mighty hoopla and go west fest: how queer festival separatism took hold
Is this what progress looks like?
It’s the beginning of June, a sacred period of time annually ring-fenced for gay tomfoolery. For 30 glorious days every year, pride month and festival season coincide, meaning we have an endless array of gay and glittery outdoor parties to choose from. Sounds like heaven, doesn’t it? And yet, in recent years, this supposed cultural smorgasbord is still marked more by its homogeneity than its diversity. Debates have continued to rage around poor gender balance and queer representation in festival line-ups, and non-queer acts headlining pride. The absence of queer headliners at mainstream festivals is seldom discussed, but characteristic. Even our own pride festivals have sometimes struggled to provide a platform for our queer artists, exemplified by the debate around Ariana Grande headlining Manchester pride this year.
Despite many high profile artists calling out festival organisers for their continued erasure of women, change is slow. Lily Allen recently lamented the ongoing male domination of London’s Wireless Festival, while Halsey pointed out there were only 19 women out of 95 acts at Delaware’s Firefly Festival. A BBC study in 2017 revealed that 80% of festival headliners were male, which prompted 45 festivals around the UK to pledge to attain a 50/50 gender balance by 2022. So far, the only notable festival to have reached this milestone is Primavera. This past weekend, to critical acclaim, the Catalonian festival drew a sold out audience that appeared to skew heavily queer and female, a landmark moment in festival history.
It’s clear that for a long time, the movement to improve festival representation has been a reformist one. It has focused heavily on re-engineering the spaces that we already have, and it’s promising that this struggle is finally bearing fruit. But alongside this reformist push, we are also seeing a splinter movement whose modus operandi is not reform, but secession.
Weary of battling a heteropatriarchal festival culture that will never see the true value of queer and women acts, a swathe of young entrepreneurs are creating queer-specific festival spaces, which prioritise queer and women artists as well as audiences. Why beg for representation in mainstream spaces, when we can just break off and create our own spaces from scratch? The logic is appealing, and it’s catching on globally. In 2016, Glyn Fussell of London’s Sink the Pink created Mighty Hoopla, a queer-specific festival in Brockwell Park which is headlined this year by Chaka Khan, All Saints, and a cohort of other female and LGBT acts.
Following this example, Troye Sivan and Charli XCX have just launched Go West Fest, an LA-based queer festival whose line-up boasts themselves (obv), Dorian Electra, Leland and more fantastic queer artists. In Dublin, 2019 will also be the inaugural year of Love Sensation, a new music festival “aimed at the LGBT+ community” which will replace Yestival, the annual celebration of the yes vote for marriage equality in Ireland. Lily Allen and Clean Bandit will headline. There are many other examples cropping up around Europe: Berlin’s WHOLE Festival as well as Amsterdam’s Milkshake. Olly Alexander recently revealed that he plans to create his own queer festival too. Globally, queer festival separatism is becoming a phenomenon.
There’s a great deal to unpack in this trend. Of course it is most simply understood as a foil to festival reformism. For almost every political reformism, there is a corresponding revolutionary movement that seeks not to ameliorate extant power imbalances, but to relocate power entirely to the disenfranchised group. When we create our own queer spaces, we meet the demand of queer audiences directly with the supply of queer acts, effectively removing the cisheteropatriarchal middleman that is the conventional festival organiser.
Queer music fans often have a greater appreciation and respect for women acts, meaning they are prioritised as headliners, where other festival organisers consider them as afterthoughts. This act of disintermediation is efficient and clever. “When people feel under represented they rise up and start things themselves. It's what happens historically”, says Glyn Fussell, Mighty Hoopla co-founder. Speaking on the trend, Giovanni Turco of Berlin’s WHOLE festival asks i-D, “Why would we invest our time and resources into something that we don’t see a trace of ourselves reflected back in? As queers we are always forced to carve out space for ourselves”. For him, creating a queer-specific festival is just a simple solution to a simple problem of erasure. “From an artistic perspective, we wanted to create a platform for queer and womxn artists to perform. These categories are still dramatically so underrepresented in festival line-ups.”
But there are more push and pull forces at play here than immediately meet the eye. The sexual politics of music festivals are the tip of an iceberg, but below the water lurk more pressing issues of gentrification, and the more general category of the queer safe space, something which is increasingly in jeopardy. A question worth asking is; how is the demand for this new type of queer space (i.e. a queer-specific festival) rising, when we are told repeatedly that in the post-marriage equality West, demand for queer spaces is falling?
“I have so many LGBT+ artists that I adore who are making such great work in music but also in visual art, design, photography, etc. that I wanted to throw a party to celebrate.” – Troye Sivan on Go West Fest
In recent years, widespread closures of LGBT bars and clubs have dogged headlines. In London and Dublin, this problem has been especially noted. Many have suggested that the “Grindr effect” (whereby gay men no longer need to convene in physical spaces to source sex) and increasing assimilation thanks to an accepting post-marriage equality environment, have combined to produce a decrease in demand for queer spaces. But this theory is increasingly being discredited. In 2018, Bryce J. Renninger published a paper in the Journal of Homosexuality called: “Grindr Killed the Gay Bar, and Other Attempts to Blame Social Technologies for Urban Development”. His point was that to attribute the effects of urban economics to Grindr was misguided, a point that’s been echoed by many. It’s clear to those behind the scenes of queer nightlife that demand is not the issue; cost is. Gentrification and property crises in major cities are extinguishing queer spaces because their tight profit margins can’t accommodate rising rents.
“Is there a shift in demand for nightclubs, or are the spaces being taken over for more profitable reasons?” asks Cormac Cashman, organiser of Love Sensation in Dublin. Speaking to i-D, he highlights that the decline of fixed queer spaces in Ireland and beyond does not necessarily signal falling demand from queer clientele. “Gay bars and nightclubs that closed here in Dublin were busy places, it’s just that the land was more profitable to developers when used for other purposes like hotels. I don’t think the closures here were demand-based”.
Giovanni Turco of WHOLE festival agrees. “Clubs are being either closed down or pushed further and further out because cities are becoming more and more gentrified. Our spaces are dwindling which is why, together, we have to find new ways to build our community and spend time together.”
In this context, we can understand queer festival separatism, not just as a response to poor representation within the field of music festivals, but actually as a direct response to the decline of fixed queer spaces. By fixed, I mean physically rooted in one urban location. Emerging queer festivals represent a new conception of a queer safe space, one that is mobile and fluid. Historically, the gay bar has been the nexus of queer culture, but in Paris, New York, London and Dublin, roving gay parties like Doctor Love or Push The Button have replaced the physical gay bar as a site for celebration. These queer nights move around or pop up intermittently at the same location, but don’t reside permanently in any one spot, hence meeting the demand for queer safe spaces without relying on the reasonable inner city rents that are fast disappearing.
Queer festivals are another form of transplantable queer space -- once the brand is established, it can be held in any location and still draw a crowd. One can imagine that Mighty Hoopla or Go West Fest, no matter where they are held any given year, will be highly anticipated now that they’re in the queer collective consciousness.
Many other subterranean currents may be driving queer festival separatism. Perhaps as queer people become more and more aware of capitalism co-opting queerness as a unique selling point, they are eager to make sure the pink pound is being funnelled back into their own community, rather than into the pockets of straight people paying lip-service. Given the recent debate around pride headliners, creating more platforms exclusively for queer artists is also a huge motivating factor. “I have so many LGBT+ artists that I adore who are making such great work in music but also in visual art, design, photography, etc. that I wanted to throw a party to celebrate”, Troye Sivan tells i-D of his inspiration for Go West Fest.
In summary, the rise of queer-specific festivals can be understood, not in terms of a quantitative increase in demand for queer space, but rather a qualitative change in the types of queer space that people desire and the types of queer space that are viable in our increasingly crowded urban environments. Growing acceptance of LGBT people simply means that this demand is now able to find new modes of expression. “I think demand has always been there but now those audiences have a voice. For a long time we were that audience, so rather than wait for someone to do it, we just did it ourselves”, summarises Jamie Tagg of Mighty Hoopla.
Troye Sivan, Go West Fest co-creator, tells i-D: “I’m hoping that this is the first Go West Fest of many, and I love that we’re seeing more and more niche spaces pop up. Everyone deserves to feel seen, breathe a deep sigh of relief and party with their friends.”
Go West Fest takes place in The Wiltern, L.A. on June 6th. Mighty Hoopla takes place in Brockwell Park, London, on June 9th. WHOLE festival takes place in Ferropolis, Berlin, on June 14th. Love Sensation takes place in Kilmainham, Dublin, on Aug 17th.