The York Lesbian Arts Festival 2008

Since its first incarnation in 2000 as a book reading event, the York Lesbian Arts Festival (YLAF) has grown to incorporate workshops, discussions, music, comedy and dancing. It’s become something of an institution, a solid fixture in the calendar for literary ladies.

YLAF is the only lesbian literature festival in the UK, and possibly in the whole of Europe. And so, on a breathtakingly cold weekend in October, book-lovers from Britain joined independent publishers from Poland, literature academics from Latvia and hopeful first-time authors from the Netherlands to descend on a small northern town more famous for Vikings and railways than lesbian fiction.

In previous years YLAF has hosted Sarah Waters and Rhona Cameron, but the star attraction of this year’s event – L Word writer and actress Guinevere Turner – mysteriously pulled out just days before the festival, much to the disappointment of many fans. But the show must go on, and festival-goers consoled themselves by flocking to readings and book signings by the more than 35 authors in attendance, including Jackie Kay (see photo above), Stella Duffy and Val McDermid (see photo below).

YLAF really is something special; a literary festival that reaches into the solitary pleasures of reading and writing to bring together a sparkling celebration of queer culture

The strength of YLAF has always been in the range and depth of the literary arts it covers. This year’s discussions and debates covered everything from developing a voice as an author to discussions of whether heterosexual writers can or should write lesbian fiction; the intrinsic value of the written word to the role of the lesbian hero or anti-hero. Performances went beyond readings to spoken word poetry, comedic theatre, burlesque and even a performance by a drag king boy band.

Despite the name, the York Lesbian Arts Festival goes to great lengths to explain on its website that it is a festival for self-identified women of all sexualities and gender expressions. But although it may be very open in some ways, in others can still seem incredibly restrictive; you don’t have to be a lesbian to attend YLAF, but you do have to be well off.

Entrance to the book fair – the area in which to browse the books on sale and meet authors – was £18 on the Friday, £22 on the Saturday. Workshops cost between £15 and £20 each. The Thursday night entertainment was £15, the Friday night comedy and music was at least £22 and the Saturday club night was £15. A pass for the whole weekend was available for £75. Although individual events are more affordable, of course there’s food, accommodation and perhaps child-minding to pay for too.

With no discounts to encourage people on lower wages or students, the end result is a festival which, while very jolly, is made up almost entirely of middle-class women. The audience also skewed towards middle-aged women – although obviously, not every event has to be geared towards younger women. But YLAF really is something special; a literary festival that reaches into the solitary pleasures of reading and writing to bring together a sparkling celebration of queer culture. It’s just a shame that more women don’t have the opportunity to experience it.

We asked YLAF about the ticket-price issue. Festival director Crin Claxton responded:

YLAF is a non-profit-making company (and is applying for charitable status), and our main funders are Arts Council England, Diva magazine & Libertas, but funding is limited and the costs of putting on a four-day festival with 65 artists, authors and performers, including some international artists are – as might be imagined – extensive. If we were to reduce prices we would have to reduce the number of artists who appear, the length of event, the number of DJs or club floors, etc. We spend money on making the festival accessible and diverse. Given more funding we would love to be able to do more – and charge less! (Or keep the prices down in years to come.) At present total ticket sales account for less than 40% of festival income. This means the current prices are subsidised by 60%.

What we can do is make sure that there are real benefits for people who book early 2 which helps our cashflow and helps people on lower incomes too – our early bird prices (widely promoted in May and June) were less than YLAF’06 – and advance tickets bought from July through to the festival itself were also cheaper. Also there were loads of deals available so that people on lower incomes could choose to come to one or more of the events – for example: the Book Festival was £18 on Friday and £22 on Saturday, the Love Lottery was £10. And Club Diva was a two floor (four DJs) plus queerlesque entertainment and was only £10.

The YLAF audience is probably slightly more mixed by ethnicity and age than other straight (and gay) arts festivals and events – and performers at the festival included many younger women and women of colour, which YLAF organisers hope will be reflected to a greater degree in the festival audience in the years to come. Many younger women attended the Friday evening concert and club events. Also access is superb and there’s a whole access team – which meant that disabled people were well represented in the audience.

Sunday’s great music and herstory event at lunchtime at the Priory Centre was completely free – which meant that local LGBT people who were not able to attend the festival for financial reasons were able to come down and take part at no cost.

Finally it’s worth saying that, while the organisers did deals and looked for sponsorship wherever possible, we had to pay for venue hire, transport, lighting and sound provision, hotel accommodation for artists, etc. Most people who work on the festival do so on a voluntary basis or for (far) less than the going rate.

Photos of Jackie Kay, Stella Duffy and Val McDermid copyright Julie M Gibson, and photo of Greymatter copyright Sam Appa photography. Used with kind permission of YLAF