YO! Sissy and Milkshake are filling a necessary demand for queer events in a saturated festival market, and they’re doing it on their own terms
While most of us see music festivals as an excuse to party too hard and quite possibly have mediocre sex in a fold-up tent, for the music industry these events are a financial lifeline. Last year, it was predicted that the music festival market could be worth as much as £3.5 billion by 2020. But while profitability has gone up, the market has become undeniably crowded. Despite the growing number of festivals around, and the cheaper and cheaper flights to get you there, there are still depressingly few festivals that cater explicitly to queer people. Plenty of big-name events might pop a few drag performers in a separate tent, yet queer festivals still belong to a niche that hasn’t been explored too fully – but that’s slowly beginning to change.
Milkshake is just one festival aiming to combat this problem, creating a safe, special and unimaginably fabulous event each year in Amsterdam’s picturesque Westerpark. “I had been working in the electronic dance scene for more than 14 years,” explains founder Marieke Samallo, “but I missed a dance festival where I could go with all my friends – drag artists, gay boys, gay girls, my boyfriend and my other straight friends.” This ethos of inclusivity permeates the festival, whose lengthy ‘Milkshake Dictionary’ aims to promote tolerance and understanding amongst its attendees. “We have a message: ‘For all who love’. That message is the most important thing for us.”
To some, it may seem strange to think that the world still needs these safe spaces in 2017. Plenty of people see corporate Pride sponsors, gay marriage (in some privileged western countries) and rising trans visibility in the media as a sign that things are improving for queer people – and, in some ways, they are. At the same time, the Trump administration is regressing LGBTQ+ rights at breakneck speed, hate crimes have continued to increase and homosexuality is still punishable by law in over 70 countries worldwide. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Even in supposedly queer spaces, racism, transphobia, misogyny and ableism are all rife, whereas many writers continue to argue that straight, cisgender women in particular are the problem – which, most of us know, is a shitty argument exemplary of the aforementioned misogyny in the gay community.
Things need to change, and slowly they are. Yet another festival working hard to bring these changes into action is YO! Sissy, which last weekend brought its own queer mecca back to cultural capital Berlin. An ethos of inclusivity is, again, high on the agenda for founders Pansy and Scout, but they also looked to the city’s own queer music scene for inspiration: “Not only did established acts like Peaches, The Knife, Planningtorock and Pet Shop Boys call Berlin their home, many young, burgeoning acts also set down their roots here,” they explain. “We wanted to find a way to connect the two, to encourage collaboration and to provide a platform for newer talent.”
Refreshingly, these festivals are genuinely queer as opposed to merely gay. At Milkshake, stages like ‘Totally Female’ gathered talented DJs such as Shug La Sheedah, FemmeTastic and Sjeazy Pearl for a series of high-octane sets, whereas clubnights and collectives including London’s WUT?CLUB, Amsterdam’s Supertoys and Less Drama More Techno gathered their artist families to entertain the crowd. There were, of course, some gay gems – a bear ball-pit was one highlight, whereas the Village People dusted off their back catalogue to close out Sunday night in gloriously camp style. They even gave a bizarre tutorial to the ‘YMCA’ dance, seemingly annoyed that previous crowds had butchered the ‘M’.
“These festivals not only prove a genuine demand for queer spaces, they also provide a blueprint for how to build them authentically”
The rise of festivals like Milkshake and YO! Sissy is heartening not only because these spaces genuinely seek to combat these problems, but because they are driven by queer people. “We work with organisations who are open-minded like us,” reiterates Samallo. “Milkshake works with the All Who Love foundation; for example, we organised a mini-festival on the Friday for mentally disabled LGBTQ+ people. We are committed to creating more courtesy and love to each other.” Elsewhere, Pansy and Scout point out an impressive fact: “We have managed to do all of this without major corporate sponsorship,” they explain. “That is no simple feat in today’s music industry.”
Alongside providing a safe space for queer people in particular, Samallo also set out to inject colour into the notoriously homogenous world of mainstream festivals. “I missed using a festival as a creative platform for audiences and artists to show their identities with pride; proud of being who you are, proud of being different,” she says. For this reason, there were countless gems scattered throughout the festival; from live on-stage performance artists and drag bingo to hidden clubs and vogue balls, there were plenty of surprises to be discovered.
Likewise, YO! Sissy’s fusion of acclaimed musicians and avant-garde drag artists continues to draw huge crowds. This year’s line-up featured talent from across the world as well as a series of artist-led panels and workshops, whereas the YO! Sissy Marketplace provides opportunities for queer-owned businesses to reach a steadily-increasing audience. It’s not just about sickening outfits and lively performances; it’s about creating opportunities for often-marginalised creatives to make an impact and, importantly, get paid.
Again, the same ethos of inclusivity permeates YO! Sissy: “At its most base level, our festival is focussed on creating line-ups which aren’t dominated by white, heterosexual men,” explain Pansy and Scout. “At its most complex level, we offer a safe haven for people that have been discriminated against for the majority of their lives. It’s more than a music festival; it’s a celebration of queer life and queer art.”
In essence, these festivals not only prove a genuine demand for queer spaces, they also provide a blueprint for how to build them authentically. Remember when Kendall Jenner single-handedly ended police brutality with an ice-cold beverage? These same marketing mishaps are happening with queer issues – a misguided Heineken campaign, which insinuated trans women should chat with transphobes over a beer, was just one example. Pink-washing is a growing problem, and it’s a reason to analyse queer festivals critically to see just who is profiting from them. After all, a recent study showed that 57% of young people don’t identify as heterosexual – these are the statistics pored over by advertisers desperate to capture a youth demographic.
Queerness may be popular, but a lack of genuinely queer spaces is still an enormous problem. By working with communities, avoiding corporate interference and spotlighting a series of undeniably fierce talents from across the globe, festivals like Milkshake and YO! Sissy are providing their own iridescent antidotes.