For five days in Palm Springs, Arwa Mahdawi entered an alternate reality where gay women celebrate each other with pool parties, dancing and debauchery
Every year at the end of March, 20,000 lesbians from around the world fly into the Californian desert for five days of debauchery, and I’m one of them. It’s my second time at the Dinah, also known as the largest girl festival in the world. I’m staying at the Hilton in Palm Springs, which is hosting the famous Dinah pool parties, and the hotel feels like a homosexual harem.
It’s a surreal experience: for a few days the world is turned upside down, the minority is suddenly the majority. Everywhere you look, lesbians are smiling, drinking, dancing, kissing. There are a few men around – staff working the event and guys who have been dragged along by lesbian friends – but they are hard to spot. It’s basically entirely queer women in attendance.
The party is named after the Dinah Shore golf tournament, started in 1972 by the eponymous entertainer. Dinah Shore wasn’t a lesbian (she’d be doing somersaults in her grave if she knew what her moniker was attached to now), but golf seems to attract a lot of lesbians. A sapphic scene sprouted up around the golf tournament, and the Dinah was born. It’s now in its 26th year.
The Dinah festival: 20,000 lesbians party in the desert.
Today, nobody is here for the golf. No one is here for the DJs, comedians or YouTube stars performing either. They’re here for the girls. Butch, femme, old, young, gold stars, bi, black, white, hardcore, normcore – the Dinah attracts a diverse group. There’s a sense of liberation and a tacit understanding that what happens in Dinah stays in Dinah (unless it ends up on Facebook).
“Flashing is normal,” Charlotte, 24, told me. “I get flashed at a lot.” Random girls pulling you into their hotel rooms are also pretty standard. One year, there was a minor earthquake in Palm Springs. Debbie, a Dinah veteran who has attended every event since 1991, recalls that half the water splashed out of the pool. Most of the girls were too drunk to realize or care.
The feeling of permissiveness is compounded by the desert scenery: it looks like there has been some sort of gaypocalypse, and all the straight men and women have died out.
I can’t lie, it’s nice being in a predominantly female space for a few days. There’s a feeling of comfortable camaraderie; a sense of suddenly being a first-class citizen. But I feel like that comes more from the queerness rather than the femaleness. No one at the Dinah wishes a plague on all men. Despite the stereotype of the man-hating dyke, most lesbians really like men (we need them around to ensure we don’t get too distracted). The Dinah isn’t about separatism; it’s about celebration.
It’s also about scantily clad celebration. Maybe all the clothes got destroyed during the gaypocalypse, because nobody’s wearing much. Several opt for stickers or tape over their nipples instead of bikini tops, and I can’t help but think they will later regret the decision (think: ripping off a Band-aid). Then again, so might getting in the pool. There are fake eyelashes floating in the water, and I don’t want to imagine what sort of bodily fluids. You can’t get syphilis from a swimming pool but, for a moment, I wonder.
Syphilis, by the way, isn’t something most lesbians think about much as they rack up Dinah conquests (“Never settle for a girl from day one,” one girl advised me, “the day two girls are always better”). Nor are STDs in general. It’s my untested hypothesis that one of the reasons the Dinah is so debauched is that it is quite difficult to get pregnant when sleeping with other women, and there’s also a misperception among many lesbians that you’re not at risk of STDs. Certainly it’s not something you’re told about much; a lot of medical professionals aren’t trained to talk to gay women about sexual health.
Another factor feeding into the debauchery, of course, is that lesbians rarely have such a large dating pool on hand. And as any economist will tell you, you’re more likely to be an outrageous flirt when faced with a thick market.
Speaking of economics: corporations have finally woken up to the profit margins of the margins, and the Dinah has become a lot more attractive to brands. Bacardi, Bud Lite, Smirnoff and Barefoot Wines are all big sponsors this year. Bacardi and Bud have sent teams of scantily clad promo girls (most of whom are straight) who hand out swag, pose for photos and generally act a little gay for pay. While it’s normally irritating to get relentlessly advertised to, in this case it’s a sign of progress. You’re not a real human until you’re recognized by corporate America.
The Dinah has also started to attract more big-name talent. Katy Perry and the Pussycat Dolls have all performed at the festival. And this year, Lady Gaga popped in briefly as a guest to watch pal Katherine Moennig (known to lesbians everywhere as Shane from the L word) play a DJ set. The celebrities have raised the Dinah’s profile and brought it more mainstream attention.
Vice are here this year, for example, shooting a documentary. The producer is gay, but it’s also her first Dinah and she looks a little overwhelmed.
“What’s your angle?” I ask her. “Well, you know, we’re going to show all the tits and ass,” she says, as her cameraperson zooms in on just that, “and then we’re going to show why it’s actually really meaningful.” She pauses for a moment. “So far though, all we’ve got is the tits and ass.”
Let’s not downplay the tits and ass – they’re meaningful in their own way. As CeeCee, a 26-year-old Dinah newbie, told me, a lot of people don’t think lesbians (that is, real human lesbians, not the male porn fantasies) have any fun. “People think we just sit at home in sensible shoes reading feminist theory to our cats,” she said. Being able to strip off at the Dinah, then, is an empowering experience for a lot of women; a chance to embrace and celebrate their sexuality in a safe space.
Palm Springs: ‘Embracing gay can pay’
While a lot of big brands have only started wooing dyke dollars recently, the city of Palm Springs has long been cognizant of the economic benefits of embracing diversity. It grew to prominence in the 1930s when closeted Hollywood movie stars would head to the desert to escape the studios’ scrutiny. The likes of Rock Hudson, Liberace, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich all spent time there.
Today it’s estimated that almost half the population of Palm Springs are gay, and it has the highest per capita gay population in the US, if not the world. It’s also seeing a surge of interest among straight Hollywood. Leonardo DiCaprio recently bought a vacation home there: the Dinah Shore Palm Springs Estate.
Rob Moon, the openly gay mayor of Palm Springs, told me that “now more than ever, the city is experiencing a tremendous renaissance and Dinah Shore Weekend has been a huge economic driver. We owe a debt of gratitude to the LGBT community for helping Palm Springs evolve into the ultra-cool, stylish and sophisticated city it is today.”
As for the future of lesbian-centric events, there has been a trend oflesbian bars closing recently. This has been partly been blamed on apps like Tinder, which make meeting other gay people less reliant on gay bars. It’s also been put down to more liberal attitudes; there’s no longer a need for gay space if all space is more inclusive.
Will the next generation of gay women feel the same need for an extended women’s party? Mariah Hanson, founder of the Dinah, certainly seems to think so. “There’ll always be need for gay people to come together and congregate,” she said. “Our culture is unique … we’re not part of straight culture. The Dinah is and always has been five days of incredibly magical celebration of our lives. If the UN would pay attention to what’s going on at the Dinah it could change the world in a big way. People put aside their differences and go home feeling changed.”
I don’t know that Ban Ki-moon should necessarily get the security council to strip into swimwear and grope each other. However, there’s certainly something affirmative and cathartic about the experience. As Leah, a DJ in Boston, told me: “It’s the experience that college should have been.”
It’s also a reminder of how much today’s gay people owe to previous generations. There was a long fight for our right to party, and it’s not over yet. I got back from the Dinah on Tuesday morning; the same day Mississippi’s governor signed legislation making discrimination against gay couples legal. There’s still a while to go before we can all really celebrate.