There are plenty of notable LGBTQ film festivals around the country, but the best and most overlooked by our community (in my opinion) is OUTshine, which features two editions – South Beach in the spring and Fort Lauderdale in the fall. I’ve attended the festival in each city over the past couple years, and I have to give props where props are due: The films are carefully selected; they’re representative of LGBTQ life on an encompassing scale; and even though it’s held in densely populated South Florida, the festival manages to retain its micro-community feel. Here are six more reasons to attend this year.

  1. OUTshine’s foreign film selection will blow you away

If I’m completely honest, I’m a bit judgmental (and disappointed) in the LGBTQ films we produce here in the United States. Largely the plots are the same – it’s either two built-like-a-brick-shithouse dudes meeting spontaneously in (enter any city here, but probably Palm Springs) who spend a weekend exploring each other’s bodies and falling in “love” before vacation is over, or it’s a coming out story we’ve seen time and again – and that’s notwithstanding the quality of the acting and/or filmmaking, which is, more times than not, subpar. I’ve seen excellent homegrown LGBTQ films, of course, but they’re few and far between.

On the other hand, foreigners are producing standard-setting films for the genre, and the folks at OUTshine excel at choosing these well-made, dynamic stories. Countries like Britain, Germany, Iceland, Finland and Japan have all entered films that have surprised and elated the festival’s audiences – and the films have the awards to prove it. If you’re looking to shake up your LGBTQ film queue, I highly recommend French-Canadian film 1:54; the Icelandic drama Heartstone; and Argentina’s sexually curious Mi Mejor Amigo.

  1. Same goes for films about the transgender experience 

I can’t say that I seek out transgender-experience films as part of my regular viewing – we’re all creatures of habit who stick with what we know and like when it comes to being entertained – and perhaps that’s why I’m always looking forward to OUTshine’s transgender film selection. The festival’s presentations of these narratives and documentaries take me out of my comfort zone so I can learn more about gender identity, transgender issues, and the real people living through the transformative process – something I think the LGB community in general struggles to understand, whether we’ll admit it or not.

At OUTshine Miami this past spring, I was informed by the documentary Transformer, which followed Janae Kroc (who, as a male, was world-champion powerlifter and competitive bodybuilder Matt Kroc) as she navigated resistance to her transition from her parents; competing in a sport rife with homophobia, let alone transphobia; losing sponsorships; and raising three well-adjusted sons, all while trying to figure out where she fits in her new world.

Another recent favorite, which screened at OUTshine Ft. Lauderdale last October, is Japan’s first-ever transgender film Close-Knit, a narrative that skips the transition part of being transgender and dives right into the heart of a blended family that grows closer despite outside prejudice. It’s among the top five LGBTQ films I’ve ever seen.

  1. It’s a small festival that makes a big splash in the community

Compared to New York and Los Angeles, OUTshine Miami (and even more so, Ft. Lauderdale) is smaller in scale, but the festivals span 10 days and nine days each, respectively. Its partnerships run the gamut, from LGBTQ student organizations to the Stonewall National Museum & Archives (a must-visit while in town) to niche health and support groups like Latinos Salud. Sponsors, including Showtime and Regal Entertainment Group, add credibility to the festival (which it does just as well on its own), and its marketing reaches just about everyone in its host cities, especially the LGBT enclaves on South Beach.

  1. OUTshine board members are present and accessible

If ever you want to learn more about the festival, the film-selection process, how to be involved in behind-the-scenes efforts, or just geek out over your favorite festival film, you’ll have plenty of time to strike up a conversation with board members and volunteers. They attend each and every film, and they’re mingling with guests at all the OUTshine social events.

  1. You’ll have ample time to socialize with fellow cinephiles

From the moment you arrive at OUTshine, it’s party time. Each festival kicks off with an opening night film and party, followed by several other events and parties throughout the week, including mixed and segmented men’s and women’s events if you prefer homogenous mingling. Sponsors in the area also offer deals, like Hotel Gaythering for instance, which offers attendees a free drink with a festival ticket stud. Come for a drink; stay for the sauna and steam room.

  1. Beautiful beaches are a mile away 

Whether you’re attending OUTshine Miami or Ft. Lauderdale, the beaches are only a mile or so from the host theaters making it tempting and convenient to relax and catch the rays between films. You can stick with the typical shorts-and-tanks scene of course, but if you’re feeling adventurous, head on over to Haulover where you can spend the afternoon letting it all hang out as nature intended.