fDespite all the promise of gender equality in line-ups, UK music festivals are still dominated by male artists – a BBC study last week found that just 13% of headliners at top festivals this year are women – and many of them are white, straight and cisgender. But an alternative lies on a gravel road in St Albans.
Last weekend’s Flesh Festival, which hosts house and techno artists, bills itself as the UK’s first queer camping music festival, with a lineup featuring women, trans and non-binary artists making up more than 90% of the talent turn off. House and techno names range from big stars like Ellen Allien and Rebekah to artists who have never played a festival before, while an all-female security team watches over festival-goers, rainbow flags adorn the stages and the mullet-zu -Ticket ratio must be the highest of any UK event.
Organizer Sam Togni, founder of London-based label Boudica, explains that one of the main intentions of the festival is “to celebrate our community, especially after being separated from it for so long and forcing so many parties, clubs and events around the world to do so Alongside the inclusive lineup, they wanted to “give newcomers to the industry an opportunity to flourish”: Flesh held a competition for queer, trans and intersex people of color, with two winners awarding scholarships to the London Sound Academy (LSA) to hone their skills and a slot to play at Flesh.”It takes effort, but it’s possible to create meaningful opportunities,” says Togni. “You can change people’s future.”
Flesh’s debut outing is not without difficulties: sound systems have technical problems early on, the bar runs out of cold drinks at 8 p.m. and the music stops at 11 p.m. sharp – but what the organizers hinted at the day before the festival surprised many.
On Sunday morning, customers line up for the only coffee vendor at the event. Food trucks haven’t opened, nor has the music restarted. “It was really fun though,” says Jenny, who was at Flesh to celebrate her boyfriend’s birthday. “If you hang out with a lot of queer people, it’s usually just on one queer night. Camping, hanging out and seeing queer people dancing in nature was really special.”
Festival-goers made of meat. Photo: Michele Baron
“I’ve worn different levels of clothing at all the festivals I’ve been to, like Stray and Homobloc,” they continue. “I wore a really skimpy outfit for homobloc and kept getting touched by cis gay men and it felt really awkward while here I feel like I have both nips, a front and a back butt [all out], and it would be perfectly fine, which is great. That’s how it should be.”
How included queer club nights Pxssy Palace, Crossbreed and Body Movements, Flesh Centers queer and trans people; Members of these collectives play at Flesh, along with resident DJs from London parties Inferno and Big Dyke Energy. A newcomer is Misfya, who are playing their first festival after winning one of Flesh’s LSA grants. “If I’d told myself a year ago that I was going to play a festival this year, I don’t think I would have believed it,” says Misfya after her lively, energizing DJ set. “It’s unreal. I only started playing properly in September last year, so I’m very happy and proud to have arrived at this place.”
Queer and trans glee like this can be felt throughout the site. At her first English festival, Marie-Maxime attributes this to the “very welcoming and safe” atmosphere where “everyone is friendly. I wasn’t expecting so many good vibes, a safe environment. It’s super colorful too – we all wear black in Paris.” That’s relative: The crowd is still heavily geared towards leather harnesses, face piercings, leather jackets and platform boots. But unlike other queer spaces and events, gay cis men aren’t the largest constituency — and there are no straight women or bachelorette parties coming along to see the show. Flesh shows that by hosting events, queer women and trans people can reach out to this underserved segment of the UK’s queer population: the girls, gay people and you.
Sharan Dhaliwal, author of Burning My Roti: Breaking Barriers as a Queer Indian Woman, stands in line with Marie-Maxime to get coffee. “It was a great queer family vibe,” agrees Dhaliwal. “Really healthy and really not healthy at the same time. It’s beautiful.” Both women noted that Flesh felt safe, and Dhaliwal explained, “We’re surrounded by queerness, and that’s where safety comes from.”