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Creating Positive LGBTQ Visibility in the Borderlands:  An Overview of the Frontera Pride Film Festival


service learningBrenda Risch is the Director of Women's Studies at The University of Texas at El Paso. She teaches courses in film, feminist theory and methodology, and gender studies. In addition to the project outlined in this essay, she has also co-taught a special two-week intensive "Borderland Experience" course that uses the principles of feminist civic engagement to help students learn more about themselves and their community. She earned a doctorate in Comparative Literature from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This article describes the creation of a film festival in El Paso, TX by community partners, students and the author. They developed a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and queer (LGBTQ) film festival film festival involving significant student service learning, internships and engagement with students,  community organizations, and audience members at the festival showings. The festival created opportunities for  audience members in the larger metropolitan community to view both mainstream and experimental films and interact with actors and filmmakers.  It invited students to reflect on how representations can be analyzed to understand oppression and to motivate people to action. Student reflection papers revealed that students experienced personal growth, learned about community organizing, increased respect for volunteer efforts, and gained familiarity with the wide variety of LGBTQ identities and issues.

Developing a Film Festival to Promote Complex Images of Lesbian, Gay,
Bisexual, and Transgender People

Spurred by the success of the previous year's summer lesbian and gay film series (four films and a youth creative writing workshop), Cesar Campa and Sam Aguilera, two gay activists with whom I had previously worked approached me to brainstorm ideas about how to bring lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) culture to a wider audience in El Paso. We identified the invisibility of the queer community in the El Paso/Juárez borderland as a key problem fueling hate crimes against LGBTQ individuals, recognizing that media in the region showed LGBTQ people only in highly stigmatizing occasions such as arrests of transgender prostitutes.  To increase the positive visibility of the queer community, we decided to create a film festival called the Frontera Pride Film Festival. 

We envisioned a festival that would focus on the LGBTQ community to “Build Bridges across Borders” that activated an intersectional concept of identity, not simply an appreciation of diversity informed by race/ethnicity or sexual orientation or gender identity. Other LGBTQ film festivals have successfully promoted positive concepts of LGBTQ identity within and across communities (Gamson, 1996).  We wanted viewers to understand that many challenges that affect people with non-traditional gender identities and sexual orientations also pertain to other marginalized groups. We envisioned the festival as an opportunity for open and affirming organizations to work together for a positive goal.  The festival gave residents in the region who are unfamiliar with LGBTQ life issues an opportunity to learn about them in a safe, non-threatening environment and to more fully embrace diversity and further peace and equity in the wider community.  The festival also demonstrated that many El Pasoans were willing to support a diverse cultural scene.  In order to accomplish this vision the festival needed to be accessible, affordable, and well-advertised.


servikce learningPlanning with Partners
Festival planning began in August and drew on many of my skills as a community activist and relationships developed during prior community service.  I involved volunteers and recruited working board members from a cross-section of the community, chosen for their particular expertise in crucial areas such as event planning, marketing, and graphic design.  We secured the participation of other area non-profits including all of the major non-profits serving the El Paso LGBTQ community, various open and affirming organizations and several local businesses.  The festival included a co-sponsored kick-off event at the El Paso Museum of Art, while the main festival screenings were sited at the historic Plaza Philanthropy Theater and the Downtown El Paso Library.  These locations facilitated public access, lent credibility to this new event, and stimulated the El Paso downtown economy.

As a seasoned film festival aficionado, I knew the power of film festivals and wanted to capture the opportunity for my students to experience not only the thrill of meeting and talking with famous actors and directors, the excitement of viewing films otherwise not widely available, but also the satisfaction of participating in building an event for the whole community. I developed a companion film course “Queer Cinema” at UTEP, and piloted it during the first summer session The course included some mandatory “out of class” film viewings that were part of the festival screenings. This directly linked participation in community event to the course content and positioned queer representations as local possibilities rather than remote creations happening in Hollywood.  Showcasing a wide variety of LGBTQ films turned out to be a very significant factor in this course, as evidenced by one student’s course evaluation comment that her biggest surprise in the course was, “Prior to this course I thought that the only queer films were pornographic films.” Such feedback reiterates the need for increased positive LGBTQ visibility in El Paso. 

service learningIn “Queer Cinema” I also incorporated a service learning project that revolved around participation in the Frontera Pride Film Festival (Orr, 2011). Although students could choose to complete a film festival research paper as an alternate assignment, all of the students elected to do service learning, and chose among different options for “pre-festival” and “during-festival” service. In addition, each student was required to complete reflective essays regarding their service learning experiences. 

During the spring, I created three paid internships (one in marketing, one in fundraising, and one in programming) to be sited at the festival. These internships were established through my “Social Justice Values at Work Course (SJV) / Internship” program in the Women’s Studies curriculum, the development of which was funded by the Kauffman Campus Initiative grant to foster entrepreneurism. The interns took two Women’s Studies courses (WS 3380 Social Justice Values at Work and WS 3320 Internship). The SJV course educated students about the structure and function of non-profit organizations, the fiscal realities of small businesses and non-profits, pragmatic workplace skills, and the principles of social entrepreneurship; the WS Internship sited students at community non-profit organizations with paid internships. The Film Festival interns worked 150 hours each at $10 hour, and were grant-funded for $1500, and a community sponsor funded an additional 110 hours each during the summer of 2009. The interns participated in committee and board meetings, as well as each accomplishing an individualized role with the festival, such as coordinating and soliciting film submissions. 

We used a variety of approaches to secure funding and build community ownership of the festival. I approached the El Paso City Council Members and asked for a small sponsorship from each district. I generated funds from general sponsorships from non-profits, individual donors, ticket sales, and small fundraisers and I convinced a community donor to support paid student internships.  In addition, I used the connections I had built doing community service and performing oral history research to secure in-kind donations from various non-profits and businesses, skilled volunteer board members, and fiscal sponsorship from the Frontera Women’s Foundation.  My previous work with the Frontera Women’s Foundation helped me to articulate to community sponsors and students how using this multi-faceted grassroots approach to funding and staffing the festival allowed for a wider cross-section of the community to feel personal ownership of the event.  Whether people donated $5 for a ticket or staffed a table for an hour, they felt that the festival was something to which they contributed.

service learningCreating Content to Stir Discussion
We included a variety of film genres and lengths that addressed LGBTQ issues artistically and with a focus on lived realities. Programming Chair, Lisa Garibay, and I selected special guests who addressed issues relevant to the borderland community.  Two of the invited guests, Octavia Spencer and Tate Taylor—a large woman of color and a gay male director respectively—presented their film Pretty Ugly People.  The film questions the simplistic view that “beautiful = good” and that changing one’s appearance to fit current beauty norms improves one morally.  It challenges the viewer to consider the importance of personal qualities of kindness, self-acceptance, and patience, to ponder the true nature of friendship, and to disconnect the link between appearance and moral fitness.  A film that brings the topics of sexism, racism, sizeism, classism, and homophobia to public discussion was particularly relevant in El Paso because it gave viewers many avenues through which to understand how discrimination violates the inherent dignity of a person.  We arranged opportunities for the guests to discuss the film with viewers and to meet with students and community members informally to discuss their vision of the film and its multiple themes. 1 

service learningSpecial guest Eva Moss, who presented her work as a producer and documentarian in the film Don’t Ask also showcased a narrative that about U.S. military service members who had been discharged from the armed forces for being homosexual under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  Two screenings of Don’t Ask were scheduled to allow a larger audience and more discussion. In this instance Ms. Moss’s filmmaking directly promotes social change and gives voice to those whose stories have rarely been heard. Don’t Ask, among other films included in the festival, addressed how gender identity and sexual orientation might cause misunderstanding, conflict, and negative consequences for people with family members, employers, and spouses. Such experiences are often very traumatic; presenting these issues in documentary and fiction films allowed community members unfamiliar with these issues to think about and discuss them in a safe context, as well as giving voice to those who had personally experienced such treatment in the military.  Don’t Ask was especially relevant because El Paso is the site of Fort Bliss, a major military base, the community includes many current and former military personnel.  Many community members reported that the film helped them better articulate their experiences to others and inspired them with hope for change. 

Assessment of the Service-Learning Project and Internships
We assessed the students’ learning through their reflection papers, classroom participation, and course grades. Student reflective essays addressed their learning from planning and staffing the film festival as well as watching films with El Paso community members. Themes that students wrote about included their personal growth, increase in familiarity with the wide variety of LGBTQ identities and issues, deeper understanding of homophobia and heterosexism, respect for volunteer efforts, and learning about community organizing. 

service learningThe festival created opportunities for community engaged scholarship for student interns, since the research that students performed directly applied to a community project. The Programming Intern, for example, researched films accepted for the festival, introduced films before they screened, and facilitated a question and answer session with a film producer and the audience. Intern reflections at the end of their internship indicated that students had learned significant lessons about their own strengths in relation to intellectual contributions in the workplace, as well as gaining personal insight on their own desire and direction for future community engagement. 

Looking back on the festival, it is clear how it was a major project of feminist civic engagement that included scholarship, teaching, and service, weaving together university and community in a complex symbiotic relationship. The Frontera Pride Film festival contributed to improving positive visibility for the LGBTQ community and creating stronger networks among many organizations that have produced both other film festivals and continued community collaborations.  Student service-learning both made the work of the festival possible and engaged students in community organizing.

1. Indicative of the quality of their work together, both Ms. Spencer and Mr. Taylor were nominated for Oscars for their next joint film project, The Help.  Ms. Spencer won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.  

Gamson, J. (1996). “The organizational shaping of collective identity: The case of lesbian and gay film festivals in New York.” Sociological Forum, 11(2), 231-261. 

Orr, C. on behalf of The Teagle Working Group on Women’s Studies and Civic Engagement. (2011). "Women's Studies as Civic Engagement: Research and Recommendations." Teagle Foundation White Paper.

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