The Dinah, a Festival for Queer Women, Returns to Palm Springs
The Dinah Shore Weekend, an annual festival for queer women, returned to Palm Springs last weekend after a two-year hiatus, this time with even more energy than usual.,
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — In late September, when thousands of people descended on the Hilton Palm Springs for a marathon weekend of pool parties, concerts and club nights, it had been close to 19 months since Covid-19 put life as we knew it on pause — not to mention, more than two years since this desert city had been transformed into a lively lesbian oasis.
The Dinah Shore Weekend, also known as the Dinah or lesbian spring break, has been taking over Palm Springs for 30 years now to put on what is called “the largest girl party in the world.” This time around, there were delays — the event was rescheduled twice — as well as safety precautions, including proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test result before each event. But there was still boundless energy.
At Saturday’s twerking contest, for instance, one contestant managed to keep a surgical mask affixed to her face as she thrust her lower half back and forth. Cara Delevingne, the model and actress, egged on the contestants, as go-go performers in rainbow swimsuits gyrated on platforms surrounding the hotel’s pool, Dinah attendees sliding cash tips into their skintight get-ups. (For those less inclined to touch, Venmo was also an option.)
City Girl’s “Twerkulator,” a TikTok bop turned unofficial Dinah theme song, blasted through the speakers; small bottles of hand sanitizer clipped with carabiners to neon swimsuits and shorts bounced against hips to the beat.
As swimmers emerged from the pool, the deck became more slippery, more crowded, more like the dance floors of a time when fear didn’t hang over every social gathering.
For many visitors, the Dinah was a homecoming, though there were also lots of newcomers (or “Dinah Virgins”) embracing a live-in-the-moment mentality instilled by the pandemic. Many of them described the event as a respite from a difficult year and a half.
“Everybody is so kind, friendly and welcoming,” said Beth King, 61, a recent retiree from Scottsdale, Ariz., who made her first trip out for the event with her wife of 25 years, Joann Smith. “It’s been such a great time.”
Katja Davis, a 35-year-old first-timer from the Bay Area, said it was “feeding the soul more than anything else,” while she lounged in a poolside cabana. “We’re all so hungry for connection,” she said. “The pandemic has been hard. Here, we can relax.”
A Brief History of the Dinah
Before there was an official event with tickets and swag, groups of lesbians convened in the Coachella Valley during the Dinah Shore Golf Championship, an annual tournament for the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
In the late 1980s, women would venture to Palm Springs while the matches were taking place to party at loosely organized events with boomboxes and alcohol. Mariah Hanson, a party promoter in San Francisco, attended one such party in 1990 and a vision struck. “I wanted to create a lesbian world,” she recalled in a phone interview before last weekend’s event.
In 1991, Ms. Hanson organized a one-night Dinah party, borrowing the name from the golf tournament, at the Palm Springs Museum of Art, where she was a corporate sponsor. The event got so wild that some art was damaged. Suffice it to say Ms. Hanson didn’t host an event at the museum again.
Instead, she brokered a partnership with the Hilton, expanding the event from a weekend to a long weekend to a five-day music festival filled with daytime pool parties and live performances that would run into the early hours of the morning.
In 2003, “The L Word” set an episode from its first season at the Dinah, the ensemble cast singing the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” on the drive from West Hollywood to Palm Springs. The ensuing scenes helped solidify the Dinah as a lesbian mecca.
“Within lesbian culture, Dinah Shore is the ultimate party and experience,” said Sarah R. Davis, 37, a third-time attendee, who was lounging on a daybed with her wife, a dystopian feminist novel and an icy bottle of Veuve Clicquot. She, like so many others in Palm Springs for the weekend, had learned of the Dinah from that famed “L Word” episode. Once she went, she understood its outsize reputation within queer circles. “This is a place to be our full selves,” Ms. Davis said.
For years, even as celebrity performers including Katy Perry, Lizzo, Lady Gaga and Tegan & Sara have headlined the festival, Saturday’s pool party has remained the “L Word Pool Party,” out of reverence for the cultural product that drew huge crowds to the Dinah.
“It blows me away that they still do ‘L Word’ pool parties,” Ilene Chaiken, one of the show’s creators, said over Zoom. She likened attending with the original cast to bringing the Beatles anywhere in the early 1970s. “It never occurred to me that ‘The L Word’ would be branded in memoriam at the Dinah. It’s an important piece of our gay culture now. It’s become an institution, and we need institutions.”
Since the event’s inception, Palm Springs has seen its politics become more liberal, and in 2018, it became the first municipality in America with a City Council whose members are all openly L.G.B.T.Q. The Dinah has changed, too: Though often branded as a lesbian paradise, for the last few years the event has opened to nonbinary and trans people, regardless of gender.
“It’s bigger than a party. It’s a movement. It’s powerful,” Ms. Hanson, 60, said. “We create five days where we are living in a queer, nonbinary, lesbian world. We celebrate who we are.”
‘An Experience Every Queer Woman Should Have’
“Everybody’s here,” said Sugar Blaire Robinson, 61, a retired professional boxer from Long Beach, Calif., sipping an icy pink cocktail near the poolside restaurant. “You see everybody.” She was initially skeptical of whether $100 would be worth it for a pool party, so her friends paid for her ticket. Hours in, she said she’d readily spend $100 to return. “I’ve been in awe. This is special. I love it.”
Dinah guests arrived from all over the United States — by R.V. from Denver, by car from other California cities, by plane from the East Coast — and as far as Dubai. Brittny Roberts and Susan Ahearn met for the first time at the Dinah, after a year spent chatting in a Zoom-based queer women’s literary group, which has since disbanded. They both identified as “late in life” lesbians, coming out mid-adulthood, and had longed to attend the event.
“It’s an experience every queer woman should have. It’s super-inclusive,” said Ms. Ahearn, who is 56 and a grandmother of three. “Everyone’s been wonderful. You come as you are and do what you want, that’s fabulous.” Back home, in the suburbs of Boston, Ms. Ahearn said she has trouble connecting with other lesbians, but here, she could find women to befriend and trade makeup tips with, as well as ones to crush on.
With so few lesbian bars left in America — some estimates put the number at 21 — and most major metro areas devoid of a single space for L.G.B.T.Q. women to gather, the Dinah, which has, perhaps miraculously, grown and stayed relevant over three decades, creates an urgently needed, if temporary, queer space. Many attendees traveled hundreds, if not thousands, of miles just to be with like-minded people.
“This is the first time I’m meeting so many women who belong to my community, and I’m so proud, I’m so happy,” said Anusha Dhulipala, 29, on Thursday at the Dinah’s opening-night party. Even though she lives in the Bay Area, typically thought of as a hub for L.G.B.T.Q. people, she has yet to meet any openly gay Indian women there. “I want to settle down and start a family,” she said. “This seems like the best place to find someone.”
Throughout the weekend, couples celebrated upcoming marriages, birthdays and anniversaries (and, in at least one case, a pending divorce bookmarked with one last romantic getaway); single women looked for future wives, weekend flings and single pals; and friend groups reunited and merged.
Plenty of entrepreneurs used the space for networking, including Lauren Pizzillo and Regina Russell, a couple living in San Diego. The two promoted their clothing shop, Married With Lesbians, by wearing matching tie-dyed T-shirts that read: “Born This Gay.”
Many single attendees, accustomed to a small dating pool, found themselves suddenly overwhelmed with potential romantic prospects. “I just don’t know who to catch,” a woman on the dance floor said with some frustration, opting to walk another lap before setting her sights on one of hundreds of potential dates, all dancing in swimwear.
“I’m excited to be a little picky,” said TC Click, 26, likening the experience to straight people going to bars and just knowing who may be attracted to them. With women, except for in dedicated queer spaces, it’s not typically like that. “I’m so happy,” she said. “I want to meet friends and hopefully my future wife.” She said she hopes to return, ideally as a performer (she raps) at Dinah 2022.
As the weekend waned, after-parties raged until dawn. Attendees coupled up, exchanged phone numbers and Instagram handles, and danced under a shower of rainbow confetti at Sunday night’s closing party.
“There’s nothing better than a bunch of queer women together. It’s so safe, so positive,” Laura Myers, 32, said. “Every time we leave, we wish it was longer. We just keep coming back. There’s nothing else like this.”