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Queer film project ousted from Women’s Art Festival

Rejection of application tumults into accusations of homophobia and threats of a boycott.

When Reelout Arts Project, an organization that hosts Kingston’s largest and longest-running queer film festival, applied to participate in a women’s only arts and crafts fair, they were rejected for not fitting the application criteria.

The rules posted on the Women’s Art Festival website states that only women who are promoting their own art pieces are allowed to apply – a mandate that the festival has been following for the past 30 years.

The Women’s Art Festival is a queer positive space and is known as a social gathering place for Kingston lesbians. Maureen Addie is the music coordinator of the festival and has been working behind scenes for the last 15 years.

“The whole reason this festival has survived for thirty years is because we have kept our mandate so simple and narrow,” says Addie. “The Women’s Art Festival is one of the biggest events of the lesbian social calendar in Kingston. It is one of the most queer positive events of the year.”

With that in mind, the Directors of Reelout, as part of their three-year strategic plan to reach out to a larger community, selected the Festival and in early July applied, as an organization, to participate in the festival. Matt Salton, the Festival and Programming Director – and a man – filled out, signed and sent in the application form on behalf of Reelout.

That simple act of applying started a chain reaction of misunderstandings that has ended in accusations of homophobia and threats of a festival boycott.

Reelout issued a press release on 8 July stating that they were shut out by the Women’s Art’s Festival. One of the reasons stated was that Shirley Dowell, one of the festivals coordinators tasked with shifting through hundreds of applications, did not want people “flaunting their sexuality.”

“We are really not going to let that slip by – this is someone who is vetting these applications based on sexuality,” says Salton.

In a phone call with Xtra, Salton said that he received a voice message from Dowell saying she couldn’t understand why a man was applying at a women’s festival and that it wasn’t the right fit. When Salton phoned her back, Dowell kept emphasizing that it was a women’s festival.

“I said yes, I get it, I have a penis – can we move on?” says Salton.

It was then that Dowell told Salton that the festival was not a big fan of people flaunting their sexuality and that Reelout was not the right fit for their festival, especially with children around.

Dowell also related an example of being upset by a woman artist who made vulvas from paper maché – another sexual taboo for the arts festival and one that points to Dowell’s lack of open-mindedness when dealing with issues surrounding sex, sexuality and female genital parts.

“This situation was not well handed,” says Addie. “She [Dowell] wasn’t speaking for the collective although she did consult with some of the other women at the meeting. What they agreed with is that the application couldn’t be accepted because it didn’t fit our criteria. But when she [Dowell] went back to talk to Matt, she voiced her own opinions about things and clearly that was hurtful and wrong.”

It was a move that lead Reelout to issue the press release and write letters to various organization in Kingston including Queens University women’s studies, Kingston Pride and HIV regional services – who received funds from the Women’s Arts Festival in 2009.

Since then Reelout has received letters of support while Dowell has received hate emails and at least seven women’s groups have threatened to boycott the festival.

“I would be very upset if the livelihood of the women participating in the festival every year had to be affected because of one persons ignorance,” says Salton. “I don’t think people should boycott it but I do think that people who make these outrageous comments should be educated and, if anything learn from their mistake.”

Addie, on behalf of the Women’s Art Festival collective, wrote Salton a letter in response to Reelout’s press release that outlined the reasons the application was rejected – the application was not sent by a women, the festival does not accept promotional booths and there was no power supply to show films.

Addie, who is a lesbian, wrote that Dowell’s response to Salton “were not well-phrased, and were even offensive.”

Addie and Dowell are now working on a written apology to Reelout in the hope that the misunderstanding will be laid to rest.

The Women’s Art Festival will still be held on August 15 at City Park in Kingston. The one-day festival will highlight women’s arts and crafts with 20% of the sales going to women’s organizations that have applied to the Festival for funding.

Reelout will be conspicuously absent from the festival but they will have a written and public apology from Dowell and a feather in their cap for not tolerating any offensive remarks.

The Directors of Reelout will continue with their strategic plan to reach out to other communities. But the next time they apply to participate in a festival they might read the application guidelines before submitting their application – to make sure they fit the criteria.