At London’s Lesbiennale Arts Festival, There’s No Wrong Way To Be A Dyke

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Inside London’s first-ever lesbian arts festival.

Nadine Ahmad (@nadineartois) is chilling in Rio Cinema in Dalston, East London with a chicken wing in one hand and a glass of white in the other. They’re wearing an oversized suit and sitting in a full-on lesbian leg spread. They speak with the eloquent, thorough, and thoughtful conviction of a person in their absolute element, and ooze enough big dyke energy to make anyone’s sexual compass veer towards the island of Lesbos.

Nadine is co-founder of Pxssy Palace (@pxssypalace), a party regarded by many as the best QTPOC+ party in London.  Tonight, they’re hosting another game-changer in the capital’s queer clubbing scene, Lesbiennale.

Billed as London’s first lesbian arts festival, Lesbiennale’s dynamic programming has been a roaring success so far. Earlier in the week, the prestigious Institute of Contemporary Arts was busting at the seams with hot-under-the-collar dykes as the likes of poet Kai Isaiah-Jamal and drag artist Victoria Sin read erotic (and evocative) pieces about their relationship to lesbianism.

Later this evening, Rio will be screening “Shakedown,” Leilah Weinraub’s steamy documentary about life in a black lesbian strip club in early naughties L.A. After this, hundreds of us are heading to a free dance party at Village Underground, a renovated warehouse that’ll offer a much-needed opportunity to release some of the steam built-up over the festival.

Some serious Sapphic sorcery occurred with Lesbiennale’s timing. Not only did it launch on International Lesbian Day (‘We didn’t even know it was on the same day,’ Nadine wrote on Instagram), but it also launched during Black History Month. Again, it was by chance, but it was also apt, seeing as “almost everyone involved in the project is a lesbian of color,” Nadine says.

When Nadine and Naeem Davis of fellow game-changing QTPOC+ collective BBZ were asked to co-curate Lesbiennale by Boiler Room’s 4:3 Platform, two thoughts came to mind. The first: fantastic name; the second: “Maybe we’re not lesbian enough,” Nadine recalls.

As two people of color who identify as non-binary, they’ve often felt a disconnect from the word “lesbian.” “There was a romanticism over the word that was denied to me for so long because of the binaries that I felt existed,” they say.

Though Nadine is now 31 and happily flying the flag of non-binary Pakistani lesbianism, it took them almost a decade to get to this point. Having spent so many years harnessing the nuance and transience of their identities; having found freedom in black, queer politics; and after four years of fostering Pxssy Palace into the extensive community of queer people of color it is today, Nadine wondered if “lesbianism” was too reductive a term for them.

“After feeling so free of everything and being able to live outside of the box, why was I suddenly considering boxing myself in?” they say.

Nadine started speaking to other people of color in their community and soon found that a lot of people had a similarly less-than-straightforward relationship with lesbianism. Some were non-binary lesbians or trans-masculine dykes; many were trans men, who, as ex-lesbians, once had a home in lesbianism. “And that’s still valid. They still have a connection to lesbianism and lesbians because of that experience – history is important, your experiences of being a lesbian don’t just stop because you’re interested in something else now,” Nadine says.

After much deliberation, Nadine and Naeem concluded that lesbianism needn’t be a monolith, that there are in fact a million ways of doing dyke. As Aisha Mirza, the person behind Lesbiennale’s razor-sharp curator’s statement, writes, the festival is “for trans lesbians, non-binary POC lesbians, dark skin lesbians, lesbians who like sex, lesbians who like getting paid for sex, lonely lesbians, long-haired lesbians, queer lesbians, ex-lesbians, big dick lesbians who like three sugars in their tea, Black nerdy lesbians, your lesbian neighbor who hates you, and all the other marginalized bocats of the lesbian world.”

 

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Like the word “queer,” lesbian can be expansive, limitless, and amorphous. “Language grows and changes… and it’s nice investing in this fluidity,” says Nadine, “to be able to celebrate that, and to be able to highlight marginalized communities within lesbianism is our goal.”

Lesbiannale is, in other words, an attempt to broaden, expand, unpack, and explore lesbianism, to thoroughly “queer” the term so that as many of us as possible can fit into lesbianism’s lacey thong, cotton briefs, or Calvin boxers. The more people entering our community and finding a home in dykesville, the more we celebrate our differences, nuances, and lack of conformity, and the more capacity we have to rise together.

Later that evening, as we queue outside Village Underground, the street is packed with lesbians from all over the capital throwing different styles from countless ethnic backgrounds, each holding a unique and individual relationship to lesbianism. After an hour or so, we are released into the colossal venue, joining hundreds of dykes dancing feverishly under the venue’s lofty arches. Leading queer DJs of color Sippin’ T, Paulette, and Covco deliver banger after banger from speakers that reverberate through your soul while scorching hot performances from the likes of drag king Wesley Dykes, Harpies, Cutie Whippingham run throughout the evening, leaving most of the crowd in horny disarray.

It’s 1 a.m. on a Thursday night and the vibe is sky-high. People are considerate and respectful while simultaneously bruk’ing until they can’t see straight. The MC repeats the festival’s mantra: “This is a QTPOC+ priority night, please be conscious and considerate of the space” — a sentiment mirrored in the documentary we watched earlier. Shakedown’s MC orating a message as significant in ’90s LA as it is in London today.

“This is only the beginning,” promises Nadine. Lesbiannale will return in the coming months packing an even bigger punch. Among other additions, there’s talk of a sex party, because “You can’t have erotic readings without giving someone a place to go afterwards.”

While Nadine and Naeem cook up another lesbianic-storm, the days are getting short and nippy. It’s time to hold tight, bunker down and watch as Lesbiennale unfolds online as a series of short films. Aside from that, watch this space; shifts are coming in London’s queer clubbing scene, and this time, lesbians are leading the way.


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