Outfest Celebrates 40 Years Of Queer Empowerment With Billy Porter’s Directorial Debut

“It’s not about entertainment. It’s about empowerment.” That’s the motto at Outfest, the Los Angeles-based storytelling festival which is celebrating its 4oth year of showcasing queer media starting this week, with a movie premiere that proves anything’s possible.

Anything’s Possible is also the title of the directorial debut of Billy Porter, the Grammy-, Emmy- and Tony Award-winning actor, performer and activist, who took a screenplay by an out transgender woman and made it into a movie.

If watching the official trailer doesn’t make this film’s plot clear enough, here’s how Amazon Studios sums it up:

Anything’s Possible is an uplifting and delightfully modern Gen Z coming-of-age story that follows Kelsa, a confident high school girl who is trans, as she navigates her senior year. When her classmate—nerdy-but-cute Khal—gets a crush on her, he musters up the courage to ask her out, despite the drama he knows it could cause. What transpires is a high school romance that showcases the joy, tenderness, and pain of young love.”

Porter’s film opens the festival Thursday night at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A., before hitting Amazon Prime on July 22. Both Porter and screenwriter Ximena Garcia Lecuona granted me interviews in advance of opening night.

Dawn Ennis: How do you feel about debuting your film at Outfest and what does that mean for the LGBTQIA community and representation and visibility overall?

Billy Porter: It feels like coming home. One of the first films I ever starred in was Greg Berlanti’s The Broken Hearts Club all the way back in 2000. Haven’t been back since. I’m thrilled. Representation matters, and I am so blessed to have lived long enough to see the day where I, a Black queer man, get to live to the fullness of my authenticity and thrive.

Ennis: How does a brand like Outfest help support your vision?

Porter: Outfest has always been a lifeline for those of us queer folk who had no place to go. To have a queer film festival that’s 40-years-old is a testament to the fierceness of our community. Build it—and they will come.

Ennis: What does it mean to you to be honored and recognized by Outfest?

Porter: I haven’t really been able to digest the magnitude of this moment. I’m working on that. But I will say this—it was over 20-years ago when I decided to choose myself and hopefully change the trajectory of my life. I did that. And I’m humbled and geeked that Outfest sees me.

Not only does Outfest see Porter, they’re paying tribute to him: Organizers will present him with this year’s Outfest Achievement Award. Last year’s recipient was actor Elliot Page.

“It’s not just about ‘celebrity’ when we honor somebody like this. They actually have to be contributing back, whether it’s a producer, a filmmaker themselves, a director,” said Outfest executive director Damien S. Navarro in a Zoom interview. “It’s a very important box that we check, so that it’s not just—and not to put shade on any other organization—it’s not just simply getting attention for for putting over somebody that we know attracts attention. They actually have to have done the work. And so that’s really what’s exciting to have Billy and us coming together to celebrate a very big milestone.”

Porter will be honored Thursday on the opening night of the 11-day festival, which will feature 200 films and television episodes at venues around L.A. The festival will close out on July 24 at The Theater at the Ace Hotel Downtown with the world premiere of a film by another first-time director, Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan: They/Them, whose title, I’m told, is pronounced ‘They-slash-Them.”

Other big names scheduled to appear at festival events include They/Them stars Kevin Bacon and Theo Germaine and Anything’s Possible’s breakout star, Eva Reign.

Rosie O’Donnell will moderate a Q&A following a screening of the first two episodes of a new, TV adaptation on A League of Their Own, which this time around delves into queer relationships and racism. Journalist and activist Raquel Willis will deliver a keynote address. Oscar winner Julianne Moore, who starred in 2002’s Far From Heaven, will appear alongside its director Todd Haynes and producer Christine Vachon, as Outfest pays tribute to their movie’s 20th anniversary.

Special events at this year’s Outfest include the 6th Annual Trans, Nonbinary & Intersex Summit, something Navarro said will be bigger this year than ever before, by necessity, given the current backlash the transgender community is experiencing in the U.S. and around the world.

“We’re expanding what began as a smaller summit for our trans community six years ago, to now live streaming it, adding a keynote, bringing together filmmakers that are actually helping to solve their biggest challenges. At the end of the day, we need to accelerate,” he said. “That is the most important thing for me to quantify in my lifetime, over the coming years. The hunch is that if Outfest can accelerate the types of stories that we’re showcasing, bring the Trans Nonbinary Intersex Summit to the world, have it broadcast year-round, create spaces for those filmmakers, specifically carving out scholarships and the screenwriting lab submissions, to making sure that we are elevating particular stories that we are not seeing reflected, putting cash against those efforts. Those are all the ways that I hope we’re showing up for that community.”

Navarro asked himself, rhetorically, if those efforts are, in his words, “a little late?”

“Yeah, I feel like there’s a lot of queer organizations that are just now realizing, that not reflecting back various areas of our community has dramatically affected these laws that are specifically being targeted against them. And that’s really shitty, but that’s also something that we need to have accountability for, not wallow in what we could have done, but let’s actually continue to change it,” said Navarro.

There will also be comedy by out queer comic Margaret Cho and a drag show by Alaska Thunderfuck 5000. Yes, that’s Justin Andrew Honard’s actual stage name, and he also appears in God Save the Queens, a “dramedy” about four drag queens who find themselves at the same therapy retreat.

Speaking of drag, among the films this Friday night is Chrissy Judy, a gay platonic love story that premiered in Provincetown. R.I. and was named “one of the year’s best films” by Moviemaker. The film is one of those available to view virtually as well as in person.

Sunday’s big premiere is A Run For More, the story of Frankie Gonzales-Wolfe‘s campaign to become the first trans woman to run for city council in her hometown of San Antonio, Texas.

Among the documentary films is Jeannette, about a survivor of the Pulse massacre in Orlando, Fla.

Another expected highlight will be a live performance of what American Idol creator Simon Fuller calls “the first group ever to be born on TikTok:” The Future X, three singers and four dancers, each discovered on the social media platform.

English playwright and director Clive Barker will receive the Platinum Maverick Award while bounce artist and filmmaker Big Freedia will be presented with the Platinum Alchemy Maverick Award, each acknowledging their achievements in art as well as their groundbreaking social justice work through filmmaking.

Navarro revealed his own personal history in our interview, explaining why the stories of trans, nonbinary and other members of the community who overcome struggles mean so much to him.

“I was really bullied. I am a survivor of really bad abuse,” he said. “I think maybe if I hadn’t experienced my own hate in my life and being ‘othered,’ being biracial, maybe it would be harder.” He credits actor Brian Michael Smith, director Zackary Drucker and especially filmmaker, producer and actor Rain Valdez with showing him “how really hard it is” to be trans.

I asked Navarro about the focus of this year’s Outfest.

“It’s our 40th anniversary. You know, things are supposed to be bigger, better, emotional, retrospective. And it’s all of those things,” he told me. “There’s a lot of nostalgia that’s purposely built into this year. I’ve spent a lot of time with former leadership of Outfest, whether it was the board, community leaders, the executive directors, to try to uncover a bit more of our history. As in many things, there are plenty of people that were left out of that narrative, not shockingly, trans people, cis women, people of color. Surprise! Like, we have our own Marsha P Johnsons. And so I spent a lot of time going back and making sure that we documented all of the individuals that were at the foundation or what we’re referring to as the architects of Outfest. And we will be celebrating them.”

Look for my interview with Anything’s Possible screenwriter Ximena Garcia Lecuona on Thursday!

Find out more about Outfest and its many events by clicking here.

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