A festival is communal celebration. Within the LGBTQ community, festivals are frames for activism, spirituality, sensuality, humor, music, and dance that allow members to bond with each other.
Festivals are times when a community is carnivalesque, that is, the community gives itself the right to set up social rules as it so chooses. For the LGBTQ community, carnivalesque aspects of its festivals may involve sensuous display of the body, and relaxation of rules regarding gender expression that result in performances ranging from serious to hilarious.
The first large-scale Gay-related festivals on record are early twentieth-century drag balls, dazzling events held initially in Harlem, New York, and then spread to major cities in the Eastern USA. Drag balls allowed cross-dressers of both sexes to display themselves before an audience that was Straight and Gay, marking a festive space in which people with same-sex orientation and gender variation could openly congregate without fear of arrest.
Although drag balls were condemned and eventually shut down by the mid-1930s, their appeal was such that small-scale festive events continued, becoming large-scale in the 1970s after Stonewall (June 1969) and into the twenty-first century with various drag pageants, the Imperial Court System of regal drag display, balls with runway competitions sponsored by the Ballroom community, women’s music festivals, and Circuit parties. The tradition of communal dancing that took place during drag balls continued with events such as the Dinah Shore Weekend for Lesbians in Palm Springs, California, outbreaks of ecstatic dance during the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, the MCQP dance weekend in Cape Town for Gay men and their allies, and the massive Grande Danse during DivérsCité in Montréal for everyone.
After the Stonewall Uprising, new forms of festival arose. The anniversary of Stonewall became a time for Gay Liberation marches in late June, which then transformed into Pride celebrations, usually held in summer (Northern Hemisphere) around the world. Pride parades and festivals are purposely public to allow LGBTQ people the chance to congregate in public. In Canada and the USA, offshoots of Pride may be identity-specific events, such as Dyke Marches, Black Pride, and Latin Pride.
Women’s Music Festivals
Just prior to and immediately following Stonewall, Lesbians began gathering together for women’s music, which eventually turned into full-scale music festivals during warmer months in the USA. Some events, such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (the Michigan), are in secluded areas. At the Michigan, men are not allowed, and participants may wander about the festival area dressed in whatever they choose, or not wear clothes at all. Others, such as Ladyfest and the National Women’s Music Festival (National), are held in urban centers and college campuses, and National will admit men. But the level of intimacy within National festival space may not be as intense nor as intimate as womyn in the MWMF have with each other and the Land (physical grounds of the MWMF).
Women’s music festivals are not limited to music. They are venues for education, volunteering (overseeing events, babysitting, setting up the festival, cleaning up afterwards), workshops, and selling arts and crafts.
After Stonewall, Gay men who love to dance created large-scale clubs with sophisticated sound and light technologies, and weekend-long Circuit parties (annual dance festivals) featuring renowned DJs and interspersed with short spectacle-shows arose in major cities and resorts. All are welcome, but the space is specifically designed for Gay men, dancing, and display of the muscular body.
The Circuit is a performance frame for a number of masculine and feminine performance styles, from macho to flaming queen (effeminate behavior). Performance artists in the shows have developed their own semi-drag style, and Straight female divas (professional singers who perform dance music) appear in the midst of the Circuit weekend’s main event. DJs remix songs to match a strict 4/4 time format between 125-135 beats per minute, and songs flow seamlessly from one to the next for as long as 12 hours in a set. Dancing at major events could begin on Friday afternoon and end Monday afternoon or even later. It is common for men to remove their shirts during Circuit events as they dance.
On the weekend before Latin Easter, Palm Springs hosts the Dinah Shore Weekend, a series of women’s dance parties and live music events that inspired the creation of the White Party, one of the most popular Circuit events, on Easter weekend. Dinah Shore Weekend is considered to be akin to a women’s Circuit party.
International Court System
Thirty years after the drag balls were shut down in the 1930s, The Imperial Court System (ICS) began in San Francisco and eventually spread across the USA and Canada (with one court in Mexico). Each chapter has an annual coronation for its titled members, who are styled as princesses, princes, dukes, duchesses, empresses, emperors, etc. and display themselves in regal splendor. Now known as the International Court System, it has members of many orientations and gender identities. Coronations include the performance of hilarity as well as fabulous outfits and costume jewelry.
Once a year, the International Drag KingCommunity Extravaganza is held in a major city in the USA or Canada. Having a strong activist and educational ethos, the festival includes workshops, academic presentations, and evening entertainment featuring internationally renowned speakers, drag kings, and gender performance artists.
Leather and Bear
Predominantly for Gay males, Leather (for people who favor black leather, shiny chrome, and sado-masochism) and Bear (men whose bodies are hirsute and hairy) festivals (also known as runs) may last a weekend. They often include dancing. Leather runs have contests in which men display themselves in leather and chrome gear.
Some Leather events are Circuit parties as well, such as Black Parties thrown in the USA, Canada, and Western Europe; International Male Leather in Chicago; and Folsom Street Fair’s Magnitude in San Francisco. Such events are often marked by live sex shows involving fetish and bondage rituals. There are also Bear weekends that could be considered Bear Circuit parties.
Gay Games and IGRA
Major cities in Canada and the USA have different LGBTQ teams in various sports such as swimming, volleyball, bowling, softball, and rugby. These teams get together for tournaments, which are occasions for celebration as well. Two major festivals with strenuous competitive events are the Gay Games and the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA). The Gay Games are held once every two years in a different city. Sports include bodybuilding and same-sex couples skating, and celebrations are held upon completion of the Games. The IGRA meets in various locations about 20 times a year. Along with competition rodeo events, there are also dances, goat dressing (putting men’s underwear on a goat), and a wild drag race (a team event with a woman, man, and person in drag).
Beginning in 2003, the annual Qualia Festival of Gay Folklife (or Qualia) was initially a combination of academic conference and fundraiser dances held in Columbus, Ohio. Folklorists, activists, and performers presented on the Friday and Saturday of the weekend, with dances featuring renowned DJs in the evenings. Topics during the conference usually involved performance in the LGBTQ community. Speakers were encouraged to add performance elements to their presentations and incorporate ritual, drag, and song. Material culture may also be displayed as in Qualia 2004, when a portion of the AIDS Quilt was brought in and a reception for the Quilt held at the Ohio State Hillel House.
In 2011, Qualia changed from being a festival to a Gay folklore scholarship for performance-presentations. Currently, Qualia is committed to maintenance of the Encyclopedia of Gay Folklife.
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Kendall, Laurie, J. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival: An Amazon Matrix of
Meaning. Baltimore: The Spiral Womyn’s, 2008.
Miller, Craig R. “Gay Rodeo: A Celebration of Western Rural Heritage and Urban Gay Culture.” Manuscript presented at American Folklore Society Annual Meetings, 1993.
Troka, Donna, Kathleen Lebesco and Jean Noble, eds. The Drag King Anthology. Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park, 2002.