Meet Mariah Hanson, Founder of Iconic Lesbian Festival The Dinah

For the majority of us queer women out there, watching The L Word was a vital rite of passage that catered for the evolution from queer female cadets on a path of self-discovery, to out and proud queer womxn, dancing at Pride parades around the world. The L Word introduced me to a whole new world, including The Dinah, which to my 18-year-old self resembled basically, queer female heaven. At a time when gay marriage was not legal yet in Australia, and I was not openly out to everyone, this inclusive queer female celebration seemed like a wild fantasy. One that I desperately wanted to attend.

The Dinah has been going strong since its inception in 1991 by founder Mariah Hanson, a visionary who saw the need for greater representation and recognition for queer women. Now known as the world’s largest lesbian festival, The Dinah serves as a refuge, a haven and a celebration for women from all over the world. We caught up with the female entrepreneur to discuss all things The Dinah and visibility for queer women.

What inspired you to start The Dinah?

I’m from an activist family so it was natural for me to want to step up the way lesbians and queer women celebrated our lives in the environments we find ourselves in when we are doing that. So often we were relegated to the dive bar, the rundown hotel, etc and I wanted to bring a message of collective self-esteem — “you are worth the best the city has to offer” was the silent message.

How has The Dinah evolved since its inception?

Civil rights are further along, women empowerment is enjoying a healthy resurgence, diversity is a given in so many more areas of life and women are vocalizing the need to be untied, and to speak with one voice. The social dialogue is more meaningful and those entering the discussion are more engaged. This all reflects the way The Dinah is created and offered to our customers. We happily join in the dialogue and do our best to present a space that embodies the crux of this social change — community, empowerment, and authentically living out loud.

What are your thoughts on the current state of venues representing queer women in the United States?

As we gain more and more visibility, these spaces become harder to retain because the need to connect in queer-only spaces does not feel as relevant.  But I think that is a huge mistake. We have our own culture and identity, even within the broad range of our diversity. I think our own spaces are an important part of the process of coming out and creating community

As a queer woman from Australia I recall seeing The Dinah on Season 1 of The L Word and instantly being hooked to go. Did you notice that the airing of that episode drew a wider international audience?

Oh yes, we had a huge leap in attendance that year and it has consistently maintained an increase. The segment on The Dinah gave us exposure across the entire planet. Needless to say, I love Showtime. ;). I also love them and Ilene Chaiken for sharing our stories so boldly. What seems so natural now was groundbreaking then, thanks to the courage and the conviction that our stories must be told.

There is still a great lacking of visibility for queer women and their narratives in the media. What do you think can be done to change this?

I think we have so much more visibility than we ever have and it increases daily.  Go to a site like onemorelesbian.com and view the thousands of films and series with lesbian content. It’s marvelous and inspiring. But in order for stories to be told, we need storytellers. And storytellers need to be supported. So what can we do about that? Those of us that are inspired to tell our stories must never be discouraged. We must support our writers, our filmmakers and our actors. Social media and the internet level the playing field but we must watch the films, videos, etc in order to justify more to be made. This is simply a supply and demand issue. If we want it, we need to support it.

The Dinah has hosted a range of incredible artists and performances. What influences your decisions when sourcing talent?

That has varied over the years but at this point in my career, I look for artists with backstories that are inspiring and speak to female visibility in the face of a male-dominated field. I love booking artists that push the envelope, that say no to the patriarchy and yes to a new paradigm — that of women as leaders, as social initiators, as groundbreakers.

The Dinah
Madam Gandhi performing at The Dinah

What have been some of your most memorable moments at The Dinah to date?

So many, but in the end my answer is always the same.  I love hearing the stories that speak to how The Dinah gave someone hope, or changed their life in unexpected ways. I love the stories of perceived despair that led to a decision to take a chance on The Dinah and how they found hope and community and a sense of belonging.

Do you have any advice to give to other female entrepreneurs who are interested in following a similar career path?

Work hard, remain persistent and don’t take no for an answer. Always be fair and honest and embrace personal integrity. Think big. You are representing a diverse community and as producers in this community part of our job is building proverbial bridges to greater understanding of each other.

The Dinah is held April 3rd till April 8th in Palm Springs, California. Get your tickets here.

Interview by Sahar Nicolette.

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