Church Street through Toronto's gay village egies of making visible selected parts of the city.

Trans-lations: Transgender Film Festival, Seattle, is a part of the surge in transgender film festivals, distinct from the lesbian and gay ones.

A screening of Midi Onodera's short film Ten Cents a Dance provoked what has become infamously known as the “lesbian riot” at the San Francisco LBGT Film Festival.

25th anniversary of the London LGBT Film Festival, with the poster that suggests perhaps a multiplicity of tastes in happy unity with one another.

Poster from the White Party, Palm Springs, a well-known “circuit party,” usually indicated by a color, specific type of dance music, large number of gay party goers, lasting more or less nonstop over a long weekend with plenty of recreational drugs and sex, and often held in a sunny location.

Imagine+Nation in Montreal, Canada, combines two words to form one while superseding the linguistic challenges of its bilingual host city.



On the fifth characteristic, Foucault writes,

“Heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable.”

Unlike the freely accessible public place, people enter certain heterotopias via compulsory entry, as in Foucault’s example of the prison or psychiatric ward and sometimes with rites and purification. Other heterotopias appear to be open to all but “generally hide curious exclusions” (26). Foucault specifies,

“Everyone can enter into the heterotopic sites, but in fact that is only an illusion—we think we enter where we are, by the very fact that we enter, excluded” (26).

Entry into the space may give the appearance of admittance but other forms of exclusion may be at play. Transgender activist and historian Vivienne Namaste gives the poignant example of the experience of transgendered people in Montreal gay bars, who are restricted to serving as entertainers for gay men, if they are admitted into the spaces at all. Also, if and when a particular bar or dance club enforces a gender preference or other preference at the door, perhaps dress code or look, such restricted admission is common to many types of dance clubs (Namaste 2000). Evidently, physical entry into the site does not guarantee full admission.

Diverse cultural codes must be learned and practiced. For a compelling film example, consider a young Al Pacino who plays a police officer with a girlfriend in the infamous Cruising (USA 1980). He goes undercover as a gay man in order to infiltrate the underground gay S&M leather scene in New York City to solve a series of murders.

William Friedkin's film Cruising provides a compelling yet controversial study of coded spaces and infiltration, as Al Pacino's character goes undercover to catch a serial murder who has infiltrated the gay S/M world in New York City.

Cruising shows us how the detective learned the specific codes of this subculture to pass, which made the film highly contested in the early 1980s, for many gay activists understood it then as a prescription and justification for further violent gay-bashings or worse.[20] [open notes in new window] Not only was this idea of infiltration contested but also the particular nature of the representation of the gay culture, particularly the fear that the larger public would take the highly specialized underground sado-masochist leather world for the whole. The cost of admission was deadly for some; the serial murder narrative in Cruising, in which an infiltrating killer targets the S/M community, effectively brings out the complexity of highly coded social spaces and their negotiation on the screen and off.

Curiously, film festivals also have restrictions through their prices of admission and levels of access. Film festivals of any type have a highly structured hierarchy of admission. There is quite a variety of levels of participation possible marked by the color of a person’s festival pass. Of course, the physical entry of the individual-ticket holder into the screening does not guarantee full admission to the larger festival. Such large, expensive events always entail a delicate play between economic, social and cultural capital. A celebrity, recognized film critic, famous director, major donor, et al., are granted access to a special social circle, which excludes less known others.[21] [open endnotes in new window]


Pedro Almodovar with Penelope Cruz at Cannes 2009. Cannes first, then to the LGBT film festivals, among others. Bruce LaBruce, with Kelly Calabrese, LA Zombie premiere at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), no longer starting at the DIY exhibition sites of earlier years.
Greg Araki's Kaboom premiere at Cannes Kaboom poster with Cannes logo. As filmmakers gain recognition, their publics multiply and grow in members.

Furthermore, with theer added explicit emphasis on sexualities, lesbian and gay film festival bring with them a range of cultural codes and identities, which aim to reflect the diversity of queers locally and internationally. As a result, one trend in lesbian and gay film festival programming is to sequester the spectators according to gender, generally presupposing that the boys will want to see boy films, the girls girl films. This enforces a reduced version of the politics of representation. Simply put, you are, want to become, or desire to be with whoever is on the screen before you. The consequences of this kind of programming let to the so-called lesbian riot at the San Francisco’s festival in 1986, which has been studied widely.[22] At the 1986 San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, one of the dedicated programs of films by and putatively for lesbian festival-goers was disrupted by frustrated members of the audience who had been expecting to see films of women but were surprised by a short triptych film with heterosexual, gay and lesbian sections. As Marc Siegel describes the screening,

“The catalyst for the explosion was the screening one evening of Midi Onodera's TEN CENTS A DANCE (PARALLAX) at the close of a lesbian shorts program at the Roxie. TEN CENTS A DANCE is a 30-minute film divided into three sections, each of which depicts two people either discussing, having, or discussing as having sex. In the first section, two women at a dinner table in a Japanese restaurant discuss the possibilities of having a sexual relationship together. In the second, two men have sex in the stalls of a public bathroom.” (1997)

Siegel continues,

“At the Roxie that evening, the film progressed no further than the second section, the one depicting male-male sex, when some women in the audience became incensed. They stormed out of the theater, yelling and disrupting the screening for the other audience members. Frameline,[23] whose staff was verbally harassed during the riot, responded with a community forum a few months later on lesbian representation within the festival.” (1997)

This example is but one of many that test and realign the queer film festival’s sense of community from within its lived, social site, or in Elsaesser’s terms agora. The spontaneous protest, certainly informed by a style of programming along with the heightened expectations that accompany it, is not isolated but one rather extreme tactic by which members of the public may on occasion voice their concerns, however critical. Importantly, such actions compelled the lesbian and gay film festival to change and sharpen its rules of programming, effectively its ethics of exhibition, under the umbrella of liberal pluralism.[24]


Foucault finally posits “a function [for the heterotopia] in relation to all the space that remains.” He states,

“Either their role is to create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory […]. Or else, on the contrary, their role is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled” (27).

The first role of heterotopic space is to use illusion to prove the real illusionary, e.g. the brothel, while the second role is to create a perfect real space, e.g. religious colonies. A similar tension might be broadly posited between the worlds of the gay bathhouse or circuit party[25] and social activists or their groups.[26] Lesbian and gay film festivals would fall somewhere in between. On the one hand, they reveal the strange illusionary aspects of society’s norms; on the other, they propose a variety of idealized identities and counterfactual worlds. The festivals are composed of the tensions between the conceits and deceits of the illusionary, its fabricated space and time, and its idealized and represented identities—altogether replete with contradictions.

Just as the early 1990s hailed the arrival of the crossover films of the New Queer Cinema, during the same decade in North America and Western Europe marketing trends developed the notion of the financially lucrative “gay niche.”[27] In a sense, the marketplace came to recognize the existence and arguably the legitimacy of gay culture after decades of public stigma and the first decade of the AIDS crisis. According to Sender among others, along with the lobbying efforts of lesbian and gay business insiders, corporations began to sponsor in a concerted effort events and advertise in LGBT media publicly, calculating that the risk of the loss to the social conservative boycott threats would be much less than the potential gains from certain demographics within the LGBT community.[28] This marketing logic made its way into tourism discourse, which in turn informed the decisions of many city councils on how to develop and financially exploit the hypothetically lucrative local gay niche and integrate it into the overall image of the city as a desirable welcoming destination for moneyed lesbians and gay men. The local gay villages were decorated with rainbow flag motifs, pride parades were expanded and transformed from community-oriented to product-placement, large circuit parties were promoted, even LGBT film festivals among other organizations attained greater visibility and grants. One clear consequence of this logic is that by presupposing a certain ideal type of lesbian or gay man, other types were automatically deemed less desirable. Cities were convinced that the pink dollar was worth courting, taking the principle of visibility as their guiding principle, which signaled a marked shift away from policies of moral indignation (shame, reticence and avoidance)[29] to those of enthusiastic capitalist embrace of new-found opportunities (Sender 2004; Bell 2004; Binnie 2004).

These trends in marketing and cultural policy are part of the overall enabling technè that work to constitute the festival and help to account for some of its changes. The significance of the choice of site in the city is highly practical and important: where the festival is held and how that can influence who attends the festival, and with what degree of comfort. Many questions come to mind in this respect: How does the choice of city, district, neighborhood, and its familiarity matter? And to whom? The politics of space do matter to this conceptual approach to community. For example, in many contemporary cases, a typical commercial multiplex is transformed by its suddenly changed public, which the festival brings to life.[30]

Heterotopias are not incommensurable with the notion of gay space, which carries with it substantive sexual and gender identities. Gay or lesbian space as a concept presupposes certain static relations. Alongside the spaces of sexual identities, however, process-oriented queer space or the queering of places into other places is centered on the concept of performativity. Thus, to think of queer space as not simply wherever LGBT bodies are would relax the requirement of substantive identity but would not disallow it. This concept also articulates some of the stranger relations that take place at such festivals. That is, people and their actions here and in time constitute the spaces in a complicated relation to the given buildings, architecture, commerce, laws, advertising, etc. While the concept of gay space specifically speaks to the space of identity, the concept of queer space addresses and uncovers the strangeness of the cultural formation, its presuppositions, and its participants. Together, they nuance the evolving heterotopia of the lesbian and gay film festival.

In summing up my position, I strongly suggest that Foucault’s concept of heterotopia enables a rich theoretical articulation of the space of the lesbian and gay film festival in all its activists’ plights, internal and external contestations, vicissitudes and transformations over the decades. To be sure, the concept may be used to probe different types of film festivals, but the uniqueness of the LGBT film festival emerges. It would be difficult to compare it with, say, a thematic film festival on fantasy or bicycling and bicycles. Simply put, the stakes are quite different. The unique place of community as a consequence and as a rhetorical moment within the queer film festival as a lived site remains, on the one hand, open for analysis and, on the other hand, symptomatic of larger discourses at play in and about any particular festival. Recalling Foucault’s figure of the mirror, the festival in part constitutes and in part distorts its public in its complicated chain of fleeting representations, resemblances and identifications. Its hybrid sexuality intermingling queer and substantive identities will remain a volatile mixture, as the attempted festivals in Sarajevo, Belgrade, and St Petersburg have recently demonstrated.

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