Rural Film Festivals Are the Next Frontier of LGBTQ Tolerance

Far from the coasts, with moving stories in darkened theaters, people's minds are changing.
April 28, 2017, 7:45pm
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

In the fall of 2015, in tiny Lewisburg, West Virginia, Tim Ward and Jon Matthews were gearing up for the second annual Appalachian Queer Film Festival (AQFF for short). Their mission was both simple and profound: to broaden hearts and minds, to change stereotypical perceptions of West Virginians, and to shed light on what it means to be queer in a rural community.

That same year, they'd received a $6,700 grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council to help fund the festival. It proved significant in helping them garner interest and participation in the festival. With that success and encouragement within the WVHC, they applied for $10,000 for their third year, to be held last October. But a few days before they applied, a Koch Brothers–funded PAC released a report lambasting the state for wasting taxpayer money on arts projects—specifically calling out AQFF for screening "films many taxpayers would find objectionable."


The report was far from an exhaustive study, the Charleston Gazette Mail reported—but it condemned spending for Medicaid, public broadcasting, fairs, festivals, community colleges, athletics, and arts programs nonetheless.

As a result, AQFF saw no public funding last year, which had been projected to comprise half their overall budget, Ward said. In October, Ward and Matthews were able to put on a watered-down version of their showcase, and remain dedicated to bringing notable queer films to West Virginia audiences.

"On Saturday we're screening Travis Matthews' Discreet," said Ward, which "follows a young man in rural Texas trying to reconcile a conservative culture and his own sexuality. While his plight is not every LGBTQ person's journey, it presents an interesting perspective worth comparing to our own."

When we think of LGBTQ gatherings and celebrations, we conjure images of Provincetown's Carnival Parade or the massive OutFest film festival in LA. But outside Christopher Street or the Castro, film festivals like AQFF and other events are playing a vital role in galvanizing rural LGBTQ communities, where opportunities to celebrate one's identity are limited—and not solely because of intolerance, as one might assume.

Rural queer communities are "often in regions where there aren't a lot of public resources," said Mary L. Gray, a senior researcher at Microsoft and associate professor at the Media School of Indiana University. "There's no public infrastructure. There's no tax base to build that—so when communities want to come together, there's literally no space to gather.


"There's no gay bar or corner queer bookstore," she continued, "so it's important that film festivals are using what infrastructure is available—an established shared public space—to bring a conversation to a community that otherwise would not have a venue." In this way, festivals like AQFF queer an otherwise universal space: the movie theater.

Every year, the Fargo-Moorhead LGBT film festival in North Dakota takes place in the city's historic Fargo Theater, a point of local pride. Paducah, Kentucky's Cinema Systers Film Festival claims to be the only entirely lesbian film festival in the US. From Greenville, North Carolina's Teadance Film Festival to Fresno Reel Pride to the Bloomington PRIDE Festival to Colorado West Pride, AQFF is far from alone in making inroads in unexpected places.

These film festivals and others queer their town movie theaters for screenings, Elk's Lodges for fundraisers, and churches for meetings. They blur the boundaries of who belongs where and who has claims to be members of one's community.

"The visibility of film festivals reminds the heterosexual members of a community of LGBTQ presence," says Dr. Katie Schweighofer, an assistant gender and sexuality professor at Dickinson College. "The structure brings cultural cachet and tourism dollars that may be useful in gaining support from hesitant community or business leaders."

Moreover, seeing and hearing a moving tale in a dark room offers one of the least confrontational ways to participate in someone else's narrative. "There isn't direct dialogue so much as a dialogue being performed for the audience," said Gray, "so it can be an incredibly rich role modeling of what kind of words can be used around these identities that otherwise is just not a part of day to day life in rural communities."


And with the inauguration of a president with a history of homophobia, it's important to remember the classism that marks many discussions about who belongs where in America. LGBTQ political leaders have for too long paid too little attention to rural communities as places to organize—and where there's more tolerance and support on offer than one might expect.

"There were so few times that we ventured into places where we knew people didn't like us," said Gray, referring to the marriage equality fight. "This is a detriment to queer politics as much as it is to the 'public sphere.' We are limiting our own capacity by presuming that wealth and the power of personal persuasion are our only ways into freedom and equality for all."

There is often a message, or perhaps it's more of an internal monologue, that LGBTQ-identifying people would or should "get out" of their small towns. While some will and can, many don't have it as an option or don't want to leave.

Dr. Schweighofer emphasized that with many of the most significant recent gains in American LGBTQ rights—Don't Ask Don't Tell, Obergefell—having come from the federal level, the time is ripe to focus efforts on rural communities.

"With the new administration signaling they will not be supporting LGBTQ communities—for example, by removing LGBTQ content from the White House websites and changing a proposed addition for adding LGBT to the upcoming 2020 census—LGBTQ communities may find themselves reliant upon local politics for positive change," she said.

Ward, now a full-time student headed towards a medical degree and still a part-time film enthusiast, has gone back to the drawing board with Matthews and their handful of private funders.

"We're taking a strategic approach and branching out into different parts of the state with one-off events, like screening a film and bringing in the filmmaker or doing a talk via Skype," he said, "in hopes of introducing the festival to people that might not have known about us before and would have an interest in driving to Lewisburg."

"As of now, we're still committed to having the larger festival in the fall, the size of which is dependent on our bottom line," he noted.

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