Tickets on sale from Monday June 27th for the 24th edition of Dublin’s international LGBT film festival – an event more vital than ever, writes MacDara Conroy

Going by the celebrations on the streets for Dublin Pride yesterday, it might be hard to imagine that in the beginnings of what was then the Dublin Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, little more than 20 years ago, homosexuality was still very much illegal in this country. It was a different time then, of innocence and ignorance, of lurid headlines and difficult lives.

In 1992, that darkest hour before the dawn, Temple Bar’s Irish Film Centre (now the IFI) provided a rallying point and a vital safe haven for Ireland’s gay communities to unite and celebrate the cinema that expressed their identities – ones that the mainstream refused to represent – in the months before Irish law would offer its own nominal protections of their selves, not just their ‘alternative lifestyles’.

But there was always more to do, as successive years of the festival – renamed GAZE in 2007 – made abundantly clear. This is, after all, the same country where we were forced to hear a marginal, sanctimonious minority cry the end of the world was nigh should same-sex marriage be made Constitutional, as it rightly was a year ago when the people had their say, and their say was a resounding ‘Yes’.

All the more remarkable was that this vote of confidence by the Irish people in their LGBT members came at what was, and is, a similar climate in many respects, politically and economically, to those dark days of the early 1990s.

The ‘Yes’ vote was in part a recognition that gay communities are integral to the fabric of life in the capital and in cities and towns throughout Ireland today. But homophobia is still a real and incipient threat to the lives of LGBT people everywhere. Orlando might not happen here, but even one assault is a violent act too many. And it happens more often than you’ll see in the media.

That’s part of the reason why Pride is so important; it’s at once a joyful expression of solidarity and a steadfast refusal to submit in the face of hate, whether snide words from the ignorant or punches and kicks from the angry and impotent. And it’s also why GAZE, now in its 24th year with a new home in Smithfield’s Light House Cinema, is still vital as a satellite safe space for Dublin and Ireland’s LGBT communities.

It’s never just been about films with gay themes, though of course much of the films programmed act as mirrors, reflecting and making visible the lived lives of LGBT people the world over.

The opening night is a perfect example of this. A special Saturday night screening of Madonna: Truth or Dare (or In Bed with Madonna), documenting Madge’s embrace of and by LGBT culture on her Blond Ambition tour, is preceded by a new documentary, Strike a Pose (Thursday July 28th, 8pm), where the male dancers she took on the road share their own experience, and what it’s meant for them since. Dancer Kevin Stea will be in attendance for what’s sure to be a thought-provoking watch.

Friday’s films for the most part take in the world view. American relationship dramas Heartland, Those People and The First Girl I Loved are joined by the similarly themed Barash, from Israel, and provocative French film Theo and Hugo. Italy’s Darker Than Midnight is a portrait of an androgynous teen seeking acceptance among fellow social outcasts, while Viva (a Spanish-language film from Irish director Paddy Breathnach) concerns the travails of a drag artist in a contemporary, changing Cuba.

The international flavour runs throughout the bank holiday weekend, with more relationship stories – Girls Lost, from Sweden; Me, Myself and Her from Italy; Finnish international co-production The Girl King; Australia’s Holding the Man; Thailand’s How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) – among some of the more arch films in the programme, such as Stephen Dunn’s fantasy-flavoured Closet Monster (Sunday July 31st, 6.30pm) and Heartbeats, from Canadian cinema’s enfant terrible Xavier Dolan, the focus of a celebration of Quebecois LGBT film that includes a shorts selection on the Sunday afternoon and a screening of Chloé Robichaud’s Sarah Prefers to Run (Saturday July 30th, 4.30pm).

DIY cinema from home and abroad continues to be the backbone of GAZE, with another varied and vibrant selection of shorts from men (Saturday July 30th, 4.30pm), women (Monday August 1st, 3.30pm) and trans filmmakers (also Monday, 1.30pm), plus a special programme to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Cardiff’s Iris Prize (Saturday July 30th, 2.30pm) as well as a choice of Irish shorts on Sunday evening (6.30pm) where the persistence of LGBT stigma comes to the fore.

Documentaries, as ever, have a significant presence in the GAZE programme. Sadly prescient in the wake of the Orlando tragedy, Robert L Camina’s Upstairs Inferno explores the all-but-forgotten murder of 32 people in an arson attack on a gay bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter in 1973. Southwest of Salem, by Deborah S Esquenazi, echoes both the 17th-century witch trials and the plight of the West Memphis Three in its story of four Latina lesbians in Texas, railroaded into prison after the gang rape of two little girls.

New York’s LGBT melting pot is seen from three different angles. Burroughs: The Movie (Monday August 1st, 3.30pm) and Uncle Howard (Saturday July 30th, 6.30pm) depict a time of cultural revolution in the Big Apple between the end of the Sixties dream and the beginning of the Aids era, while Kiki (also Saturday, 8.30pm) explores the city’s eponymous, extravagant ballroom scene a generation after the influential documentary Paris Is Burning.

Closer to home, Edmund Lynch’s A Different Country (Friday July 29th, 4.30pm) documents the hopes and fears of Ireland’s LGBT people at a time just three years ago, when last year’s ‘Yes’ vote seemed like a pipe dream.

This year’s GAZE is looking even further back, as a re-evaluation and re-appreciation of pivotal figures in Irish history in this Easter Rising centenary year, marked by the YesterGAZE screening of Alan Gilsenan’s 2002 film The Ghost of Roger Casement that will be followed by a panel discussion on Casement’s resonance 100 years on.

The state of LGBT film itself, a generation from the Dublin festival’s radical beginnings, will be up for discussion at GAZE On The Fringe on Sunday afternoon (2.30pm) as a panel of UK festival programmers share their ethos where it comes to the films and themes they choose.

But it’s not all academic. GAZE is a film festival, after all, with the audience at its heart. Hence the return of the GAZE Secret Screening (Sunday July 31st, 4.30pm), which last year proved a big hit with the Irish premiere of To Be Takei. Tickets are bound to go fast for this one, but don’t ignore the other premiere running at the same time, Real Boy: a tender coming-of-age story of a trans musician in Los Angeles, and one that might prove to be a festival standout.

GAZE 2016 takes place at the Light House Cinema from Thursday July 28th to Monday August 1st. Tickets are on sale from Monday June 27th. For more visit GAZE.ie