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The Outfest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival turns 30 this week, but in the beginning, Outfest wasn't Outfest; it was a one-shot weekend of screenings and lectures held at UCLA.

It was 1981 and Larry Horne was a graduate film student working on his Ph.D. By phone from his Manhattan home, Horne, 54, admits with a laugh that he never got around to finishing his dissertation. “Outfest, although we didn't call it that at the time, came along and swept me away.”

The festival began with him making this casual query to friends: Why doesn't Los Angeles have a gay and lesbian film festival like San Francisco and New York? Along with fellow graduate students Claire Aguilar, Chris Berry, Don Diers, Geoff Stier and John Ramirez, Horne decided to stage a mini version on campus.

“It was a struggle at first,” Horne says. The university administration was not thrilled at the idea of using campus funds for a gay event.

Horne was insistent, and the event, which gained the backing of UCLA Film & Archives director Robert Rosen, featured screenings of films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Kenneth Anger, as well as a talk by film historian Vito Russo (The Celluloid Closet).

Emboldened, Horne began talking to friends about leaving the protected environs of UCLA and “taking this thing into town,” he recalls. “Let's start a real film festival.”

With this wish, the Gay and Lesbian Media Coalition of Los Angeles, later redubbed Outfest, was born. It was 1982, thirty summers ago.

Horne began working for the festival full-time, and for several years screenings took place at the infamous Four Star theater in Mid-Wilshire — an on-again, off-again porn theater that rented cheap.

“Can you believe it?” Horne says happily. “A porn theater! It was perfect.”

The setting may have been appropriate for a renegade festival, but it helped draw the ire of skittish public officials. Horne and the festival received a threatening letter from an L.A. County lawyer, warning of prosecution if the festival showed “obscene material.” Horne was delighted. “My response was, 'This is juicy. Let's call the press! Let's call the ACLU!' ”

Things escalated to the point where Horne appeared in front of the L.A. City Council with a petition demanding it reinstate county funding that had been pulled. “It was all pretty crazy,” he recalls, “but it was fun, too. We had always wanted to place the festival within a political and cultural context, and here they were, doing it for us.”

It's a safe bet that Outfest won't be receiving threatening letters from the city this year, or in the future. The festival has become an L.A. institution, as much a part of the summer season as concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. Although there will be special events at Redcat, the Orpheum Theatre and the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, most of this year's screenings will take place at Outfest's longtime home, the Directors Guild of America Theater.

Horne credits the association with the DGA, dating from 1989, as solidifying Outfest's legitimacy. “By being there, on the border of West Hollywood, we found an audience early,” he says. “The festival had a central place to develop, to grow.”

Legitimacy also brought Outfest the prize that every struggling festival seeks: sponsors. In New York, where he has lived for the past 13 years, Horne makes his living by finding money, both governmental and corporate, for arts organizations and youth assistance groups. He loves the work, yet ironically, it was Outfest's growing dependence on sponsors that led Horne to leave the organization. He landed the festival's first big supporter, Absolut Vodka, early on, but as the years went by and the organization grew in size and budget, the increased need for big-money sponsors began making him nervous.

“I still wanted to spend the day talking about films,” Horne says. “I was very chagrined about it all at the time. Now I can see that Outfest is no different from any other arts organization. It has to cultivate sponsorship in order to survive. It's the way of the world.”

That's as close as Horne will get to speaking ill of the festival with which he cut ties so long ago. While we've been talking, he has retrieved his box of festival clippings and memorabilia. “Ah, man, now I'm going to spend the rest of the night going down memory lane,” Horne says, laughing. “I guess I'm a proud papa.”

See the rest of our Outfest coverage:
Outfest 2012 Preview: 9 Films to See
5 Gems From Outfest History