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Long 'Ways' Arts festival marks 20 years celebrating the gay community

So much can change in 20 years.

In 1988, a time before "Will and Grace," before "Six Feet Under" and smack-dab in the middle of the AIDS crisis, members of Buffalo's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities were either largely invisible or stereotyped beyond recognition. And while debates about gay marriage and adoption still rage and queer images in the mainstream media still carry a definite whiff of caricature, it suddenly feels a whole lot less dangerous to be out in 2008 than it did two decades ago.

That's when Ron Ehmke, then performance curator at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, launched the biennial "Ways in Being Gay" festival, a compendium of performances, screenings, artwork, theater and assorted events that dealt, in some way, with gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered identities. Starting Thursday, the festival will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a year of screenings and events that extend Ehmke's conception well into the 21st century and will culminate with a large-scale celebration in November 2009.

In an effort to reflect its history and inclusive nature, this year's festival is rather extensively dubbed "Ways in Being Gay: Ways In/Between Gender." Its ambitious original scope has diminished over the years in measure with Hallwalls' budget, and its focus has shifted with the times toward film. But it is still, as Hallwalls Media Arts Curator Carolyn Tennant said, "an event to bring people together in a safe environment where they can party and celebrate themselves and each other."

Ehmke began the festival as a way to bring Buffalo's LGBT community together in a cultural atmosphere -- something virtually unheard of then -- as well as to tap into what he called an explosion in independent art "by and sometimes for and certainly about gay experience or gay people."

He also launched the program, which included all of Hallwalls' curators at the time and a number of community organizations, "with absolute faith that there were other people like me out there, to try to provide something other than a bar -- at the time a smoky bar with loud, bad dance music playing -- for people to kind of meet each other."

The first two presentations in Hallwalls' yearlong celebration will feature films by Derek Jarman, an experimental filmmaker whose work dealt with homosexuality and HIV/AIDS, a disease which claimed his life in 1994. Thursday at the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center, Hallwalls will screen Jarman's final and perhaps most highly regarded film, "Blue." The piece, entirely without images and with contributions from the band Coil and actor Tilda Swinton, deals with both Jarman's loss of sight and his struggles with the ravages of AIDS. Nov. 20 and 21, Hallwalls will screen Isaac Julien and Swinton's tribute to Jarman, called "Derek," in the Hallwalls Cinema.

Presentations over the next year will include the film "The Lollipop Generation" by Toronto filmmaker G.B. Jones and "The Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell," on dates to be announced.

For Ehmke, who hasn't been directly involved with the festival since the early '90s, the fact that his idea is still going strong is heartening, especially in a world where community interaction seems more vital than ever.

"There is just this power -- I would say almost more now than ever -- of people getting out of their rooms, putting their computers to sleep and venturing out in public, where they can see and be seen. There's just no replacement for that."


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