Did Highmark, Caring Place Intentionally Schedule Competing Movie Against ReelQ Film Festival?

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A weekly feature on the GLCC blog highlights an important fact about LGBTQ Pgh – there are many, many “things to do” nearly every day, sometimes to the point of being overwhelmed by choices. This is a far cry from even ten years ago when a handful of monthly events were pretty much it besides events at bars.

With choices inevitably come scheduling conflicts, especially around significant events. Sometimes we find events competing for our attention.

Such is the case with Highmark and The Caring Place which have inexplicably decided to schedule a movie screening to honor National Coming Out Day – on the opening night of the 29th International LGBT Film Festival. In fact, the Highmark event is a few blocks away.

Competition can be healthy and generate creativity, innovation and inspiration. It challenges our event planners and community groups to be effective, responsive and conscious of how they build community. These are basic principles from the ‘free market’ philosophy. There are three monthly bingos, their responsiveness to one another factors into their success.

But we are more than a market – we are a community, neighbors whose relationships transcend the laws of supply and demand. Within this community, we have established institutions that have significance far beyond a simple outing or activity – they embody important touchstones in our collective identity that strengthen our resolve to push forward against what is proving to be a difficult struggle for equality. Sometimes the next great thing isn’t what’s best for us.

Reel Q, The Pittsburgh International LGBT Film Festival was established in 1982 – making it one of the oldest LGBTQ assets in the region. They have produced 28 festivals celebrating the work of queer writers, directors, producers, actors and more. Long before movies streamed into our computers, the Film Festival brought them to us on an annual basis. And even now with greater access to movies at home, the Festival continues to be on the cutting edge of queer filmmaking, as well as creating affordable access to films for those who do not have the luxury of streaming services or tools.

That’s not a legacy we should take lightly.

Now it is inevitable that we simply have to schedule other events during a 10 day film festival in the middle of October, especially as it overlaps national events like “National Coming Out Day” (Oct 11) and “Spirit Day” (Oct 16) and Allies Week (Oct 13-17) which are important events. But to schedule a similar event on opening night just a few blocks away violates the sense of fair play. It infuses what might be a schedule conflict with some of the heavy-handed competitive vibe from the UPMC-Highmark feud and that’s a form of ugly we don’t need in the LGBTQ community.

(Full Disclosure – I have scheduled an event on a Thursday during the film festival.)

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There are just some things we need to honor. This akin to Highmark launching a LGBTQ family and friends support group that just happened to meet in a church in the East End on the second Sunday of the month – when PFLAG has met since the mid-1990’s. When I was event planning, I was told repeatedly not to schedule when PFLAG met because it is an absolute lifeline for vulnerable people. I get that and I respect that there are some choices we shouldn’t force people to make.

I realize scheduling can be a challenge. But you either do the work to identify potential conflicts and figure out a workaround or you just dive in with no regard for those conflicts. Either Highmark and The Caring Foundation knowingly scheduled this event or they didn’t do their homework. It does seem odd to schedule a movie at 5 PM in the afternoon on a Friday in Downtown Pittsburgh. Perhaps even convenient that it technically ends before the Festival starts thus creating the perception that it’s not a conflict, as if 100 people are going to watch a movie at 5 then walk down the street to watch another movie at 7:30 and attend a reception? That’s a bit too convenient, but I’m the suspicious type.

The end result is a decision that shows a lack of respect for our collective history and the often overlooked work of independent queer artists, not to mention that lockjaw focus by allies on marriage equality at the expense of all else. ‘Bridegroom’ is currently streaming on Netflix. While it is a powerful story and one filled with heartache, it is the story we currently hear most often in mainstream culture – the story of love that pays a price for the lack of marriage equality. The other stories are important, too, and this is one of ten days each year when we have a chance to hear them as a community. Only ten days a year, yet Highmark picks this one for a limited showing of a movie that’s already distributed to mainstream audiences.

Highmark and The Caring Foundation made a decision that has long-term ramifications for our community. Eroding the success of opening night of the Reel Q Film Festival will hurt us all by possibly weakening the Festival. That’s no way to honor National Coming Out Day. Where are future generations of queer folks going to “come out” to if LGBTQ cultural institutions are buried by millionaire allies with good intentions and a lot more resources?

This is not how allies conduct themselves – trampling on cherished institutions and disregarding their cultural significance to today’s collective identity. Allies don’t trample. Obviously, Highmark has much, much greater resources than Reel Q. Obviously, they can fill those 140 reserved seats using the power of their massive marketing resources. Obviously, they will pull people away from the Film Festival. The point of being an ally is to use your resources and privilege to support a marginalized group, not pick them off to attend your own event.

Highmark of all organizations should understand that they need to regain the trust of tens of thousands of people who have experienced emotional damage from their war with UPMC. I’m still a Highmark customer, but I’m nowhere near confident in their ability to meet my health needs. Stunts like this don’t reassure me that they value working class and poor (and disabled) queer customers. Instead, I get the message that they, too, think it is all about marriage equality. Ironically, that’s one of the main problems with my health insurance now – the impact of marriage equality on domestic partners.

The Caring Place is supposed to be a safe space for healing and grief. While I understand their tie-in to the theme of the movie ‘Bridegroom’ I fail to understand how undermining a cultural institution furthers their mission. Mr. Rogers was the chair of The Caring Place for decades – what would he think of this anti-neighborly move? He lifted up The Caring Place as a space that surrounds people with caring and trust. Shouldn’t that include queer people, too? We are the ones hurting every day from the cultural war on our very existence. Our siblings are being killed and often not mourned. Why would you add to that burden?

I reached out to both Highmark and The Caring Place. The Highmark FB manager responded that “no offense was intended” and that they would have the event organizers get in touch with me. One organizer asked for my email address which I provided. I haven’t heard anything further. I also reached out to the corporate offices of both organizations. I’ll provide updates on that communication as they become available.

Fortunately, it is not too late. Highmark and The Caring Place can take steps to undo the damage that they’ve caused with their choices. Or they can proceed as planned, reinforcing their reputation as marketplace mavens rather than neighbors and allies to the entire LGBTQ community.

I hope they opt to be good neighbors.

 

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