Legendary queer parties that fuels Sziget Festival

It isn’t just the powerhouse headliners that mark Sziget out as unique, it’s also their inclusive “love revolution” ethos.

Credit: Press

When Sziget started Magic Mirror, their dedicated LGBTQ+ venue in 2001 with the aim of introducing queer culture to wider festival-goers and in doing so break down barriers, they faced fierce opposition, with István Tarlós, then Mayor of district 3 of Budapest, threatening action. “He wanted to ban the whole festival,” remembers József Kardos, programme director for Sziget. “He was claiming that gay people want to transform ‘normal’ young people into gays with their propaganda.”

Twenty-two years later, and while Tarlós may have gone, the core “love revolution” ethos of Sziget – which includes its longstanding alliance with the LGBTQ+ community, its refugee-focussed ‘Tents Without Borders’ programme, and a pledge to organise a festival that is environmentally sustainable – steadfastly remain, with Magic Mirror enshrined as one of the most popular venues on the Island.

“Magic Mirror is a venue where everyone can be completely free and nobody looks strangely if someone is different,” explains Kardos. “We simply wanted to create this atmosphere so that we could experience a sense of freedom free from prejudice, and perhaps carry this experience into our everyday lives, based on which we could make our lives more liveable.”

Festivals are never purely about the acts performing; they often offer an oasis of progressivism, an idyllic Metaverse in which a snowballing sense of liberation can begin to resemble reality. However, for gay festival-goers travelling abroad, there is sometimes a worry about encountering discrimination or stigma, or having to camouflage their authentic selves. This isn’t the case at Sziget. Aside from the queer musical talent gracing the stages – including Norwegian singer-songwriter Girl In RedArlo Parks, and maximalist pop maverick Alice Longyu Gao –  Magic Mirror is the jewel in its crown. Across two venues, it offers a programme of films, panel discussions and performances tackling multiple aspects of LGBTQ+ life and gender identity, before transforming into a late-night disco fantasia, featuring drag queens and DJs from around the world.

SNAX, an American DJ and producer living in Berlin (and who also founded the queercore band Fagbash), has played Magic Mirror on numerous occasions, and stresses to NME the importance of having such a LGBTQ+ space at a mainstream festival.  “Personally, it makes me feel just that much more welcome doing what I’m doing with my performance,” he says. “In a larger sense, it guarantees queer visibility. Queer people know right out of the gate that not only are we welcome, but our contributions matter, and what we contribute to culture will be given its due credit.”

This year’s diverse Magic Mirror programme attempts to cover every facet of LGBTQ+ life, ranging from  a showing of the queer Pakistani film Joyland, to a sequin-clad party from fierce and fabulous UK drag collective Queenz, who will perform live reimaginings – no lip-synching here, thank you! – of hits from pop divas like Britney Spears and Whitney Houston. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s  a moving performance by Spanish trans singer LaSol, while Maltese clubbing collective Lollipop and Femmes to the Front, showcasing Budapest’s female DJs, are poised to start a raucous rave . The insightful Mirror Talks panel series tackles subjects including the differences between Pride in Western and Eastern Europe, and if you’re looking for a laugh, the venue is also home to Sziget’s English-language comedy concerts, hosted by Dave Thompson – who played handbag-wielding purple-hued Tinky Winky in the Teletubbies – should have us all laughing and spluttering out our Tubby Custard.

That Sziget should have a commitment to social justice is a reflection of its radical roots. Dubbed the “Island of Freedom”, owing partly its location in the middle of the picturesque Danube, the festival was founded in 1993 in the wake of the fall of communism, to give young people the chance to gather. While liberal democracy was still taking shape in Hungary at the time, these szitizens created a “model republic” promoting itself as a haven for personal freedom, acceptance of diversity, peaceful cooperation and co-existence of different cultures and people.

Three decades on and with the rise of right-wing regimes around the world, that nirvana is arguably more vital than ever. Since coming to power in 2010, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán and his nationalist Fidesz party have escalated their anti-LGBTQ+ campaign to include passing a law banning the use of materials viewed as promoting homosexuality and gender identity at schools. Although one of the founding principles of Sziget is that it does not express itself directly on political issues, it provides soft power by celebrating and amplifying voices that some might want suppressed – including platforming the only Hungarian media outlet for the LBTBTQ community and encouraging artists to take a stand against homophobia on the main stage.

“These days, preserving LGBTQ+ spaces are more important than ever,” points out SNAX.  “It’s encouraging when considering how far to the right Hungary has gone, not to mention so many other parts of the world. It may sound naive, but this kind of inclusive party, with unbridled queer visibility, does make a difference in the world at large.”

Queenz

Queenz. CREDIT: Supplied

Sziget’s passion for championing progressive activism saw them launch the hugely popular Roma Tent in 2002, serving to spotlight the music and culture of Roma people and in 2009 – with the economic crisis stoking the flames of extremism – it underlined its intransigent belief in equality by hosting a special Music Against Racism-curated programme, partnering with the founders of the Rock Against Racism and Love Music Hate Racism movement, to make the initiative happen, with its aim, says Sziget, “to fight against the blind hatred and inequality”. Civil Sziget, meanwhile, hosts discussions, performances and activism by a number of important NGOs, all of whom emphasise the importance of tolerance and acceptance.

Meanwhile, Sziget’s Tent Without Borders program began in 2016 to raise awareness for the past and present plights of refugees; but its salience remains.  “Today’s global events unfortunately prove that the theme of the venue is just as timely as it was nine years ago,” Sziget say. “Apart from providing the chance for visitors to learn more about migration in general, with the contribution of UNHCR and the French National Immigration History Museum, the venue also serves the purpose of pointing out how colourful, diverse and multifaceted the world is, and how many different readings the same story can have.”

“Tent Without Borders in 2023 will merge into our new venue, ‘Think for Tomorrow’ where migration -themed workshops and roundtable events will discuss the topic alongside other important issues like climate change, mental health and the future of education,” they add.

As more festivals think greener to reduce their wellington-boot-shaped carbon footprint, sustainability is at the heart of Sziget, with organisers aiming for 80 per cent of their catering partners offering at least two vegetarian main courses, and over 40 per cent of partners not offering any red meat at all. They’re also set to recycle 50 per cent of its waste, while this year, on a trial-basis, a special carbon offsetting scheme will be launched for those arriving to festival by plane, with the aim being to offset the majority of air travel within a few years, which should be music to eco-conscious festival-goers’ ears.

Credit: Press

Thirty years after a handful of radical Hungarians staged a liberal festival amid the shards of the fallen Iron Curtain, Sziget still stands as a sprawling six day party (headliners in 2023 include Billie Eilish and Florence + the Machine) and a boisterous bulwark against prejudice.

As Kardos reflects: “Sziget always stood up for Human Rights and LGBTQ + rights. In 2001 when we started Magic Mirror we thought that it could help in the education of our audience and make them understand the special problems of this community. Ever since then we strongly believe that it is worth making these efforts and unfortunately, our basic goals haven’t lost any of their importance within the twenty years.”

“Within normal circumstances, it wouldn’t be necessary to create programme venues like this, but in this part of Europe, where incitement and hatred against social minorities are often used in public discourse without consequences, where laws are passed that diminish the rights of minorities, we believe it is our duty to speak out and to act against these tendencies.”

“Unfortunately in some ways, Sziget and the message it conveys is even more relevant today than before.”

-Sziget takes place from 10 to 15 August on the Óbuda Island in Budapest in Hungary.

Article By Gary Ryan
First published in New Musical Express.

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