For 40 years, Outfest has trailblazed a path as one one of the only global LGBTQIA+ arts, media and entertainment organizations that champions artists, communities and filmmakers to transform the world through their stories, while also supporting the entire lifecycle of their career. Among its lineup of year-round programming events is the Outfest Legacy Awards, which is not just a celebration, but also a fundraiser that benefits the Outfest Forward young filmmaker and professional education courses, screenwriting labs, leadership training, trans-acting workshop and Outfest UCLA Legacy Project film restoration and preservation program.
This year, the Outfest Legacy Awards will honor Janelle Monáe (Trailblazer Award), Star Trek (Visionary Award), Glamazon (Guardian Award) and Outfest Deputy Director Kerri Stoughton-Jackson (Jonathan Howard Legacy Award). Ahead of the big night, Stoughton-Jackson opened up about her time with Outfest, the importance of celebrating and future hopes for the industry.
You’ve been part of Outfest for more than two decades. What kind of progress have you seen in the industry and the organization during that time?
One year at Outfest Los Angeles, one of the centerpieces we played at the time was a documentary called Southern Comfort and it was basically looking at trans women that lived in the South. I remember when it was chosen as a centerpiece documentary and it was a huge deal. One, it was the way the story was told in this documentary, but two, it was just the subject matter felt very ahead of its time, for lack of a better way of saying it. And this organization really championed that film. It was a long time before we saw a film of that significance. It wasn't that there weren't other films, but the significance in telling that story compared to where we are now [is huge]. We're in our fifth year of our Trans and Nonbinary Summit that Outfest has been putting together during Outfest Los Angeles, and the ways we see that storytelling happening and when we look at what's happening around our country.
We have Laverne Cox on the cover of Time and this trans rights moment that was happening. And then what we inherently see in history, what we're seeing now is that pushback. But that pushback is happening because we've taken steps forward. These stories have been told. Trans and nonbinary people are living their lives differently because our community has allowed that to happen and they're taking their voice out to make that happen. And so we're seeing that pushback.
Outfest has been celebrating its 40th anniversary throughout the year. Does taking the time to look back and appreciate these milestones help you remember that progress is still possible in spite of that pushback?
On a personal level, I don't always feel that way every day. But it is that Martin Luther King Jr. statement (which I think is actually a derivative of somebody else), but the arc of history is long and it moves toward progress. I look back at my time here and I look back at the time of the organization and I think of those students at UCLA who founded the first summit before it was even a real organization because they needed to see a positive image of themselves. And I can turn on the TV anytime now and see that. I talk with volunteers, I talk with young filmmakers, I talk with young people that are coming through some of our programs and their sense of identity is so far beyond from when I was a kid or when I came into this organization and who was here and the stories that they were telling. We're so far beyond the traditional coming out stories. Even when I first got here 20 years ago, it was still very much a part of that. I feel like, yes progress has happened. And it is an arc and it is long, and you have to dig in for the long haul of it. This particular moment in history, I would say personally and from what I hear from people— and I think for people doing the work, whether it's our organization or or other organizations— I think it feels particularly difficult because it feels like it's coming from the Supreme Court, from Florida, from local governments to a national situation. I think that daily beat of it feels hard. But I think it feels hard because we've also had the progress. I think the hard used to be just to come out and be out and live your life and not feel like you were gonna get beat up. And there are people that are getting beaten up and killed still. That is happening. I don't mean to dismiss that. But I do think that when you look back over time, it is the work that this organization is doing, the work that other organizations are doing that you feel that history allows for some hope.
What are your hopes for the future?
I’m excited to see Outfest continue to grow. And I think the way Outfest grows is we support storytellers telling truthful stories. And also, another piece of this is that this is an industry that still has to have stories greenlit or funded. That happens— to steal the Hamilton phrase— when someone's in the room. And so it matters that we have LGBTQIA people that are in rooms making decisions about stories that are being told, characters that are included and what we're seeing in any narrative place. It's this fascinating conversation that's happening whether it's with some of these historic novels that retell the story with a cast of different ethnicities. People are like, “Oh, it has to look a particular way.” Well, it doesn't have to look that way. It's whoever is shaping that story tells that story that way. That's where I think it matters is that we're in those rooms where the decisions are being made, and that's where I see the industry making the most progress is to make sure that those rooms are as inclusive as possible. Truly the last bastion is when we really see executives in this industry really reflect how this country looks in all different kinds of ways across all genders, across all sexualities and across all ethnicities, and we’re still not seeing that.
What are you looking forward to about the Outfest Legacy Awards?
One of the things I love about the Legacy Awards is that within the cycle of what Outfest does during the year is this real moment for us to not only honor what Outfest does during the year and the difference that it has made, whether it's in the last year or over time, but also in the people that we are able to honor and to have a moment where for a sole night, it is looking at the impact people are making within the industry at whatever level those honorees are coming in and doing the things that they're doing. Janelle has just done amazing things with her career, as a musician, as an actress, as an advocate across many areas of her life, of her own intersectionalities that has had a deep impact on so many people. I remember seeing her at the Grammys and just the way her music style started, she was just unconventional from the beginning. She was authentically herself from the very beginning. And it's great to be able to honor her in that way this year. But that's what the Legacy Awards does is it gives us a moment to shine a spotlight on the impact whatever that is at whatever time
And the work that Glamazon is doing for nonprofits and to include ours is really significant. Those employees are putting their advocacy and the dollars behind supporting the things that matter to them. And it's nice to see the work that they've done and to be able to take a moment to spotlight.
We'll also be able to honor Star Trek and that and that great franchise…That's a franchise with a long history of both actors and storylines across all the different mediums, whether it's through the television shows or the films, that it's just wonderful. They're really in a new frontier of telling stories.
What does receiving the Jonathan Howard Legacy Award mean to you?
Personally, it's super meaningful because when I first started here, Jonathan was on the board. At the time, we had a committee that was putting together the opening night of Outfest Los Angeles each year. And so I have worked closely with him over the years and I, frankly, was a central person in us wanting to honor him. Last year, we gave him that award. I was the advocate for that and honoring his tremendous work as our longest serving board member and the way that he has, over time, brought so many people to this organization through his love and passion for Outfest. And how he tells his own personal story, Outfest is really woven into that.
I'm so humbled to receive this award and to think that my experience here is rippling out in the same ways. It just is a true gift of a lifetime. I started as a volunteer, and so my experience was always the volunteers and through people that were coming to the festival. And then when I started to work here, I started to work with the filmmakers and screenwriters and storytellers. But Outfest— whatever it is: Outfest Fusion, Outfest Los Angeles, other programs— is about the communities that we create and how that ripples out. And so to feel like I've been a part and have made a difference in all the different communities and to be seen that way is really meaningful to me and my life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Jheyda Mcgarrell; Courtesy of Outfest)