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True Music Fund

Brave spaces

He.She.They set the benchmark for inclusive clubbing

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It’s October 2017 and Amsterdam is adrift in a sea of ADE, the world’s largest electronic music event. Parties are going off in shops, art galleries, railway stations, and every club in town. Streets awash with yesterday’s survivors, daytime animals, and locals avoiding the carnage, Sophia Kearney and Steven Braines stand under an umbrella, staring at a phone, wondering what happens next.

Both artist managers, they’ve just put wheels in motion on a project which, in many ways, has been decades in the making. Co-founders of The Weird & Wonderful agency, its roster “primarily women, queer people and people of colour,” the pair are in the Dutch capital for meetings with some of the world’s biggest clubs — from Pacha in Ibiza to Berlin’s Watergate. Their pitch is simple: take over comparatively mainstream venues on peak weekend nights for diversity-positive parties where LGBTQIA+, cis, POC and any other demographic can get sweaty together.

The events would be called HE.SHE.THEY., so-named to give men, women and non-binary people an equal platform, and one look at recent research by Ballantine’s True Music proves why the concept was and remains so essential. In a study of 2,300 club goers across four continents, one third reported experiencing discrimination on the dance floor, rising to 64% for intersectional identities, including gender, sexuality, race and ability. Meanwhile, 84% said they had witnessed prejudice on nights out.

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“Everyone we spoke to at ADE said yes, and Ministry of Sound was set to be our first show. We were given a budget, and a date in February 2018. I remember looking at a Google map in the middle of Amsterdam in the pissing rain and laughing. The nature of DJ bookings meant time was really tight, so we just had to spring to it,” Kearney recalls, still smiling at the memory almost half a decade on. “We did it. And it has been an incredible amount of hard work since. We have learnt a lot, and I don’t think we will ever stop learning.

“Our roster was often the odd people out in a room when travelling about for gigs and festivals,” she says of how HE.SHE.THEY. — now also a record label — was born. “I might be the only woman in the room, Steven might be the only queer person in the room. So it was born from the frustration of seeing that and how it’s reflected in the audience, who is on the dance floor — cis, white, male heavy. And the line-ups also being the same. We had so many amazing after parties and gatherings with friends that were diverse and wonderful, everyone just learning from each other. Everyone was growing and enjoying each other’s company. We thought it was a shame we weren’t really seeing that on dance floors considering the roots of dance music.”

Move the timeline forward to 2021, and HE.SHE.THEY. is a global powerhouse flying the flag for genuinely inclusive clubbing. From fabric in London to Oslo’s Jaeger and Mumbai nightspot Kitty Su, the remit is always the same: create a party where everyone feels welcome, and is free to express their identity however they choose. But, as Braines explains, context varies wildly depending on the city, region, or country.

“There are some places we have had to move on from because they didn’t really want to change,” he says of difficulties finding the right partners. We ask about concerns relating to performative attitudes, and whether some venues get involved for good publicity alone. The answer speaks volumes about the scale of the task at hand. “To a degree it doesn’t really matter if it’s performative or not, because it is still switching things up.

“It’s different each place we do it. Because the social makeup and the problems are different. So who is platformed? In different countries who is the majority race?,” he explains, before going into details as to what diversity means to the them. “It’s very much intersectional. So not just about race or women or queer people. It’s combinations of all that, but also different body types, making tickets affordable with early birds meaning people on lower income can attend.”

“It’s not definite that we always make money from our events, the bars and clubs all do, and we do generally. But it’s more important to go and make it good and fair, and so all these different people feel they have access. As well as the DJs, with our dancers we make sure we have people of different body sizes, non binary people, trans people, different intersections. When we do drag it’s not one type — they could be dressed as ogres, or pups, or pageantry drag. So it’s never just one version,” he continues.

Cheap door prices and diverse performers are just one piece of a much bigger jigsaw puzzle, of course. HE.SHE.THEY. could draft all the heavyweight talent they want — from Maya Jane Coles to Honey Dijon to Dance Mania legend DJ Deeon — if the venue isn’t fully onboard with the idea of real inclusivity then it’s all for nothing. So how can clubs switch things up to become a place where everybody feels at home, valued, and represented?

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“We work with our promoters and speak to everyone about what the house rules should be. One policy is making all toilets gender neutral, wherever possible, or providing a gender neutral option,” Kearney replies, explaining in some countries this is often one of the hardest parts of the process. “Some people are afraid of any change. But in cities like Berlin the idea of a male and female toilet is just ridiculous. They are just the toilets. It’s quite a British thing, separate bathrooms, I think.

“We’ve also had a lot of conversations about door staff, how they are addressing people, not assuming someone’s gender. Giving everyone the option of who they are searched by. It shouldn’t matter to the security who they are searching, if they are doing their jobs properly they are just searching people no matter how they identify,” she continues, before citing several other aspects that differentiate HE.SHE.THEY. from the venues they use on any other night.

These include helpers wearing branded badges, on-site to offer support and assistance to attendees, and similar schemes to Ask Angela — the safe night out initiative whereby those experiencing harassment can report incidents to staff by pretending to ask for ‘Angela’. Policies implemented to create an atmosphere of freedom and understanding, Kearney and Braines are also clear on what others in the dance music community can do to right the wrongs of recent decades. From inclusivity riders for artists, to punters voting with their feet by not attending events with a lack of diversity on the line-up.

“When we did our party in Newcastle, one of our dancers who had never done drag in front of their parents went and did drag in front of them, and there were people going to that club who were worried it wasn’t a space for them who realised ‘it’s totally fine’, nobody cares. It demystifies and debunks some myths,” Braines recalls enthusiastically when we for tangible examples of the impact HE.SHE.THEY. has had. “Sometimes we’re told we are a queer night because we platform a lot of queer people. And we’re like no, we are about inclusion… As much as we have differences there’s more than combines us.”

“We brand ourselves a brave space, not a safe space. Because we are asking very different groups of people to get together and it does take a lot of bravery for anyone who is different to come into that space and want to change the culture,” Kearney adds, nodding to one reveller turning up to the first party at London’s fabric wearing nothing but an apron as an example of the liberation she’s talking about. “We threw a party in India, where [queer] rights policies have only very recently changed. A girl came and grabbed me to say she had been asked out by another girl, and that had never happened in public before… They might only be small incremental changes, but all we can do is the best we can and hope changes within our space filter out.”

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