The San Francisco Intl. Lesbian & Gay Film Festival generated a mood that was even more upbeat than usual as it kicked off Friday.

With recent political gains and increased public visibility nationwide, this 17-year-old event has become a symbol of the local gay community’s endurance and clout.

It’s a testament to purchasing power, too. After posting an 86% attendance increase from 1991 to 1992 (rising to about 40,000 tickets sold), the current edition looks likely to make another giant leap.

“We are just about to exceed last year’s total take,” festival co-director Mark Finch noted. “Last year we totaled $ 155,000 in sales at the close of the festival. This year we have $ 150,000 in advance sales on opening night, with 10 days to go.”

Those figures may seem only mildly impressive, but local comic/MC Marga Gomez put matters in the appropriate context of political correctness: “This is better. I’ve seen ‘Jurassic Park.’ It’s fossilist.”

The opening night at the Castro Theatre, traditionally a sellout, consisted of Canadian lesbian docu “Forbidden Love” and a new 35mm print of Gus Van Sant’s 1986 debut feature, “Mala Noche.”

Van Sant has been glimpsed around town lately while wrapping post-production on “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” prompting rampant rumors that “Cowgirls” would be the fest’s “Surprise Sneak Preview” June 25. But word is the sneak will be a new feature by Canada’s John Greyson (“Urinal,””The Making of ‘Monsters’ “).

Last year’s tally of seven SRO screenings at the 1,550-seat Castro has already been matched. Beyond “Forbidden,””Mala” and the sneak, tickets are gone for a “First Annual Gay Men’s Erotic Safe Sex Video Awards” ceremony, Derek Jarman’s “Wittgenstein,” the closing-night world preem of American indie “Grief” and the British doc on Sandra Bernhard, “Confession of a Pretty Lady.”

To the dismay of some, the latter arrived in a 47-minute TV edit rather than the originally expected 70-minute theatrical form.

Over half of scheduled programs are sold out at other major S.F. venue, the 280-seat Roxie. A one-shot program at the AMC Kabuki 8, of Samuel Goldwyn’s Taiwan pickup “The Wedding Party,” is also maxed. Advance sales were brisk but no figures were available for shows at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive or San Jose’s Towne 3 Theatre (an addition this year).

Some 200 filmmakers and assorted guests are expected to turn up during the fest. Opening night’s fete at the S.F. Mart produced Armistead Maupin, the novelist whose “Tales of the City” just wrapped a BBC shoot here, and Pratibha Parmar, the South Asian helmer who will receive fest producing org Frameline’s annual achievement award today.

Van Sant’s onstage intro to “Mala Noche” was assisted, to audience delight, by Walt Curtis, whose writings inspired the screenplay.

Among some 260 film, video, feature and short titles this year, special series will spotlight Jewish and Asian efforts.