Would a festival by any other name feel as queer?

This March, The Murmur's Alice Minor travelled to London as a volunteer for MIX Copenhagen LGBT Film Festival. In a time when gay is increasingly okay, seasoned festival from around the world reflect on the changing role of LGBT film festivals. The decision to embrace or reject so-called 'gay normalization' evokes questions of queer radicalness versus assimilation, and the privilege required to even choose between the two

When Denmark’s first film festival to highlight homosexuality debuted 30 years ago, monogamous homosexual partnerships did not enjoy the same privileges as their heterosexual counterparts. To be openly gay was fringe, even radical, and films that depicted gay and lesbian lives were political and revolutionary.

Times have changed and homophobia is no longer accepted. Rainbow profile photos on Facebook show that it is both hip and respectable to project a pro-gay image. Most people can agree wholeheartedly with the mission of MIX Copenhagen LGBT Film Festival and still be respectable, not radical. Being gay is normal.

This is the vision for some LGBT people: to be left alone and have their homosexual relationships and transgender identities understood as normal and good. But, to others, society’s embrace of the rainbow flag seems to come with a caveat – it’s okay to be gay as long as you assimilate to a respectable, mainstream lifestyle.

“I hate that word – normalised,” says MIX Copenhagen programmer Rikke Kolding, when asked if the normalisation of gays and lesbians in Denmark was changing MIX. “What is a norm, what does it mean? I don’t want anything normalised. That’s the problem – that there is a normal.”

Queer or gay film festival – what’s the difference?
Internationally, film festivals dedicated to representing minority genders and sexualities on the silver screen are in the process of redefining themselves in this changing social landscape. While these festivals were once typically called ‘Gay and Lesbian’, today monikers such as Queer, LGBTQ, and Diversity are surfacing. Five years ago Copenhagen Gay and Lesbian Film Festival officially incorporated bisexual and transgender narratives into its mission and became MIX Copenhagen LGBT Film Festival.

Mainstream gay films are far easier to come by than films with lesbian, bisexual, or transgender themes. Both MIX Copenhagen and London’s BFI Flare operate a quota system to ensure that the L, G, and T are as equally represented as possible – there simply isn’t enough material to do the same for B.

While Queer Lisboa Film Festival constantly strives for more lesbian and transgender themes in their films, they do not use gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender as subcategories. According to festival programmer Ana David, they believe queer stories cannot be disentangled into these clear-cut themes. Trying to do so will leave out identities like intersex, genderfluid, asexual people – and more.

Instead, Queer Lisboa focuses on experimental modes of story telling that, in themselves, are queer in their rejection of normative lifestyles. This is the heart of the festival’s queerness – challenging boundaries. David also describes their audience as increasingly centred on experimental films and less on LGBTQ content.

“The (LGBT) community is normalising itself and it makes me sad – nostalgic,” David said at BFI Flare in London. “More people are thinking we should play by the rules of the system inorder to be recognised by it.”

MIX Brazil Festival of Diversity and Sexuality explores issues of race and class in addition to gender and sexuality because these identities greatly impact how sexuality and gender is experienced in Brazil today.

“In a sense, disrupting normal gay lifestyles is also a goal for us,” director Joao Federici said.

These are just some examples of how festivals relate to LGBT and queer politics. Calling a film festival queer or gay or LGBT is not merely about branding or semantics. It indicates how the festivals choose to position themselves in relation to conversations about assimilation – the choice between embracing normality or trying to dismantle the system.

Assimilation and the radical fringe 
Homosexual people had a clear collective purpose when homosexuality was illegal. Political activity centred on achieving basic safety and rights. With many of these rights achieved – at least judicially speaking – strange bedfellows have been uncovered. It turns out some people just want to be treated equally, which is code for ‘like a normal person’. This is what David referred to by, “the community normalising itself”.

The contrary impulse – to foster the radical periphery that rejects ‘normal’ altogether – is in some ways philosophically based. But it’s also deeply pragmatic. People who aren’t white, middle-class, and cisgender – or don’t’ desire a monogamous, long-term partnership – face higher barriers to being accepted as normal.

For example, transgender people who either reject the norms of a binary gender are not readily brought into the ‘hyggelig’ Danish ‘gay is okay’ embrace. Transgender people are diagnosed as mentally ill in Denmark. Non-binary transgender people are not even recognized by the health system. Access to hormones is very difficult to attain legally.

Not everyone can become a ‘normal gay person’. This is the trouble with assimilation – there will always be an outsider. There will always be someone to throw under the bus.  That is unless the goal of a social liberation movement is not to ‘be treated like normal people’ but, rather, to dismantle the ideology that defines a certain way of being human as ‘normal’.

MIX: a 30-year balancing act
Questions of gay normalisation and radical politics insinuate themselves into the year-long process of organising the 10-day-long international film festival MIX. In addition to striving for as broad representation as possible, the seven programmers who select the films are constantly weighing production value and content, while trying to keep the audience in mind.

Every international programmer I spoke to in London echoed that their festival aims to serve their LGBTQ community. This may seem like a mundane insight but it’s fundamental. Ninety percent of MIX Copenhagen’s public identifies as a gender or sexuality minority. The mission of MIX is to offer programming that gives us the opportunity to see ourselves reflected on the big screen. Educating cisgender and heterosexual people about gender and sexuality is a welcome bonus, but it is not one of MIX’s primary goals.

Kolding’s experience shows that the Copenhagen audience is, for the most part, not interested in controversial or experimental queer film. Films that cater to middleclass, respectable gay men bring in the biggest crowds and therefore the most money – seconded by their lesbian counterparts.

The goal is to strike some sort of balance in this murky jungle of film and politics that reflects as many sexual and gender identities as possible. This will be MIX’s 30th anniversary and there are numerous films that tell important stories and will push your boundaries

Should MIX deliver the cheesy lesbian and gay flicks audiences want, or push the envelope and risk being irrelevant because no one wants to pay for what’s offered? Whether you are a MIX regular or have never seen a gay film, ask yourself what you can gain from going outside your comfort zone in the cinema. Have you ever been close with two black men in love? A genderfluid kid who has to fight for their right to wear a dress? Visual media is a brilliant way to challenge our ideas of normal and expand our own possibilities. M

Alice volunteers for Mix

Mix Copenhagen – Recommended

October 2-11

Dyke Hard

This film screams of Swedish queerness. Gender? Sexuality? Boundaries? All smashed.

Margarita with a Straw

This film follows a hilarious and rebellious young woman. She is a racialised foreigner in New York who uses a wheelchair and whose speech is impacted by cerebral palsy. The film embraces how these identities intersect with her sexuality and journey.

Carmin Tropical 

This is the only feature film with a transperson as a lead character this year. There are by far more documentary submissions that examine transpeople, and most focus on transgender women.

In the Turn 

introduces us to a young transgirl’s world through the sport of Roller Derby. Queerness and transness are processed throughout the documentary as they emerge naturally.

Naz and Malik 

is a feature film following two young men as they negotiate societal and familial expectations for black, Muslim men as they fall in love.


By Alice Minor

Hailing from Seattle, Alice is working to understand Danish society through the lens of intersectional feminism.

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