A monthly column about gay and lesbian travel

Where the Crowds Are

by Sasha Alyson

Gay and lesbian events are growing -- in number, diversity and audience. Several major summer events have become major institutions in their own right.

Above: More than 150,000 people are expected to attend this year's Gay Day at Disney World, which always takes place the first Saturday in June.

The author: Sasha Alyson is the founder of Alyson Publications, the country's leading publisher of gay and lesbian books. He sold that company in 1995 to start Alyson Adventures, which specializes in active and adventure vacations for gay men and lesbians.



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Only a generation ago, the most gay people you ever saw together were those
who could fit in the local bar. But in the past two decades, several large-scale gay and lesbian events have become institutions in their own right, attracting thousands of participants year after year. Each of these festivals and fairs develops its own character, but all offer the same thing to participants: the exhilaration of feeling a part of an enormous community.

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Some 6,000 women are expected at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival , August 10-15, in the north country of Michigan. Sitting on that ambiguous boundary between "women-only" and "lesbian", the festival has found a niche that it seems to serve well.

This annual event has shed some of its chaotic past. Hundreds of women arrive early to build the stages, organize systems, erect food tents, and generally set up the infrastructure to turn 650 acres of forest and meadow into a small, self-sufficient village. Every participant pitches in with labor, as well as psychic energy, to make the festival come together: Preparing communal vegetarian dinners over a wood fire, dispensing supplies, or helping in the First Aid tent. Shuttles run frequently to and from the Grand Rapids airport, 2-1/2 hours away.

"Michigan", as the regulars call it, is about women and music, as the name promises, but that's only the start. The shared camping experience also contributes to the festival's unique identity. Some women arrive ready-to-go in their RVs, others may need a hand to unroll their sleeping bag. Well, that's what friends are for. No, Michigan isn't for everyone. But women from quite a few walks of life find these six days, in the words of the organizers, to be "animated, raw, sexy, thoughtful and provocative." What more could you want from your vacation?

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In 1991, a small group of gay friends passed the word: "The first Saturday in June is Gay Day at Disney World. Wear a red t-shirt." The idea caught on fast, and even in that first year, there were 2,500 red t-shirts at Disney World.

The event has grown steadily, in both size and length: In 1999, organizers predict that 130,000 to 150,000 people will show up for an event that now extends to six days (June 2 to 7) with event sites throughout the Orlando area, including Universal Studios, Busch Gardens, Cirque du Soleil, and Sea World.

For an event of this size, it helps to plan your schedule in advance. For the headline event, it's simple: just buy an admission ticket to Disney World for Saturday, June 5. But tickets for other parties need to be purchased from other sources, and your days in Orlando will be simpler if you don't plan it all on the fly. On Saturday evening, for example, you can choose between a wholesome BBQ at Fort Wilderness Campground; helping to turn Pleasure Island into Fire Island for a night; or Jeffrey Sanker's "One Mighty Party" at Disney-MGM Studios.

The official Gay Day website (www.gayday.com) is, unfortunately, a bloated eyesore whose designer should study the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival site to learn that a web page can be attractive, informative, and user-friendly. Still, it will get you started. You'll also find a calendar of events at the unrelated site (read carefully; this one has an "s" at the end) www.gaydays.com.

Californians needn't head all the way to Florida to hold hands at The Happiest Place on Earth. Last year, a Gay Day was held for the first time at the original Disneyland, an hour south of Los Angeles. A repeat is set for October 2. Neither Gay Day is sponsored by, nor has any affiliation with, Disney itself, which can offer information about prices and hours for Disney theme parks, but not about other Gay Day parties and events.

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Mickey won't be there, but perhaps Pluto will turn out for San Francisco's Leather Week, culminating in the sixteenth annual Folsom Street Fair on September 16. Billed as "The Biggest Leather Event in the World", organizers claim the event draws "upwards of 300,000 people". There is perhaps a bit of guesswork in that number, but it's still a busy time, and attendees should start lining up accommodations soon - whether a classy hotel, a cozy gay B&B, or space in a friend's living room.

The Fair is sponsored by SMMILE (the South of Market Merchants' and Individuals' Lifestyles Events: (415) 861--FAIR), a non-profit organization that distributes proceeds to community organizations.

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Of course, the biggest party of the year is the one starting December 31. My last column, As The Odometer Turns, highlighted several gay millennium events. Undersea Expeditions (800-669-0310), the leading tour operator for gay scuba divers, offers two trips for those who'd like to sip their New Year's champagne underwater, from a squeeze bottle.

One trip (Dec. 30 to Jan. 5, $2999) takes divers across the equator, to the Galapagos Islands. Huge hammerhead sharks school here; you may also see whale sharks, dolphins, and soaring manta rays. Those who prefer to share the ocean with smaller fish can try Undersea Expeditions' Belize voyage (Dec. 25 to Jan. 1, $1999.00), with spectacular wall diving and the world's second largest barrier reef system.

April, 1999


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