Festival-goers, who’d come from Montreal and Amsterdam, Cape Town and London, walked along a dusty river road, the starlight shining on slender stalks of bamboo, casting shadows on the path ahead. Electronic beats grew louder with every step, as the Saturday night crescendo of Ohana’s Queer Ranch Festival grew closer. Usually the nocturnal rhythms in these parts are reserved for frogs and crickets, but this weekend, some of the finest queer DJs from capitals across Europe were playing from a booth made of bamboo over a dancefloor made of straw. Baselines usually heard in sweaty basement clubs in Berlin drifted across the valleys of Lesvos until dawn broke, turning the zaffre skies pale blue.
The three-day festival – the first of its kind on the island – was the brainchild of Ohana Collective, in collaboration with Anaïs Carayon, founder of Paris’ Brain Magazine and producer Audrey Saint-Pe. Ohana is a Lesvos-based collective of (primarily) queer women who packed their bags three years ago, leaving city life behind, in order to live together, in community, in the great outdoors.
Though expanding and contracting in size, the Collective’s founding members are Samra Kurtovic from Serbia, Michelle Greeff from South Africa, Jen Schweda and Emrah Polywka, both from Germany. “Ohana means family,” Samra tells GO over a mango lassi by the sea after the Ohana Queer Ranch Festival. “It’s a Hawaiian word, meaning big, extended family. In life we were born into a family, but as queer people, we can and often must choose where and who our family are.” Through the summer months the Collective live on a slice of land in Skala Eressos – Ohana Ranch – where they’ve adopted eight cats, three goats, two ponies and anyone who needs a loving community to call home. In the winter they live in Ohana Rooms, a women-only hotel, a stone’s throw from the sea.
“We came to live in the nature, because it’s easier to connect to each other in this environment. In capitalist systems in the city, you’re forgetting yourself, who you are, what you need. Out in nature, you’re reminded that we’re here to connect to each other, to learn from each other – people and animals alike,” Samra says .
Throughout the festival, Ohana’s ponies and goats were hanging out in a neighbouring field, while queer fashionistas from near and far poured into the Ranch. PVC harnesses danced alongside Hawaiian shirts, platform boots stomped next to flip-flops. “It was one of my favourite things about the festival,” says Samra, “to see all these city looks out here in wild nature.”
Samra sips her mango lassi reflecting on the festival, gazing out to the horizon. She’s giving prophetic sage-by-the-sea. “This is the future,” she says, “even before the pandemic, you could see in Berlin and London, people moving out of the city. Then of course, the pandemic made people move even more. There’s nothing outside in the nature for queers, queer is always in the city, in the club, that’s where we feel safe. Queer ranches are the future for queer people when they go outside of their city.”
Naturally, a ranch festival can’t be all about nightlife – the blue cloudless skies, sandy beaches, and cool Mediterranean breeze, call your hungover ass to action no matter what you imbibed the night before. Throughout Ohana’s festival, people liberated their bodies and minds in yoga and meditation classes. There were volleyball tournaments, women’s circles, and self-defense workshops – all led by local instructors, queer women who live on the island year round. One sunset, the supremely talented Athenian band Someone Who Isn’t Me (S.W.I.M.) took to the stage, serving their indelible indie-electro-pop melodies. Legendary London drag king extraordinaire, Don One opened the festival, with a silky smooth performance at lesbian beach bar Flamingo. “I feel at home,” Don tells GO as they mosey around a bar, “I’ve never been here before but I feel home, it’s so strange.”
Though around a hundred queer women now call Skala Eressos home (for all or part of the year), the festival brought an injection of youth to the community. Of the hundred queer women who reside here, three are under the age of thirty (I am one of them!). The village has been something of a Mecca for queer women since the 1970s, as they traced the steps of Sappho, the likely queer poetess who gave lesbianism its name. Every September there’s an International Eressos Women’s Festival, which again attracts hundreds, maybe thousands of queer women, though again, mainly of a certain age.
“I was worried for this place,” says Samra, “it’s such a special, unique and historical spot and unless a younger, queer generation come in, it’s going to die.” Many who live here share this anxiety; the decades roll by, the queer elders get older and the queer youth don’t seem to be landing here. “I really wanted the festival to bridge the gap between the generations, because I appreciate all the generations,” says Samra, who’s in her 40s. “The older generation fought for us, we could never be queer without them, and they hold so much pain from these years of fighting to survive.
“The new generation,” Samra continues, “with new style, music, vocabulary, identities, they are apprehensive of the older generation, and it’s the same the other way around. So I always tell my younger queer friends, without the elders you cannot be you. And I say to my older gay or lesbian friends, that without the youth, continuing to evolve, the work you put in will be for nothing.”
The festival attracted some 150 out-of-islanders. Queerness, in all its glorious forms (though queer women most certainly ruled the Ohana roost), an amalgamation of ages and gender identities, united on the dancefloor, in yoga class and at the beach bar.
For nine years, since Samra first arrived on the island, she’s wanted to bring something alternative and queer here. “Ohana have been believing and working on it in our quietness through the years: by getting the land, preparing the ranch, getting the hotel ready. And energetically spreading the word, speaking about queerness, inviting people from around the world, ensuring safety and community.”
As far as festival-prep goes, Ohana’s was very spontaneous. “Anaïs and I had one conversation in our kitchen about someday creating a festival here,” says Samra, “but Anaïs really is someone who means what she says.” Over the course of three months the team rapidly prepared the ranch – building, mowing, inviting, organising, volunteering. “You work so hard in those three months,” says Samra. “There’s no break.
“And then, suddenly it’s the festival, it’s happening. Standing on the dancefloor, I had this moment, when I looked around and thought, it’s real, it’s actually real and it’s amazing. To think I was holding onto this for nine years, thinking this and hoping for this and then in that moment, it was a reality, we collectively manifested all of this.”
Samra wasn’t the only one pinching herself on the Ranch that night. Many of us who moved here have – for the time being anyway – exchanged the hustle and bustle, the style and nightlife of the big city, to be here in paradise, in community, in nature, by the sea. Tonight, there was no trade-off; the city and all her energy and looks came to us. Eyes closed, we were in Berghain, losing our mind and body to the thumping beat of techno. Eyes open, we were surrounded by our beautiful community, gazing up to the stars, on an island floating in the Aegean Sea.