forms a “reciprocally constructing phenomena.”

Distilled down to its core, the idea of intersectionality preaches that an individual recognizes how these unique elements or traits are linked together, creating a new cohesive identity. Systems of oppression and social inequality excel and perpetuate based on preventing marginalized peoples from separate identity groups from working in concert.

With the codifying of this term, it seems like the time has come for people of color, feminists, members of the LGBTQ community, various immigrant constituencies, and progressive millennials to merge their disparate perspectives — both individually and collectively — in order to consolidate social and cultural power and influence which can be exerted for the greater good.

That requires an ability to discover just casual corollaries and tangential points of connection, but real reflections in these fractured and fragmented elements isn’t always easy.

In “Bad Feminist”, author Roxanne Gay talks about not always feeling like a real feminist because it was a movement founded and geared towards white women who, back in the day, didn’t seem to feel any meaningful sense of kinship with women of color. Black folks haven’t looked to the experiences of other oppressed folks in this country (like Native Americans) or beyond (our African and Middle Eastern brothers and sisters, for example), but are now appreciating how these new “blacks” in the social and cultural landscape can and should be allies.

The time for a reckoning is upon us, and it would appear that film (and film festivals like the Dayton LGBT Film Festival, celebrating its 12-year anniversary this year) may offer a means of examining and interacting positively within this burgeoning movement that requires a pivot from the personal to something broader and more representative of the true fabric and consciousness of American society.

Returning from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) where there were narratives enriched by connecting the dots between movements and peoples, I find myself looking ahead to our regional event taking place from Oct. 13 through the 15 at The Neon. Via my carefully curated experience at TIFF, I explored a host of films that captured the transformative ways in which non-heteronormative relationships expanded the definition of what it means to live a full and fully human life. It was in some of the little-seen gems – like Tali Shalom-Ezer’s “My Days of Mercy” (which was shot throughout the Greater Cincinnati region) and Joachim Trier’s “Thelma” (a Norwegian sci-fi tinged romantic drama) – that same-sex dynamics crossed over into larger discussions about the death penalty and ethical questions about dominance, control, and the greater good. Each of these films, for instance, speaks to and is rooted in a quest for social meaning, as it relates to individual identity; but they are not solely bound by this endeavor.

The label “identity politics” gets tossed around as a disparaging brand, as if there should be no reason to see and appreciate the distinctness of ourselves. And what is white nationalism, if not an identity – one that has been around since before the Civil War?

In the opening night film for this year’s LGBT festival, “Freak Show” by director Trudie Styler (an actor and producer who also happens to be the wife of Sting), Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther) devotes all of his attention to the public and personal aspects of identity. He’s a high school student in an ultra-conservative school brazenly willing to be himself, to the point of running for homecoming queen. His single-minded purpose should not blind audiences to the broader points of commonality to be found in his experience. Billy suffers the slings and arrows of the bullies in his community, at times so intimately that he loses sight of the intersections with the plight of other disenfranchised folks. But the point of the film is for us, the audience, to not succumb to the same disability. He represents a voice under the LBGT tent, to be sure, but he’s also a stand-in for universal movement and he’s taking the stage at a particularly meaningful time.

What if the film festival, as an event, is something greater than an exhibition of cinema for a niche audience? What if, based on intersectionality as the rallying point, a festival like the Dayton LGBT weekend celebration becomes an actual rally bringing together diverse identities under this banner?

“Freak Show” under the guise of a high school musical remixing the showmanship of David Bowie, Freddy Mercury, and Oscar Wilde with the satirical cunning of “Mean Girls” allows its hero to take the stage and boldly proclaim his declaration of interdependence with the multitudes of viewers before him. There is an obvious expression of personal identity on display, but also a significant cry of solidarity too.

I am reminded of a recent gathering in Cincinnati the Sunday after the appalling events in Charlottesville. The event was one of several that were staged throughout the country. The assumption, easily could have been that such a coming together would have only drawn in the black community, with Black Lives Matter at the forefront reacting to the blatant and disturbing calls for white nationalism espoused by angry crowds in Virginia. But a rainbow coalition of participants took turns speaking their truths and celebrating the more perfect union taking shape.

I saw myself in each and every one and my heart sang a new verse as each group chimed in.

But imagine how a film festival has the opportunity to make such reflections even more explicit, and the celebratory vibe that much more ecstatic. Take if you will, a picture of attendees leaving “Freak Show,” and heading over to the Mudlick Tavern (135 East Second Street) for the opening night party which kicks off at 9:30 p.m.. The movement gets a chance to nourish and fortify itself, to meet and greet the different factions and elements on hand. Prince used to advocate for everyone partying like there’s no tomorrow, but intersectionality seeks to spotlight this moment as a critical sign of the work ahead to change these fraught times.

Day Two of the Dayton LGBT festival juxtaposes the stories of two very different and quite public men within the gay community and beyond. Jennifer Kroot’s “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin,” covers the life of the creator of “Tales of the City,” thanks to testimony from friends like Neil Gaiman, Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Sir Ian McKellen, and Amy Tan. Maupin fought in Vietnam and returned to the states to partake in the forbidden thrills of the bathhouses of 1970s San Francisco. Through his insightful writing, he has served on the front lines of a cultural war in this country.

The frankly surprising aspect of Maupin’s story is that early in life, he was a strict conservative, and even a segregationist who supported North Carolina elder Senator Jesse Helms. Presenting his experiences illustrates the personal internal conflicts that must be overcome before an individual can even embrace the idea of intersectionality.

Matt Wolf’s short “Bayard & Me” precedes “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin,” looking at the later life of Bayard Rustin, one of the organizers of the March on Washington and a key figure in the Civil Rights movement who had to remain in the shadows due to his sexual orientation. By the 1980s Rustin, ever the savvy legal and political thinker, adopted his lover, a much younger man, in order to secure the legal protections of marriage. The canny move had roots that reached back to the Civil Rights movement. It could certainly be argued that Rustin embodied the ideals of intersectional thinking and philosophy long before the term became vogue.

The Top Drawer Shorts program, screening earlier in the day, provides a series of pointed snapshots of individuals (young and old, male and female, dramatically realized or full of fantastic whimsy) seeking to define themselves in key moments. As a curated whole, the characters of these brief narratives could possibly be seen in conversation with one another, sharing and debating their experiences.

Film festivals are curated; their programs designed to address constantly changing themes and issues. Small festivals, in particular, unspool like old school mixtapes, steering audiences from frame to frame in pursuit of a sustained groove. That does not mean they don’t come with emotional or psychological highs and lows? Rather it is purely intentional how the festival team wants us to experience those moments.

Why can’t movements be seen in the same light?

The Dayton LGBT Film Festival deserves this level of consideration, particularly the documentary pairing of Maupin and Rustin as subjects. It takes time and self-reflection to see how a key re-alignment like this can and should happen, a difficult task for an organization. To be fair, it’s no simple job for an individual either – just look at Maupin – but larger collectives, even with the shared identities of their members can find it daunting to right such a lumbering ship.

A major event like TIFF can seem capable of addressing the broader aspects of curation but the reality is that such programming is little more than a happy accident, due to the sheer number of films they can offer. Dayton’s festival is a niche grass roots project under the LGBT umbrella, but it could be setting an example for others to follow.

Think of it operating like an individual BLM chapter. There doesn’t need to be a unifying organizational structure overseeing what’s taking place at the local level. You present the stories and voices your audience needs to see and hear to enlighten and awaken them.

Like writer-director Shaz Bennett’s “Alaska Is a Drag” about an aspiring drag queen named Leo (Martin L. Washington Jr.) working in a fish cannery, sleepwalking through routine of fish guts and punishing fist fights alongside his twin sister Tristen (Maya Washington); when Leo decides to take boxing lessons to tilt the odds a bit more in his favor, he stumbles into a new relationship that forces him to confront the reason why he can’t break free of the bleak Alaskan landscape stifling him.

The internet and social media has rendered the world a much smaller place, but it is through film that real commonality emerges. Intersectionality has broken free of the feminist movement and film festival curation might just help to remind us that it is a cause for celebration. And the Dayton LGBT Film Festival is set to proudly wave the banner.

The Dayton LGBTQ film fest starts October 13 at 7:30 and ends on October 15 at the Neon. The Neon is located at 130 E Fifth Street in Dayton. For more information  and to purchase tickets please visit DaytonLGBT.com

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T.T. Stern-Enzi
Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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