Hearing queer women’s frustrations about the chronic lack of spaces they can call their own, a Pembrokeshire excursion inspired Polly Shute to give them a refuge during Pride season. And the experience has been enlightening, she tells Hannah Collins.
We’re living in a world that’s increasingly becoming a little less straight. But while the number of people in Wales who identify as LGB is gradually increasing, there’s a gender disparity: around twice as many gay men as there are lesbian women. “I didn’t come out until I was in my 40s,” Out & Wild Festival Director Polly Shute tells me from her London sofa, and I wonder if hers isn’t an uncommon story. By a happy coincidence, this interview date falls during Lesbian Visibility Week, and when our conversation turns to the realities of socialising as a queer woman, I’m reminded why it’s so necessary. “There are only two bars in the whole of the UK that cater just for queer women,” Polly says.
Polly may have become a member of the community later in life, but she’s become a very active participant in it, including serving as Director for Pride In London for five years. “When I started there were about 30 [Pride parades] in the UK. Now, there are about 140, and I love them, but what I found is most of them were male-orientated in terms of the activities. And particularly after lockdown, they all have a similar format and are very orientated around big city centres.”
Polly realised there was a sizeable gap in the market for events catering to queer, questioning and trans women and non-binary people, as well as those not geared around bars and clubs in metropolitan areas, which aren’t always conducive to a healthy lifestyle. “Even before the pandemic, if you look at some of the research that was done by Stonewall and the LGBT Foundation on mental health and wellbeing, if you identify as LGBTQ, you’re much more likely to struggle.”
While working as a Partnership Director for DIVA Media Group, Polly also conducted research that found that 79% of women “were tired of dating sites. They wanted to connect with women through shared experiences.” All of this culminated in the idea for the UK’s first-ever wellness retreat for those particular groups – though all are welcome, Polly confirms, so long as they’re allies who understand the festival’s designed for a target audience.
Activities include a mixture of sports (five-aside football, wild swimming, paddleboarding), wellbeing (yoga, holistic health, meditation), music, food and drink stalls and other forms of entertainment. Coming along and pitching a tent just to soak up the atmosphere, however, is also encouraged.
So, with Polly being a native Londoner, why Wales? Pembrokeshire’s Big Retreat is what drew her to the area, an experience she describes as “magical”. She also appreciated the distance and secludedness of the site (near Lawrenny village), making it both a proper getaway and a safe environment for marginalised visitors: “Great spaces make great festivals.”
There have also been financial benefits, and Polly is nothing short of gushing about the funding she’s received from Welsh Government and partnerships with other Welsh LGBTQ-friendly businesses. “You get a lot of countries that say ‘we’re really committed to supporting the LGBT community’ but what Wales has done is say not only are we committed to being the friendliest LGBT European nation, they live by it as well.” She illustrates this with one of her favourite stories from a consultation with the village’s residents. “One of the women there sat down and said, ‘Can you tell me what LGBTQI means?’ And I explained and she went, ‘that’s all I wanted to know, love. That sounds fine.’” Another even thanked her for choosing the location for the “positive” impact it would have on her trans son.
Having been warned about the “insular” nature of the country, Polly’s journey has been a surprisingly smooth one, which she looks forward to sharing with 400 prospective visitors: “Just know that most people who are there are like you: there’s that sense of bonding when you’re with people who know and get you. I think it’s quite a powerful thing.”
Out & Wild Festival, Lawrenny, Pembrokeshire, Fri 10-Sun 13 June. Tickets: £100-£135 weekend / £40 per day plus car or caravan parking fees. Info: here
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