Canberra is getting ready for the third annual YES!Fest, which has quickly become one of Australia’s most exciting annual LGBTIQ events. YES!Fest creative director DANNY CORVINI outlines the event’s origins and plans for this year.
For many people, Canberra remains immortalised in their mind just as it was when they visited it on a school excursion many long years ago: i.e. pretty boring.
On November 15 2017, though, the city showed its true colours, and it was much more interesting than most people would expect.
That’s the date that we discovered that Australians had overwhelmingly voted in favour of marriage equality; and the little old ACT, which already had the only out gay leader in Australia in Andrew Barr, had just returned the highest ‘yes’ vote of any state or territory in this wide brown land.
It turns out that some 74 per cent of Canberrans voted in favour of marriage equality and the city’s old reputation as “boring” was now replaced as one of Australia’s most progressive, a quality many locals already knew about.
A somewhat modest party called the ‘Marriage Equality Results Night Party’ had already been organised for that night at Hopscotch Bar by a collective called Gaycrash, presumably for a few hundred community members to either celebrate or commiserate together, depending on the result.
But a fortnight earlier it had become abundantly clear that this was not going to be a mere garden party: the event’s Facebook RSVPs were ratcheting up into the thousands.
Realising that there was every likelihood that the organisers hadn’t even thought about DJs, I approached them about playing, and booking a few other performers, so that the opportunity to really make a night of it didn’t go to waste.
Simultaneously, Jacob White of the ACT division of the Australian Marriage Equality (AME) organisation had also joined forces with Gaycrash to relieve them of some of the other pressures of hosting what was snowballing into a mega event.
AME sprinkled their magic dust and Gaycrash’s humble ‘Marriage Equality Results Night Party’ suddenly became a bonafide street party, with Lonsdale Street outside being closed off to accommodate the huge crowds.
Some 6000 Canberrans came out that midweek eve to celebrate, dance and cry, and stayed well past 1am, the time that DJ Sveta and I played to. The next morning, the party was declared by the city’s daily newspaper “the first spontaneous thing to ever happen in Canberra!”
It wasn’t all partying, of course: there were highly emotional and rousing speeches given by the champions of the marriage equality cause; most notably Penny Wong, giving a speech that has now been etched into queer Canberrans collective consciousness. We all know that this legal change didn’t come easily and Penny’s face showed it every step of the way.
For me, it was the night that Canberra changed forever. This was the city that I’d escaped for Oxford Street upon turning 18, a place where I could finally “be myself”. On that night, Canberra finally became my hometown, a city I was immensely proud of.
Naturally, after all of that, not doing it all again in 2018 was not an option!
The first line of order for the second edition was a name change: we re-branded the event ‘YES!Fest’ and upgraded it into a legitimate festival with DJs, drag performers, comedians, beat poets and food trucks.
We extended the the street closure all the way to the iconic Rainbow Roundabout that’s further along Lonsdale Street—a particularly ‘Canberra’ landmark and a focal point for the local LGBTIQ community—and threw an experimental day party there to see if we could also appeal to rainbow families and queer youth, who would have to miss the night party.
The sight of 14-year-old Jye Gray jumping up on stage and vogueing certainly confirmed that we could. A few days later, Jye’s mother Paula wrote to us to say that she had never seen him so happy as on that day. Here was the new face of Canberra: a place queer kids are comfortable in their own skin, with extremely supportive parents.
For the adults, we got the chance to continue partying well into the night back down the other end of Lonsdale Street at the Hopscotch stage. The cream of Canberra’s drag performers were joined by indigenous drag queens Felicia Foxx and Josie Baker from Sydney and our own Miss First Nation, Mad B, among many other performers.
By about 3am, things wrapped up. It was bloody exhausting. Somehow, in the space of just a year, we’d managed to become a 12-hour, two-stage festival!
The pleasure of seeing all of the performers, the connections made and the passion and pride of the people living in a city growing up before our very eyes made every moment worth it for our small team of organisers and volunteers.
And here we are on the second anniversary of marriage equality planning to do it all again … with even more colours in our rainbow this time!
YES!Fest 2019 will see things evolve just that little bit further still. The showpiece of this year’s day stage will be the Rainbow Runway competition—our first—which will be hosted by Felicia Foxx and judged by our guests Electric Fields.
The contestants will get just one minute on the roundabout to win over the audience with their fabulousness, whether it’s with a sassy walk or backflips and death drops or anything else that they can channel up in that moment.
There will be performances by Sydney’s House of Luna and Canberra’s House of Gray (yes, our 14 year old from 2018 has formed his own house!) and a vogue-house set by DJ Tuxido Masc.
The two night stages will have distinctly different offerings.
Hopscotch will be transformed into ‘Popscotch’ and feature nothing but pop and retro music with local drag king hosts Zapp Backagain and Guy Alias, and only the poppiest of performances.
The Electric Pride stage will make its debut in the middle of Lonsdale Street and will be a much more avant-garde, wild, adult and sophisticated affair. Hosted by Sheba Williams, this stage will feature performances by the likes of The Huxleys, Etcetera Etcetera, Charlie Chapstik and Sarah Moany, Brisbane’s Ellen Reed, and DJs playing solid house and techno.
We hope to see you there!
YES!Fest will run from 3pm until late, Saturday 16 November on Lonsdale St, Braddon, ACT. Free entry. YES!Fest is part of the SpringOUT Pride Festival, which runs from Saturday 2 November to Sunday 24 November. Visit springout.com.au for more information.
Danny Corvini (DJ Raydar) is the Creative Director of YES!Fest and is a former Star Observer columnist.