Want to know more about the "gayby boom," the trend of gay couples having babies that is sweeping the nation? Are you curious about the social issues gays and lesbians face daily?

You could take a Learning Annex course - or have a blast watching dozens of stimulating films at the 15th annual QFest (formerly the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival) now through July 20.

QFest, which brings screenings, parties and star and filmmaker appearances to various Center City venues, offers 108 films, including 45 shorts and 63 features.

Festival artistic director Ray Murray said the work of the gay movement to combat prejudice over the last four decades has had one ironic result. Today, more films with gay themes are accepted by mainstream audiences, but this also has taken these films out of festivals specifically targeted to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

In addition, Murray said, the rise of gay-centric cable stations such as here! and Logo also has meant a drain on specialty fests.

But don't write off the local fest just yet, organizers say.

"Every year, someone asks me about the demise of queer cinema. But there will always be a need for audiences to see themselves on screen," said associate artistic director Carol Coombes. "What has changed is the polish and quality of gay and lesbian cinema over the past 15 years."

Coombes said more films deal with new and unique subject matter and genres.

"Films in the '80s and '90s were [made] in response to HIV and [issues that involved] coming out. There were hardly any transgendered films, for one," Coombes said, adding that there has been an explosion of themes and genres.

Critics say the Hollywood musical is back, what with the success of Moulin Rouge, Chicago and the High School Musical films. But the genre has never been out of favor in gay film fests. The Big Gay Musical, which will have its world premiere at QFest, is about the lives and loves of the members of a New York theater troupe preparing to stage a musical called Adam and Steve, Just the Way God Made Them.

H.P. Mendoza, who made a splash with 2006's Colma: The Musical, which he wrote, scored and starred in, adds director to his resume with Fruit Fly, a joyous pop-tune tribute to San Francisco that follows a Filipino performance artist on a quest to find her mother.

Mendoza, 32, also will be presented with the Rising Star Award.

"I'm flattered. Really, really flattered," Mendoza said. "I was shocked, actually. . . . I don't know who they normally give awards to, but this is only my directorial debut."

The Filipino American filmmaker said he has tried to represent both Asians and gays in his work. He said Colma was criticized by some for "not being gay enough" and by others for "not being Asian enough." He hopes Fruit Fly will appeal to both audiences, "I really do feel I made it as Asian as it is gay."

QFest features a handful of films about the gayby boom. Swedish helmer Ella Lemhagen's touching and at times hilarious dramedy Patrik, Age 1.5 is about a gay couple who sign up to adopt a baby boy. Because of a typo in their paperwork, they get an intensely homophobic 15-year-old juvenile delinquent who systematically terrorizes them. Don't worry, there's a happy ending. Canadian feature The Baby Formula is a fun faux-documentary about a lesbian couple who bypass men entirely by using advanced biotechniques to become pregnant.

The fest boasts 12 documentaries, including the fascinating Pop Star on Ice, an examination of the life of Coatesville-born figure skater Johnny Weir. The cleverly constructed documentary leaves open the question of Weir's sexuality, which the star does not discuss.

(Weir will be on hand for a chat after tomorrow's screening of the film.)

On a more serious issue, City of Borders looks at the conflicts between Jewish and Palestinian gays and lesbians in Jerusalem and the leaders of the city's Orthodox Jewish community. It reveals how some Israeli parents are less shocked that their sons and daughters are gay than if they are dating a Palestinian.

Documentarians and activists Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson address the persistence of homophobia in small-town America with the stunning docu Out in the Silence, which focuses on Wilson's hometown of Oil City in Venango County in western Pennsylvania.

It all started when Wilson, who married Hamer in Canada, ran a wedding announcement in the local paper.

"There was a flood of negative letters to the editor which said the paper should not have published it and that gay marriage should never be recognized," said Wilson on the phone from Washington, D.C., where he and Hamer live. "One of the most interesting attacks came from a fundamentalist minister and his wife," said Hamer. "Over the course of the next three years, we actually became friends with them. They underwent an incredible transformation when they got to know us as people."

When Hamer and Wilson began chronicling these events, they met a local high school student who faced harassment and bullying for coming out.

"He is a tough and courageous kid and he wasn't going to deny who he was," Wilson said. "His story became the main thread of the film."

Hamer and Wilson plan to take the film to small towns across Pennsylvania to spark more debate. (Visit www.outinthesilence.com for information.)

Fest programmer Coombes said she's particularly proud of the range of films that explore issues of racial identity. In Rivers Wash Over Me, a gay black teen with an intellectual bent stands up to ignorance and prejudice in the rural South. Misconceptions is a side-splitting dark satire about a super-conservative, religious man whose wife decides to be a surrogate mother for an interracial gay couple.

African American director Faith Trimel's "Family" is an ambitious ensemble piece about four closeted lesbian friends in their 30s and 40s who decide to come out together.

"I wanted to address the high price . . . the emotional pain that comes with being closeted for so many years," said Trimel, a Chicago native who lives in Los Angeles. "They are coming out also on a spiritual level to become more authentic as individuals" who no longer lie to themselves or to the world.

Connoisseurs of cinematic darkness will dig Autopsy, a powerful, fast-paced French police thriller about a macho cop who comes out after 20 years of marriage.

On a more comedic note, don't miss the deliciously demented, gory and gloriously hilarious horror spoof ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction, about a small conservative town whose once-righteous, homophobic inhabitants turn into crazed, flesh-craving zombies. Blood spatter crossed with clever social commentary: Could anything be better?

Philadelphia QFest

The 15th annual QFest, formerly the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, features film screenings, parties and star appearances today through July 20 at 14 venues across Center City.

Tickets: $10 per screening. The festival offers a choice of package deals for screenings and parties with varying levels of access. The 10-day badge for all screenings is $90, and the all-access badge that includes all parties and events costs $260.

Information: 267-765-9800, Ext. 4, or visit www.phillycinema.org or www.qfest.com.EndText