I Went To The World's Biggest Lesbian Festival & Here's What Happened

Photographed by Alix Spence
I first heard about the cult lesbian festival Dinah Shore the same way that most lesbians do, from what often feels like our one cultural reference point, the TV show The L Word. In the episode that features the festival, the show’s staple group of LA power lesbians embark on a roadtrip to Palm Springs, where they are confronted by a pumping all-women Spring Break pool party. A few of the characters hook up with strangers they meet (like Sex and The City, The L Word features several sexual encounters per episode), while the rest discover a weekend of inclusivity, fun and sun. The L Word painted Dinah as a sapphic playground, a weekend of dyketastic debauchery. Watching, I knew that one day I would have to go. When the opportunity finally came this year, I decided I would assemble a group and we would take on the festival together. A pack of lesbians on the prowl.
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As well as wanting to come as close to being a character in The L Word as possible, the main reason I have always wanted to attend Dinah is the desire to know how it feels to be surrounded by so many other bisexual, lesbian and queer women. Often, as LGBTQ+ people, we endure periods of isolation; there were moments in my earlier life where I felt like I was the only person in the world who was the way I was... and I was one of the lucky ones, who eventually found a home in London, a city with queer female club nights and specialist lesbian dating apps. For some of the people visiting Dinah from across America and beyond, this would not be the case. I wanted to meet these people, and hear what the event gave them.
Photographed by Alix Spence
Photographed by Alix Spence
The festival itself has been running for 28 years, started in 1991 by a lesbian called Mariah Hanson at the Palm Springs Modern Art Museum, where lesbians reportedly drank martinis and mingled among millions of dollars worth of art. Chic. Gradually, it grew in size; later highlights included 2006, when The Pussycat Dolls played, 2009 when Lady Gaga made an appearance, and 2010 when Kesha performed. Today, it bills itself as a five-day weekend getaway for lesbians and queer girls, and the biggest event of its type in the world. Thousands of women attend, and there are almost a dozen main events, with other splinter or rival parties like Krave Spring Break, which focuses on including queer women of colour.
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The official Dinah currently begins on a Wednesday, with a meet and greet pre-party, hotting up on the Thursday with an opening party at a bar in downtown Springs, before organisers Club Skirt begin their notorious three-day pool party schedule on Friday at the Hilton Palm Springs, where much of the festival takes place. Many Dinah partygoers choose to stay here, in the thick of the action, but instead I chose an Airbnb Plus nearby in Palm Springs, since I’ve always wanted to stay in one of the city's famous modernist homes, but also so that I could escape and have a nap when it all got a bit too much.
I decided to begin my Dinah journey on the Friday evening, at the Dinah Shore standup comedy night where the brilliant Fortune Feimster took to the stage with lines like: "I needed someone to come out for me… sit me down and be like, Fortune, YOU GAY." From here, we moved over to the infamous (again, mostly because of The L Word) black and white party, which takes place in the sweeping carpeted halls of the Palm Springs Convention Centre. With a red carpet, big white wall drapes and soft purple lighting, it was – rather touchingly – like the lesbian prom I’m almost certain none of us ever had. Everyone seemed so comfortable making out with one another in a way that I had never witnessed among gay women. At one point, someone came on stage and started rapping about smoking "girl blunts" while dancers in thongs whipped their hair, shook their asses and collected dollar bills... Best prom ever.
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Photographed by Alix Spence
On Saturday, my girlfriend, my friends and I finally decided to descend on the pool party. What should we bring, we debated? We chose all the lesbian essentials: me, an open shirt that made me look like a dad at a BBQ; my friend, a Patagonia rucksack full of practical items like sun cream; the rest, uniforms of tight white vests. As we approached the Hilton, the streets outside were lined with Subarus and pickup trucks, so I knew we were in the right place. Inside was a lesbian Garden of Eden, if the Garden of Eden was heavily branded by sponsors, full of women in snapback caps and served delicious canned wine.
At first, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of it – there must have been around a thousand women there, some making out in the pool, others chilling on their hotel room balconies. Meanwhile, "My Neck, My Back" blasted from the speakers as gay women of all ages grinded one another, twerked and slutdropped with abandon.
Photographed by Alix Spence
Photographed by Alix Spence
Once we became acclimatised, we started to relax, dance, and talk to other women. Charlotte, 27, from New York told me that as a "baby dyke" (lexicon for someone who is newly gay or exploring their sexuality), she had never felt hotter than at Dinah. "This is a pretty new scene for me but I feel completely welcome and I’m celebrating a part of myself that I used to hide." Two glamorous women from Orange County told me they were a new couple, there for a romantic weekend away together. An older woman told me that she’d rather we didn’t take her photo because she wasn’t out at home. Another woman was there on her hen do.
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Isabella, 25, from Portland, said: "I came to Dinah as a bi woman for a fun queer girls weekend with my friends. I feel more comfortable with my body than I ever could have anticipated, as a fat person I’m loving the body diversity – I’m seeing a lot of chunky butts and stretch marks, which are all beautiful!" Her feelings about the event's diversity were echoed when founder Hanson got on stage and announced that at Dinah everyone was welcome (I later checked with the event's PR what this meant exactly – she confirmed that it meant people of all races and gender identities).
Photographed by Alix Spence
Photographed by Alix Spence
After the pool party (and a nap) we swapped out of our swimwear and headed back to the Convention Centre for the Saturday night Hollywood Party. Suddenly the red carpet made a lot more sense, as US influencers and vloggers like Mads Paige and Ambers Closet had their pictures taken and talked to their fans. A pop star called Daya played, women slow danced with one another, and I got so drunk that I passed out in my friend's boobs. My girlfriend (who didn’t seem to mind this) told me in the cab on the way home what the festival meant to her: "As a femme-presenting woman, it’s nice to be somewhere that people just assume you’re gay, rather than the other way around. I felt completely and openly myself."
As for me, I decided to give the Sunday a miss in favour of some of the other things you can do in Palm Springs: hike, walk around downtown, drive out to Joshua Tree National Park. But the festival taught me a lot. I learned that you will never know all the lesbian lingo. I had no idea that a "stem" is a cross between a stud and a femme. Or that I am considered to be one. I wasn’t aware who any of the singers or the influencers were, which made me realise that there’s a lot more to lesbian culture than The L Word. And I discovered that, thanks to events like Dinah Shore, we needn’t all be alone or isolated. I went there with friends and I made many more. As for Dinah 2020, we’ll see...
Amelia Abraham is the author of Queer Intentions.
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