‘This Is in My DNA’: The Ms. Q&A with ‘The Dinah’ Creator Mariah Hanson

Mariah Hanson on stage at The Dinah Pool Party 2017. (Courtesy of The Dinah)

Mariah Hanson had a knack for throwing parties in college. Now, throwing one of the largest LGBTQ+ parties of the year is her career. 

After working at and founding bars in San Francisco, Hanson decided to take on a new project: a music festival. In 1991, she created the Dinah Shore Weekend, also known as “The Dinah”: an LGBTQ+-friendly music festival weekend in Palm Springs, California. Hanson took her deep-seated values of advocacy and equality to create a safe, community-building space for those in the LGBTQ+ community. Today, the Dinah is one of the largest lesbian/queer female events in the world. 

Hanson has been recognized and received many awards for her work, including receiving a key to the city of Palm Springs, the Athena Award, a Legacy Award by Palm Springs Price, a Lifetime Achievement award by the Coachella Valley LGBT Community Center and was featured on the Out 100 list of most influential lesbians.  

She recently talked with Ms. about her background, inclusivity at the festival and her goals for the Dinah. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Abigail Ramirez: What inspired you to create the Dinah Shore Weekend festival? What were the early days like?

Mariah Hanson: I am from a super activist family. My mother was this amazing woman and civil rights activist. So I was on freedom marches when I was three, four or five years old. I grew up with that kind of spirit of social justice and equality, so this is in my DNA. And when I became a young adult, I had a knack for throwing parties. I threw a lot of crazy parties in dorms and cafeterias in college, and I was good at it. That segued into doing it professionally. But that activist blood in me runs pretty strong. 

I realized super early on in my career that what I was doing was so much bigger than just throwing a party. It’s not just the logistics of how you put ingredients together to make a grand statement that translates into joy, celebrations and good feelings, but also reminding people that we can’t take this for granted. The ease of having a nightclub event in San Francisco is very different in different parts of the country. We’re in a world where you can get thrown in jail or worse for celebrating the way you love. So those kinds of feelings and knowledge of that perspective have been wired into the way I produce events from day one. The combination of them both became a feel-good job. I knew that I was creating joy for people and that in my own small tiny minuscule way, I was changing the world.

We’re in a world where you can get thrown in jail or worse for celebrating the way you love. Those kinds of feelings, and knowledge of that perspective have been wired into the way I produce events from day one.

Mariah Hanson

Ramirez: Did you think that the festival would become a mecca for lesbian and nonbinary individuals every year when you started it? What does that mean to you?

Hanson: I created the Dinah with the intention of allowing a voice for everyone. But it’s never been 100 percent female. My stance has always been that I’m throwing an event for women and women-identifying individuals, but you have to also lead the times as they change. You want to be on the right side of history. If your heart points north, it’s not something you can fake. It’s something that you have to feel, and so for me, embracing the way that our world identifies as female is just natural. 

Of course, you know, people need to express themselves and to feel empowered by who they are inside. People need to feel good about themselves. They need to feel confident; they don’t need to be torn down. We get enough of that. So those in the LGBTQ+ community know because we live with the dichotomy of living in a world where you’re embraced and living in a world where you’re not, I’m not going to be intolerant in the face of that. I’m going to embrace everyone, knowing that I can do that and still hold a space for a predominantly female-identified event. Times change and you need to change with them. You need to make sure that you’re embracing how a community is evolving. Otherwise, you don’t evolve. That feeling from the beginning has always been there, and then it morphs as the times become more fun as we gain more information and wisdom about how to live out loud and how to live out loud with dignity.

Mariah Hanson and Cara Delevingne at The Dinah. (Courtesy of The Dinah)

Ramirez: There’s been a history of transphobia in the LGBTQ+ movement. How do you like to ensure trans inclusivity during the festival weekend?

Mariah Hanson: Well, we advertise that the event is inclusive. It doesn’t happen anymore, but when the transgender movement was in its nascent period, I got pushback from cisgender women, and some of them were angry with me. My stance was it’s probably not the event for you. You know, I couldn’t in good conscience support hate in any form. It’s funny, because the Dinah is this incredibly beloved event. So when you tell someone that the Dinah might not be for them, they change their point of view quickly. If that’s how we change hearts and minds, then that’s how we change hearts and minds. We’re not going to tolerate hate. We’re not going to tolerate exclusion, and that goes for everybody. I can keep it a respectful, predominantly female-centric event. But if a gal wants to bring her straight best friend, she should! 

One of the most powerful moments for me was a couple of years ago when I was talking to a manager about one of the artists that I had booked. The manager was a cute guy, five-foot-five. We were chatting and then he said, “I gotta tell you something,” and I said, “Why?” He said, “I used to come here as a lesbian 10 years ago.” I mean, he floored me because he really passed as a cis male. I had no idea. But I thought it was the most powerful moment because it helped me see the picture so fully. In that, if you are a queer woman coming ot the Dinah, and then you transition to what you’ve felt is always the alignment of your heart and transition to male, can you not go to the Dinah anymore? How could you take that away from someone? It’s this beloved event. And so I realized at that moment that the stance I had taken was not only the right stance, it was a deeply meaningful stance for the people that it was affecting and that anyone that was having resistance to it would catch up, but I wasn’t waiting for them. They’re gonna have to catch up on their own.

Ramirez: I saw that from very early on, you always booked very popular artists. Has it gotten easier or less stressful to try to book these big names? Are people eager to play at the Dinah? 

Mariah Hanson: A stamp of approval for the Dinah started when I booked Lady Gaga and Katy Perry on a double bill. I think Katy Perry played Friday night and Lady Gaga played Saturday. It was a powerful booking for me. The next year, there was a Facebook page that said, boycott the Dinah unless it brings back Katy Perry. That double booking opened the door for us to have respectability in the music industry. We are now approached by the agencies asking us if we’ll book their artist. They’ll write to us now and go, “Hey, this is who we want you to look at.” When I first started, they weren’t answering my phone calls. I’d have to call five times before I’d get an agent going, “Yeah, what do you want?” So yes, it’s much, much easier. Absolutely.

We’re not going to tolerate hate. We’re not going to tolerate exclusion, and that goes for everybody.

Mariah Hanson

Ramirez: Can you tell me more about the emerging artists contest and the history behind that?

Hanson: I’m proud of it. So you know, we’re a very high-profile music festival. And so the artists that we’re booking have recording contracts, they have agents, they have managers and they have songs that are getting millions of views. That’s part of what will get you onto our main stage. But I realized that excluded a part of our community that also deserved that kind of experience. 

We created the emerging artists contests as a way to get one or two emerging artists on our main stage to get them the exposure that an established artist was getting, and hopefully, that would help them with their career. So the first year we just had one winner, but then the second year, I couldn’t believe the quality of videos and music I was getting. Some of them were equal to anything I would get from an agent. And so we decided to expand it to a Thursday winner and a Sunday winner. I wrote to a couple of them and said you know, you would probably easily win this contest, but I’d rather put you on my lineup if you’ll wait a year. I will pay you to play, and we’ll put you on our actual official roster as the emerging artist contests. We give them passes, we take care of their hotel room. And so we make it easy for them to get to the Dinah, and then they get to play at one of the ancillary nights. But with this opportunity, they would play one of the main stages. And so we now have four emerging artists from our community who aren’t signed yet, who are either playing Thursday and Sunday or a Friday and Saturday event.

It’s a wonderful way of letting our community know that we believe in them. We want to make room for them. I’m proud of the emerging artist contest. It’s a good way to help some of our LGBTQ+ artists get a lot of exposure.

Ramirez: How do you make sure that the festival is price-inclusive?

Hanson: It’s a complicated question. What drives the price is the artists. They got so expensive before the pandemic. It was crazy. Then the pandemic happened, the price dropped and now it’s even higher than it was before. That makes it difficult for the price to stay moderate. We are a music festival, and we’re trying to present high-profile talent to our artists. Everything has gone up. Sounds have gone up, lights have gone up, the decor has gone up. Everything has gone up. I mean, everybody’s paying higher prices for everything. And we all know that because you go out to lunch and it’s 70 bucks. Like, are you kidding me?

But we do a couple of things. We’ll do an early bird pricing. We have a free night on Wednesday. The prices never change for Thursday or Sunday; it’s always 40 bucks and they’re packed parties. It does get expensive on Friday and Saturday. It’s just a sign of the time to think that prices are getting super high. There are a lot of costs that go into producing, so we do our best to make sure that anybody can experience at least one or two of the Dinah. It’s expensive if you buy individual tickets. But if you buy the pass, especially if you get the early bird price, you know you’re getting six, seven, eight or nine events. When you do the average, it’s not very expensive, but it just really depends on how much you want to immerse yourself in the weekend. And you know we get it. We get that people are budget-conscious, and we do our best to get that price down.

Ramirez: What’s your favorite part of the weekend? What are you looking forward to this year?

Hanson: I have a moment every year, and it just makes me so grateful and joyful about what I get to do for a living. It’s kind of an honor for me. I always have a moment. It’s usually at the pool party, but sometimes it’s at the night party, where are you just looking out and see women, women-identifying and nonbinary people celebrating their lives, their voices and their community. It’s such a feel-good. There’s nothing like it to know that, and my whole staff feels this way, that we helped to create that, and there’s no better feeling than that moment. It happens several times every year, and it’s what keeps us all going because it’s not a very easy event to produce. It’s super tough behind the scenes, and we deal with dramas, challenges and disasters every single year. We pull through it because there’s always that moment where we go, “This is why we do this.” I’m creating such joy. We create a platform, but it’s our customers who bring that joy. So we’ll create the environment for them to be able to access that. But it’s them. It’s the community that kind of brings that love that kind of rises. 

Somebody once upon a time years ago just started going “Happy Dinah,” and now it’s like this saying. It’s like “Happy Birthday” or “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah.” People just walk through the hallways and say to strangers “Happy Dinah.” And then their response is “Happy Dinah.” It’s so weird. I love it. It’s just this unexpected little greeting that has been created. It encapsulates how powerful the weekend is because it has become this beautiful bridge from one life to another that says, “I see you.” It’s pretty cool.

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Abigail Ramirez is an editorial intern for Ms. from Los Angeles. She is a rising senior at the University of Missouri double majoring in constitutional democracy and journalism, with minors in history and political science. She has particular interests in women’s history, advocacy and communications.