York in lesbian fast lane

When found out that York was culturally light years ahead of him, he decided to go where no man had gone before: Lesbian arts

Lesbians have always been something of a mystery to me. I would have thought that they would be a mystery in York too. With its city walls, 1930’s tea rooms and all manner of museums, the fact that York hosts an annual arts festival focused upon alternative sexuality did come as something of a surprise.

I was also intrigued by the concept of lesbian art and so, albeit naively, ran an image search on Google. I guess that you can imagine that the results were, although interesting and revealing, not overly helpful.

The event is organized by Libertas, a York company dedicated to the promotion of the lesbian lifestyle and the welfare of lesbian women. Libertas’ Helen Sandler, who heads the festival organization team, was on hand to tell me more (and she proved to be much more enlightening than my endeavours with internet search engines).

She told me that the festival was “a festival of arts produced by lesbian women”. Intriguing, yes, but I still couldn’t quite get to grips with what it was that made art produced by a lesbian any different from that produced by a heterosexual, bisexual or gay male. As the festival did not focus explicitly or specifically on sexual material, I couldn’t see what would make the festival any different from any other.

Perhaps I had been a little narrow minded, despite the warnings of a friend. I tried a different approach and asked Helen what the purpose of the festival was, what it was that the festival aimed to achieve. She replied that “the festival was an opportunity for lesbians to see their lives reflected”. Often avoiding outright aspects of a strictly sexual nature, the festival focused upon the broader aspects of the lesbian lifestyle, and takes both the highs and the lows in equal measure and with a good dose of humour. If anything, the festival tries to dissolve some of the stereotypes surrounding lesbianism, and so perverts expecting a soft show and cheap kicks are advised to look elsewhere.

The festival covers ‘art’ in the broadest sense. Book readings, poetry recitals, picture exhibitions, film showings, music concerts and stand-up comedy all feature, among others, in the annual festival. Many of the best artists feature, including the popular comediennes Rhona Cameron and Sandy Toksvig. Famous authors, Sarah Waters (author of ‘Tipping the Velvet’) and crime writer Val McDermid have also made appearances.

Helen was keen to tell me that the mainstream arts community is, disappointingly, hostile to lesbian art. Understandably, material of an explicit sexual content is restricted in opportunities for publication. However, there remains a general disapproval of books and films which have lesbians in the main character roles, of songs which sing of the lesbian sexuality and of comediennes who joke about the lesbian lifestyle. Although not pushing a feminist cause, Helen reminds me that even decades after winning the vote for women, there is still much work to do in making society more open and accepting towards women, and that lesbian sexuality plays a part in that.

Therefore, in a sense, the lesbian festival is a segregation. As the mainstream community will not fully acknowledge lesbian art, Helen said that there is no other forum for the publication of lesbian art work. Despite this, both males and females are welcome to attend the festival, regardless of their sexual orientation. All people are actively encouraged to get involved and discover something of a sexuality often neglected by the mainstream media.

The festival has been running for four years now, and seems to grow in both size and popularity each time. It started as a book festival in The Barbican, because Libertas is primarily a publishing company. However, it has now expanded to embrace more aspects of art. Meanwhile, Libertas itself has also grown with surprising speed and dynamism. From its humble beginnings on Gillygate as one of York’s many book shops, it has now expanded to a national mail order company, selling not only books, but a whole range of accessories for the lesbian lifestyle, as well as keeping everyone up to date with what events and concerts are on.

Apart from Libertas, York City Council and the National Arts Council England make contributions to help raise the tens of thousands necessary to stage the festival. Helen told me that the support received from York Council has been overwhelming. Apart from pledging financial support, they have been able to provide meeting facilities and the logistical support needed to get the festival up and running.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction from the public has been really positive. People arrive for the festival, not only from York and other parts of the country, but from a whole range of international locations. According to Helen, the festival seems quite a popular hit with York’s taxi drivers, who apparently become increasingly intrigued as each year they drive the crowds from the station to the festival.

As Libertas are awaiting confirmation of a number of financial decisions, they are as yet unable to give a final date for the next festival, which is likely to be held at York Racecourse. Details will be posted on the Libertas website in the near future.