For all the promise of gender equality on lineups, UK music festivals are still dominated by male artists – a BBC study last week found that only 13% of headliners at top festivals this year are women – and many of them are white, straight and cisgender . But down a gravel path in St Albans lies an alternative.
Hosting house and techno artists, Flesh festival – held last weekend – bills itself as the UK’s first queer camping music festival, with a lineup where women, trans and non-binary artists make up more than 90% of the talent. The house and techno names stretch from big stars such as Ellen Allien and Rebekah to artists who have never played a festival before, while an all-female security team watches over festivalgoers, rainbow flags decorate the stages, and the mullet-to-ticket ratio must be the highest of any event in the UK.
Organiser Sam Togni, founder of London 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 seeing so many parties, clubs and events around the world forced to shut down”. As well as the inclusive lineup, they wanted to give “newcomers to the industry a way to flourish”: Flesh ran a competition for queer, trans and intersex people of color where two winners got 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,” Togni says. “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 by 8pm, and at 11pm on the dot, the music stops – which was flagged by organisers the day before the festival, but still surprises many people.
On Sunday morning, punters queue for the event’s sole coffee seller. Food trucks haven’t opened nor has the music restarted. “It has been really fun though,” says Jenny, who was at Flesh to celebrate their friend’s birthday. “When you’re with a lot of queer people it’s usually only at a queer night. The camping, hanging out and seeing queer people dancing in nature has been really special.”
“At all the festivals I’ve been to, like Stray and Homobloc, I’ve worn various levels of clothes,” they continue. “I wore a really skimpy outfit for Homobloc and I kept getting touched by cis gay men and it felt really uncomfortable, whereas here I feel like I could have both nips, front bum and back bum [all out], and it would be totally fine, which is great. It’s how it should be.”
Like inclusive queer club nights Pxssy Palace, Crossbreed and Body Movements, Flesh centers queer and trans people; Members of those collectives play at Flesh, joined by resident DJs from London parties Inferno and Big Dyke Energy. One newcomer is Misfia, playing their first festival after winning one of Flesh’s LSA scholarships. “If I’d told myself a year ago that I would be playing a festival this year I don’t think I would have believed that,” Misfya says after her bouncy, energising DJ set. “It’s unreal. I only started properly playing in September last year, so I feel very happy and proud that I’ve got to this place.”
Queer and trans joy like this can be felt across the site. Marie-Maxime, at her first English festival, attributes this to the “very welcoming and secure” atmosphere in which “everybody’s friendly. I was not expecting so many good vibes, a safe environment. It’s super colourful too – we all wear black in Paris.” This is relative: the crowd is still heavy on leather harnesses, face piercings, leather jackets and platform boots. But unlike other queer spaces and events, cis gay men aren’t the largest constituency – and there are no straight women or hen parties tagging along to see the show. Flesh shows that when queer women and trans people run events, they can cater to this underserved segment of the UK’s queer population: the girls, gays and theys.
Standing in line with Marie-Maxime to get coffee is Sharan Dhaliwal, author of Burning My Roti: Breaking Barriers as a Queer Indian Woman. “It’s been a great queer family vibe,” Dhaliwal agrees. “Really wholesome and also really not wholesome in equal measure. It’s beautiful.” Both women noted that Flesh felt safe, with Dhaliwal explaining: “We are surrounded by queerness, and that’s where the safety comes from.”