“I absolutely knew I was gay all my life,” says Mark Gilbert, executive director and board chair of South Florida’s recently rebranded OUTshine Film Festival. “I just didn’t know what gay was.” For the Chicago native who moved to Miami after high school in the 1970s, coming out of the closet was not exactly a straight path.
He attended both Miami Dade College and Florida International University. At the former, he underwent three years of therapy, because he didn’t want to be gay.
“The one thing I did know was that homosexuality, as it was presented back then, was certainly not the person I was. I wasn’t like Liberace. I wasn’t like Paul Lynde, the gay role models for the world [at the time]. I didn’t want to be that person,” Gilbert says. “I understood the physical side of being gay. That yeah, you could have fun. But that it could also be intimate, emotional and fulfilling — that didn’t happen until much later in my life.”
He had girlfriends throughout college and eventually married at age 24. “We had a wonderful time together. We had a family. We had the life that I always dreamed of having, but it wasn’t complete, for either of us,” he says. He now has two adult daughters, Allison and Randi, and two grandchildren Aidan and Noah. As a family, they were leaders in the Jewish community and active in theater and the arts.
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But this time was also marred by frustration and confusion, as Gilbert came to terms with his sexuality, leading a double life in the shadows.
“As I began exploring that side, each exploration led to the Pandora’s box opening larger and larger,” he says. It wasn’t until he was 27 that he shared his first kiss with a man. “I’d known him for about a year,” he reveals. “It was like everything in my world opened up. The hair stood up on my arms. I said, ‘Oh my God, this is what I’ve been missing. This is what I’ve been afraid to experience.’ And I knew once that happened, I could never put it back in the box again. I tried.”
His marriage eventually dissolved in 1992 after 14 years, and yet it was not because he was gay. There were other factors Gilbert says, and while the issue of his sexuality was never directly confronted during his marriage, he believes his wife was probably suspicious, at least the last few years.
Getting involved in what was called the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in 2001 helped him finally come to terms with who he really was. Doing so also paved the way for him to become one of the leading voices in South Florida’s LGBTQ community. Just a year after joining, he became part of the festival’s board of directors.
Gilbert says that seeing the gay experience told through film was crucial in his own development. “It’s fundamental to a good, strong self worth,” he says. “There’s something about the validation of seeing your life on screen in a respectable format, in something that makes you feel good about who you are, that gives you — and this word is probably over-utilized in the community — but gives you pride in who you are…that can’t be replaced by anything else.”
He recalls one of the first gay films he saw, starring Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean. “Here were these two men in love with each other, sharing every moment of time, living together,” Gilbert says. “That changed everything for me. I had never seen that. I didn’t even rationally realize that was a possibility. It was validating. It made me cry.”
Gilbert’s involvement in the OUTshine Film Festival led to another pivotal opportunity. The radio station Party 93.1 was in its prime as a bastion of dance music, and it enjoyed a large gay following. The program director at Cox Radio, Phillip Michaels-Trueba, understood the importance of the gay community’s support and offered the film festival a package of commercials and PSAs. There was also a half hour time slot available at 6:30 a.m. and Michaels-Trueba wanted to fill it with a gay talk show. He asked Gilbert if he knew anyone who might be a good fit, and Gilbert volunteered himself, proving to be a natural.
“If I wasn’t already out of the closet, this blew the lid off,” he jokes. “They were the first FM station — probably in all the country — to give a slot to LGBT issues, where they actually had a talk show that was totally dedicated to being LGBT, to the stuff that we deal with. They gave me free reign to do whatever. I developed a completely different style show that had never been done on radio before.”
It ran from 2002 to 2006 and eventually grew into a full hour, magazine-style show with segments on politics, community, nightlife, psychology, youth and an editorial during which Gilbert shared personal stories about his own journey. He earned the nickname Marky G. and interviewed A-list celebrities and public figures from Yoko Ono, Cher, Cyndi Lauper and Sir Ian McKellen to Janet Reno. The show naturally led to other gigs, emceeing Pride festivals in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach throughout the years. Today, there’s a plaque at the LGBT Visitor’s Center that reads: Marky G., the voice of the gay community.
Gilbert continued his work with the film festival on and off, returning in 2013 as both board chair and executive director only to find that his beloved organization was in trouble. “I definitely took over a festival that was going to be no festival. We didn’t know. When I rejoined I thought everything was great,” he remembers. “There was fraud. There were significant improprieties and accounting irregularities. The membership had declined.”
With help from Miami-Dade Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Steve Adkins, Equality Florida Miami-Dade Development Officer Cindy Brown and Jackson Behavioral Health Hospital case manager Juan Talavera, Gilbert toiled tirelessly to revive the flagging organization. “I made the decision. This festival is too important to too many people, and we’ve got to get the community behind it. I dedicated a year of my life as a volunteer to work full time for the festival,” he says.
After a year and a half, the debts were paid off, there was money in the bank and the restructured board boasted a staff of 20. Two years later, the Miami and Fort Lauderdale festivals merged into a single organization that was rebranded the MiFo LGBT Film Festival. This year, it will be rechristened once again, as the OUTshine Film Festival.
Gilbert says that this time the name will stick. “Out is inclusive,” he says. “We’re out. We shine as a community. We shine bright. Sunshine. Films shine on the screen. It has all the things you need to really build a great name and a great image.”
Miami’s 19th annual edition will take place April 21–30, and Fort Lauderdale’s 9th annual edition is scheduled for October 6–15. In addition to screening more than 65 films at venues across South Florida, the opening party is always a highlight. For the Miami edition, OUTshine is taking over the Scottish Rite building on the Miami River.
In 2018, the festival will introduce OUTshine on the Sea, a five-night Celebrity Cruise departing on February 17 and making ports of call in Puerto Rico, St. Maarten and St. Kitts. The cruise will include film screenings, private parties, a culinary component and other special events.
Gilbert can’t underscore enough the OUTshine Film Festival’s role as a voice for South Florida’s incredibly diverse LGBTQ community. “Look, we all love James Bond, and we all love the incredible so-called straight films that are out there, but there’s something really special about being in a room filled with people who are all watching themselves or a part of themselves on screen. And there’s no substitute. You don’t have to place Brad Pitt with some beautiful starlet,” he says. “Brad Pitt, the hot guy on screen, is with another guy on screen. There’s something really special about watching those kinds of movies.”
Dates for this year's festival:
Miami - April 21-30
Fort Lauderdale - October 6-15
For more information visit mifofilm.com