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Is Coachella a Queer Oasis or an Anti-LGBTQ Racket?

Why This Gay Man Will Never Go Back to Coachella

Alexander Modiano describes the queer conundrum of visiting the desert music festival.

As the mass exodus from Ariana Grande's headlining set on the final day of Coachella slowly trudged forward, I turned my head to examine the scene behind me. While pink confetti still fell from the sky -- remnants of Ariana's finale performance of "Thank U, Next" -- the graphic on the main stage's massive screen had changed from a light purple to an image of the rainbow flag. As a gay man attending the festival, I knew I was supposed to be moved, but after the weekend's events, I was not sure what to make of the symbol.

Back in early January, as my eyes snaked down the white font of Coachella's freshly announced 2019 lineup, my heart-pounding excitement soon halted to a pause. The glittering opportunity to see Ariana Grande, Kacey Musgraves, Lizzo, and Janelle Monae -- icons whose music has become cemented with my personal narrative of queerness -- was darkened by a vague memory of a past news cycle.

As a quick Google search reminded me, Coachella's LGBTQ issues are hardly a well-kept secret. Philip Anschutz, the billionaire owner of Anschutz Entertainment Group and therefore the Coachella Valley Music Festival, was found to have donated $190,000 to anti-LGBTQ groups, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, National Christian Foundation, and Family Research Council. Anschutz released a statement denying an anti-LGBTQ political agenda following those 2017 reports.

"Recent claims published in the media that I am anti-LGBTQ are nothing more than fake news -- it is all garbage," Anschutz's statement read. "I unequivocally support the rights of all people without regard to sexual orientation. ... Both The Anschutz Foundation and I contribute to numerous organizations that pursue a wide range of causes. Neither I nor the Foundation fund any organization with the purpose or expectation that it would finance anti-LGBTQ initiatives."

And whether it was to fight the backlash and anti-LGBTQ narrative triggered by his past donations or double down on his claimed "support [for] the rights of all people without regard to sexual orientation," Anschutz donated $1 million to the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 2018.

Amid this controversy, as my close friends were blasting my phone with texts already planning our wild and grandiose trek to Indio, Calif., in April, I was trying to sort out what it would mean for me -- a gay man -- to join in on the fun.

To attend the festival, at first, felt sort of like selling out my personal and political beliefs. No matter Anschutz's words or actions after the fact, buying into Coachella seemed like going against my own identity and community.

However, as an Out article by Myles Tanzer revealed, boycotting the festival and AEG was more complicated than it first appeared. "The reality is that AEG controls all of the larger and high-quality venues in major markets in the U.S. and a bunch of important venues worldwide," Tanzer wrote. "Because of the size and the scale of AEG's assets, if you go see a touring act of almost any popularity in the United States, you're probably giving AEG your money." Tanzer went on to explain that AEG's domination of live music is also what makes it so hard for artists to take a stand against Anschutz's actions or boycott the festival.

While I did not sleep any better after learning of AEG's monopoly on live music, I did reflect upon what it would mean for all queer people to skip the event.

In recent years, Coachella has transcended its place as a simple music festival. In its 20-year history, against a rapidly changing and increasingly digital landscape, the event has not only managed to stay relevant but evolve into a media capital of the world for the two weeks it lasts.

News and culture made at Coachella go on the world's stage. Take Beyonce's turn as a headliner in 2018. Not only did "Beychella" trigger a media explosion the year it happened, the release of Homecoming, a concert documentary taken from the performance, became a cultural event in its in own right a year afterward. Beyonce, without releasing a new solo studio album, was able to capture the entire world's attention two years in a row just by utilizing the festival and its stage.

Queer people skipping the event feels less like a jab against an anti-LGBTQ billionaire and more like a lost opportunity for representation and exposure -- especially for queer artists, whose careers could skyrocket from the festival's attention. Janelle Monae, Sophie, Blood Orange, Soccer Mommy, Kaytranada, and King Princess all had a lot to gain from performing at the festival this year. Not to mention that queer artists are often already at a disadvantage as they are forced to navigate an industry with traditional values and heteronormative gatekeepers.

Still ethically baffled and internally torn on purchasing a pass, I thought I would try to hack the system: acquire a press pass and examine the festival from the inside.

Staring at my freshly acquired festival passes, my state of confusion on April 11 was probably comparable to that of my 60-year-old Lyft driver. Charles had just circled the festival grounds for a second time and made the decision to drop me off at an unsanctioned entrance for Coachella. While neither of us really understood what I was to find if I ever made it inside of Coachella's campgrounds, his confusion seemed to be mostly directional, while mine was a bit more conceptual.

With a line-up tailored to LGBTQ interests and against a backdrop of anti-LGBTQ actions by its owner, what would queerness look like within the world's most famous music festival?

Coachella's campgrounds gave off the energy of a college town on the weekend -- excited young people buzzing around in varying amounts of undress with varying amounts of alcohol in their systems. Desert winds carrying strong whiffs of weed created ripples through the makeshift city of campsites, flanked with colorful tapestries and flags.

As I journeyed to rejoin my own tribe, I found comfort in the occasional rainbow flag displayed on a car or hanging from a tent. I quickly found out I was far from alone in breaking the queer Coachella picket line.

Goldenvoice, the subsidiary of AEG in charge of Coachella, was definitely anticipating LGBTQ festivalgoers and their questions of inclusivity surrounding the festival.

Amid reports of rampant sexual assault at last year's festival, in addition to Anschutz's political dealings, Goldenvoice announced its "every one" campaign aimed at creating "a festival and culture that is safe, inclusive and fun for all."

The ambitious initiative included "every one" tents staffed with trained counselors, an inclusive restroom policy that stated "all restrooms are for anyone regardless of gender identity or expression," and a promise of thorough access throughout the festival for people with disabilities.

Veline Mojarro, the director of equity, safety, and inclusion at Goldenvoice, gave a statement about her team's process around crafting the initiative:

"The 'every one' initiative is a collaborative endeavor. We are closely working with woman, a consulting agency, to co-create the 'every one' initiative in the curation of our every one tent and ambassador program. We also sought guidance from Our Music, My Body, Planned Parenthood, Coachella Valley Sexual Assault Services, and Trans Community Project. It was very important to me that we took an intersectional approach to the work of safety and inclusion. As a whole, we have to take all our identities into account. We have to center the most impacted and take real action steps to make sure every one is taken care of."

The two "every one" tents I visited during my time in Indio proved to be the quiet calm spaces staffed with attentive counselors that the initiative promised they would be. Gender-neutral bathrooms were somewhat available within the festival grounds, although they were just as hectic and rundown as the portable toilets designated with male and female symbols.

Throughout the festival, I was readily seeking institutional policies or actions that would infringe upon LGBTQ people like the political initiatives funded by Anschutz's donations. I was ready to blow the whistle on Coachella's blatant homophobic practices. However, as a cisgender, white gay man, I found no such evidence.

For many attendees, Coachella even seemed to provide a welcoming environment for expression. Men paraded around the festival in rompers, dresses, and varying states of makeup in substantial numbers, with glitter appearing to transcend gender, sexuality, and age. With everyone attempting to elicit attention and make visual statements, binaries felt easy to transcend. The abundance of rainbow imagery incorporated into the festival -- including a massive spiraling rainbow tower at its center -- added to the notion that Coachella was a place for freedom.

As packs of crop-topped "instagays" frolicked around in large numbers and jumped up excitedly for Kacey Musgraves, I began to understand why Coachella had such a large LGBTQ following. There was a certain kind of safety here usually reserved only for LGBTQ-specific spaces. Feeling safe to hold a partner's hand or don a flashy outfit is a privilege few queer people get to regularly experience, especially outside of hypersexualized spaces like gay bars.

It seemed that a certain openness pervaded the festival that enabled privileged festivalgoers to transcend societal limitations. Within the realm of Coachella, outside identities could be shed just as easily as responsibilities could be escaped -- and drugs could be taken.

Take the three beautiful strangers I found myself in line with during the late hours of the festival's second night. Two of the strangers, a straight couple, were in love. They had met on EliteSingles, a dating app for young professionals, four months earlier, but already knew they were going to get married. They were enjoying their time at Coachella, a quick diversion from their days spent in offices pursuing their careers. But they were also readily enjoying their newfound friend, a bisexual MBA student with a background in finance. As the three took turns making out with each other a few feet from me, the extent of Coachella's effects became very apparent.

While the freedoms of exploration and expression are truly beautiful things, something about the space curated by Coachella still left me baffled. With the pervasiveness of rainbows and the abundance of pop performances, comparisons to a Pride celebration would not be totally unfounded. While a similarly safe and welcoming atmosphere exists in both spaces, Pride is built on inclusivity -- Coachella, however, was built on exclusivity.

An uneasiness stayed with me throughout most of the festival as Coachella's aestheticized world seemed to preach for a certain type of perfection -- driven by wealth -- that never really felt welcoming. While Coachella was definitely the place to catch a glimpse of two jacked bears embracing during a Billie Eilish performance, it seemed to be inclusive only for a privileged group. For me, any place so entrenched in the structures that enable inequality would never truly feel like a safe space for queer people. While Coachella's language and adoption of queer imagery left me dazed and confused, its music was still able to harbor magic.

Though the festival's bigger names -- like Tame Impala and Janelle Monae -- all delivered memorable sets, I was surprised by the performances and experiences that really stuck with me. Watching Sophie deliver an electrifying DJ set to a packed tent was thrilling -- especially as I ran into Aquaria from Drag Race in the audience. And though watching gay icons Kacey Musgraves and Ariana Grande perform, surrounded by other visible LGBTQ people, felt comforting, it was Lizzo's set that truly moved me. The empowering R&B singer's uplifting music and positive message were exactly what I needed on the third day of the festival. Her confident and deft performance amid production issues sparked explosive energy from the crowd and brought tears to my eyes. While Coachella often left me feeling like a strange observer looking in, within Lizzo's crowd I felt home.

While being queer is often a confusing experience to navigate, finding pockets of comfort in even the strangest of places can feel like a real relief. Leaving Coachella, I was not sure what to make of the privileged world of the festival and its semi-inclusiveness. I definitely enjoyed myself, but I could never seem to shake the uneasy feeling that something pervaded the festival that was at odds with my values.

Perhaps looking too closely into queerness at a festival run by an enormous corporation rather than adopting the bohemian mindset of its attendees was my mistake. As my friends and I packed up our car with the remnants of glitter-covered outfits and camping supplies of the weekend, someone asked if we would return the next year. Through all the interior and exterior stimulation induced by the weekend, I was just as confused as when I arrived. However, what I do know for certain is that when Rihanna finally headlines Coachella, you can bet my gay ass will be in Indio.

ALEXANDER MODIANO is an intern at The Advocate magazine. Follow him on Twitter @alex_modiano.

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Alexander Modiano