This July, it will have been exactly three years since I took on the role of executive director of the 40-year-young organization we know as Outfest. As the first CEO of color, a local Angeleno, and as someone with limited experience working within the microcosm world of film festivals, I was giddy with what I might discover upon examining its history. Most of my personal memories with Outfest took place attending its namesake festival in the mid-to-late ’90s and early 2000s as a fresh-faced film school graduate.
In preparation of our 40th-anniversary celebration, I found myself diving down an archival rabbit hole encapsulating decades of LGBTQ+ culture. Names like Larry Horne, Gus Van Sant, Jamie Babbit, and Jim Fall, and the premieres of iconic queer cinema titles like Mala Noche, But I’m a Cheerleader, The Celluloid Closet, Trick, and Party Monster surfaced first. Stories of the debaucherous and sex-charged early days of Platinum (our “avant-garde” cinema program) rose quickly to the top of the butter churn like little yummy bobbles of cheese curds in the fall.
Yea, yea, yea. I know, I know all this stuff. It’s legendary and documented, I kept repeating to myself. But where is the dirt, the dish, the secret sauce? Where are the proverbial bodies buried? Wait — what happened to our line of credit? I digress.
To see images of the early days was thrilling, like back when we hosted LA Pride floats (yes, that is Nancy Sinatra in a red Corvette in 1996), naked attendees (hello Platinum!), baby Wilson Cruz, pre-Drag Race RuPaul, and same-wig-even-then Miss Coco Peru. And then there were the countless attendees, staff members, and volunteers of every color, gender and…wait, was that k.d. lang? These pictorial gems sprung from a plastic bin simply labeled “historic photos” in storage. I found myself annoyingly interrupting the staff with every new discovery. Look at this pic of Alan Cumming! And this one of Nisha Ganatra and her parents! Is that James Van Der Beek?
I, not so embarrassingly, admit to having spent many a night partying with Alexis Arquette back in my go-go box-dancing days at West Hollywood’s infamous Studio club in 1994. The photo of Alexis beaming at an untitled Outfest event unlocked a tear or two, as I wondered who else in these photos we lost too soon.
After sorting through a series of interviews with early leadership, including cofounder Larry Horne, former director of programming Shannon Kelley, mid-90s executive director Morgan Rumpf, and board president Leslie Belzberg, I kept drifting back to the question, Why Outfest? How had a tiny group once called the Gay and Lesbian Media Coalition of Los Angeles, established in the early ’80s against the backdrop of a neon-filled UCLA campus, grown into the much-beloved and internationally recognized organization it has become today?
And what alumni. Did you know the esteemed artist Catherine Opie was our first video programmer? That queer film icon Jenni Olson cofounded our renowned Sundance brunch? That our first deputy director was an Iranian woman? That there were four founders (or was it six?) and that one was a Filipina ally of color? That our first public home off-campus was a palatial historic adult-film venue called the 4 Star Theatre? That the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project, dedicated to the preservation and restoration of queer motion pictures and images, was conceived following a flood and the near-destruction of hundreds of film reels, which had been stored in our corporate basement in Koreatown? Someone needs to update Wikipedia.
My activist heart fluttered when I learned that Outfest board and staff members once staged a sit-in at a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting; they were protesting the then-district attorney’s attempts to coerce the county into defunding our organization for what it saw as “porn” being exhibited within its festival. Naughty Platinum.
For every stone unturned, there were thousands of small pill bugs of history that scurried and crawled in every direction, as if the bright light of my curious gaze would suddenly extinguish them. The themes that emerged were not surprising, considering how so much of our queer history has been erased or revised, including Stonewall, the nascent days of HIV activism, and even the Supreme Court’s early gender equality cases. Mysteriously missing from the official accounts were the dozens of mighty trans and nonbinary folks and women of color who were at the front lines of our greatest movements. Not surprisingly, Outfest has our own Marsha P. Johnsons, Connie Normans, and Pauli Murrays.
As I continue my sleuthing, I hope that I can bring to life the contributions of individuals like cofounder Claire Aguilar, our first deputy director Nazila Hedayat, John Ramirez (please call me), and the countless leaders, storytellers, and communities of underrepresented voices that were critical to the history of Outfest and who are still waiting to be discovered. Your stories will be told.
Damien S. Navarro (pictured right with Claire Aguilar, 2022) is the executive director of Outfest, an organization dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ storytelling and storytellers in entertainment, media, and the arts. The Outfest Los Angeles Summer Festival runs July 14 to July 24. outfest.org
Pictured: Platinum Partygoers Photo Bill Doggett; The Anniversary Party Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming (2001); Party Monster Seth Green, Fenton Bailey, and Macaulay Culkin (2003) Photo Angela Brinskele; Coco Peru; Nancy Sinatra at LA Pride (1996); Leisha Hailey and k.d. lang (1999); Drag Attendees (2003) Photo Angela Brinskele; But I’m a Cheerleader (1999); Wilson Cruz and Nathan Grant (2003) Photo Felix Salzman; Claire Aguilar and Damien S. Navarro; James Van Der Beek; Bound Jennifer Tilly (1996) Claire Aguilar and Damien S. Navarro (2022) Photo Vivien Killilea/Getty All Photos Outfest Archive