In 1991, Mariah Hanson threw her first Dinah party at the Palm Springs Art Museum in California, which, by her own account, was a disaster.
The party was intended for the queer women attending the nearby Dinah Shore Nabisco Classic, a women’s golf tournament founded by singer Dinah Shore in the late 1970s that historically attracted crowds of LGBTQ women. (Shore, who died in 1994, reportedly denied rumors that she was a lesbian.)
There had been Dinah Shore Weekend parties going all the way back to the late 1980s, but a decade later they were still in the seminal stage. Hanson, then a 31-year-old rising promoter, saw an opportunity to “bring some heart and soul” to the tournament’s unofficial party scene.
However, due to a lack of security and the overserving of alcohol, her first event quickly turned bacchanalian, she said.
Some in attendance were dancing topless on the museum’s roof, while others were caught putting cigarettes out in sand sculptures, Hanson told The Lily over the phone. “Another stole the cowboy hat off a priceless statue,” she said.
(“Attendees did urinate in a hat from a sculpture,” Debra Preston, the museum’s current vice president, who was its events manager in 1991, confirmed in an email. “Of course, we had it cleaned.”)
Despite its less than auspicious start — Hanson was not invited back to the museum the next year — the Dinah has become known colloquially as “the biggest lesbian party in the world” by everyone from the Los Angeles Times to Vice. It became so big that, in 2000, the golf tournament dropped the name “Dinah Shore” as a way of distancing itself from the annual gathering held in late March or early April, which throughout the decades was often referred to as “lesbian spring break,” most notably by the New York Times in 2007.
Thirty years later, Hanson finds the sensational nickname too limiting for the gathering, which, this year, will be held in venues across Palm Springs from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2 with increased health and safety protocols due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The five-day event, filled with music, dancing, comedy, DJ battles and pool parties, now markets itself as “the largest queer/lesbian/nonbinary event in the world” because “it’s bigger than just a party,” Hanson said. “It’s an opportunity for our entire community to come together and celebrate in a peaceful, loving and celebratory way.”
Those who have trekked to the southern California desert for the Dinah, which averages more than 15,000 attendees from all over the world per year, according to Hanson, agree that there is more to the festival than its marketing might let on.
Meg Ten Eyck, editor of EveryQueer, a website that offers travel resources for the LGBTQ community, considers the gathering a “rite of passage” for queer women.
The Dinah is “very much painted as this wild sex-filled lesbian spring break,” she said, but that is clickbait in her opinion. While she believes “we shouldn’t take the sex out of sexuality,” she said what stands out to her about the Dinah isn’t the pool parties, but the community.
The 34-year-old attended the Dinah every year between 2010 and 2019, she said. When she first started going, the crowd skewed heavily White and lesbian due largely, she believes, to the popularity of the TV show “The L Word.” The groundbreaking Showtime series dedicated an entire episode to the Dinah, which “further reinforced this idea that there’s a place for people like us,” Eyck said.
In recent years, the New York-based travel consultant has seen more queer women of color, and transgender and nonbinary people in the crowd. She believes the change is largely due to a more accepting queer Gen Z community; a recent Gallup poll that found 1 in 6 Gen Z adults identify as LGBTQ. She also attributes that diversification to “a lot of well-meaning liberal White queer women who looked around and said, ‘Wow, this isn’t the bastion of equality we want it to be.’”
For Eyck, the constantly changing Dinah is a living, breathing artifact that can be “really formative in a person’s view of our community and who we are and what we’re about as people.” It’s also the rare queer women space “that is completely made for us and by us and exclusive to us,” she said, that has “a much bigger cultural impact than just that weekend.”
Alice Y. Hom, the host and producer of the upcoming podcast “Historically Queer,” questions the Dinah’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. “They’re saying, ‘We’re open to gender nonconformity, nonbinary, all queer women,’ but are they trying to get politicians to change their minds?” they asked.
The Oakland, Calif.-based community historian, who has never attended the Dinah, doesn’t believe the event is trying to make any real political change. While it is a space for lesbians and queer women, Hom, who identifies as a queer person of color, argued that the Dinah is not “changing the dynamics” of the event to make it more equitable for everyone in the queer community. “They’re just following a very capitalistic line of work.”
In recent years, the Dinah has become more inclusive in its language and messaging, according to Hanson. Over the past decade, the event has also partnered with charitable organizations that advocate for LGBTQ causes, including GLAAD, Equality California and the Human Rights Campaign. She said she was “sensitive to the responsibility that I have to our community” to create a space where attendees can “live out loud and proudly.”
Tai Bell-Rothwell said she felt “liberated and free” the first time she attended the Dinah in 2013, less than a year after she had gotten out of the military. She had served in the Air Force for six years, from 2006 to 2012, most of which was under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a Clinton-era policy that, before its repeal in 2010, prevented gay armed service members from serving openly. The Dinah was the first LGBTQ event she attended as a civilian, she said: “I just had an amazing time being me.”
That same year, Bell-Rothwell met her now wife, Paige Beth-Rothwell, at the Dinah. Paige had previously attended Pride parties in New York, but her first trip to the Dinah felt like an “opportunity to be around other people like us.” The Black lesbian couple, who chronicle their lives raising two children on their Life With Mamadeux Instagram account, often feel like outsiders when they travel. However, the Dinah “brings in women from all walks of life,” Paige said. “It makes you feel like you’re a part of something big.”
The L.A.-based couple has returned to the event twice since 2013, but that first year holds a special place in Tai’s heart. “It was like heaven,” she said. “I’ll never forget that feeling, it was the most fun I’ve ever had.”
While it may be a life-changing event for some, it’s long been marketed as a music festival. Hanson, who does all the booking herself, has earned a reputation for getting up-and-coming artists right before they hit it big. Past headliners include Lizzo, Kesha, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, who caused a stir when she headlined in 2009, the same year Gaga performed.
Some Dinah fans were upset by Perry’s 2008 single “I Kissed a Girl,” which they saw as a queerbaiting hit from a straight singer. “A few wanted to burn me in effigy,” Hanson said of the booking that led some to boycott that year’s party, which, she claims, is one of the biggest she ever threw. (The biggest Dinah, in terms of ticket sales, was in 2014 when the lineup included Tegan and Sara, Mary Lambert, Eve and a then-unknown Iggy Azalea, Hanson said.)
In recent years, the lineups have seen an increase in performers who are also members of the LGBTQ community. This year’s lineup includes bisexual rapper Yung Baby Tate, the queer pop vocal cover group Boi Band, and nonbinary singer and dancer Kat Cunning, who sees their booking as a step forward for the female-centered festival.
The event is a “celebration of whatever we consider and value being feminine,” Cunning said. “As long as everyone there is in support of and giving spotlight to that, I think it’s really exciting to evolve what kind of expressions you welcome.”
The Dinah’s website states that trans people are welcome at the event. Adding this information to the festival’s F.A.Q. page got some partygoers upset; they felt it should go without saying. However, Hanson said, she had heard from trans women and men who were unsure of the Dinah’s stance. The gathering, which was originally billed as an all-female event, “welcomes anyone who identifies with being female and their friends,” she clarified. “It’s never been an all-women event, and it never will be.”
For Eyck, the EveryQueer editor, the Dinah is a rare space that celebrates queer womanhood in all its variations. She suggested that those in the LGBTQ community who are apprehensive about the event’s politics or messaging check it out for themselves — while they still can.
“The energy of a space that is all queer women is so transformative,” she said. “To bear witness is important because events like Dinah will not last. The more we are accepted by society, the less spaces there will be for just us.”