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Dinah Shore Week: It’s Ultimate Girls’ Night Out

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is Dinah Shore week in the desert. That means the best women golfers in the country are gathered for the first major tournament of the LPGA season before thousands of avid fans in nearby Rancho Mirage.

But it’s not just golf that has filled hotel rooms here this weekend. While the golfers play under sunny skies at Mission Hills Country Club, thousands of other women have descended on Palm Springs for the country’s--if not the world’s--biggest lesbian social whirl.

Since Thursday night, the desert resort, which prides itself on being friendly to gays, has played host to the ultimate girls’ night out--cocktail parties, pool parties, female comics, and a “White Party” where everyone dresses up in white and go-go dancers undulate on raised platforms. The annual phenomenon of Dinah Shore week has become a sort of spring break for lesbians, and this year is the biggest yet.

The women come looking for desert sun, dancing, friendship or a little romance--even some good golf. Some don’t know what they’re looking for.

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“To be truthful with you, I’m 50 years old and I’m going through a midlife crisis and I haven’t a clue what I am,” said twice-divorced Shawn Stevens from Lodi. “I feel very comfortable here. I hope I’m not imposing on anyone.”

At these parties, women rock--and rule. As in the straight world, gay community events tend to be dominated by men. But this weekend, women are the organizers, the performers and the party-goers.

“It wouldn’t be fair to have lesbians trying to enjoy the weekend with straight people walking around saying ‘What’s going on?’ ” said Mariah Hanson, a San-Francisco based promoter. Her organization, Club Skirts, puts on the major events here with promoters Robin Gans and Sandy Sachs from Girl Bar in Los Angeles. They booked all the rooms at the Marquis and Riviera hotels, turning them into little women-only communities for the weekend.

Many women book reservations months in advance, and the city is delighted they’re here. “We do a lot of gay business all year round--that’s a very important segment of our business,” said Howard Jacobs, tourism development manager for the city of Palm Springs. “They’re a great clientele.”

Like the boisterous spring break for college students that Palm Springs has tried to discourage, there is a certain amount of drunken screaming and beer chugging. But organizers say these events serve a different purpose than the usual wild Bacchanalia of spring break.

In the main hotels, this weekend women can hold hands without attracting stares, or can flirt with other women and not worry about offending. And for many gay women it’s simply a chance to meet more lesbians.

And perhaps most important, it’s a cocoon of safety--a place to be completely open about who you are, if only for a long weekend.

“They’re out here,” said Janine Malcolm, a 23-year-old personal trainer from the Bay Area, surveying the crowd gathered Thursday night on a large patio at the Riviera, “but who knows what they are at home.”

“It’s like a lesbian US festival,” said Karen Banker from Riverside. “I’ve never seen so many women in one place in my life. It’s good.”

Forgotten here are all the slights that bruise Valerie Gardner in the straight world--the way colleagues awkwardly avoid innocuous questions about her personal life, the fact that her parents didn’t want her to be matron of honor at her sister’s wedding. “You’re not looked at and pointed at,” said Gardner, 33, of San Diego.

How lesbian revelry became connected to a sedate golf tournament named for the late honey-voiced singer is something of a mystery. This is the 25th year of the golf tournament. The women’s parties have only been going on at this level for less than a decade.

Some lesbians speculate that golf is spiritually something of a connection. “Lesbians like golf, lesbians play golf, lesbians watch golf,” Hanson said.

For the record, the Ladies Professional Golf Assn. insists that women’s golf attracts all kinds of folk, and that if lesbians want to party in the name of Dinah Shore, that’s OK too.

“I think to us it’s basically a nonissue,” said tournament director Terry Wilcox. “There are lesbians on the LPGA tour, as you know. One just had her coming out, if you will.”

That would be 42-year-old Muffin Spencer-Devlin, a tournament pro who discussed being a lesbian recently with Sports Illustrated and the Lesbian News. Spencer-Devlin was slated to be honored by two groups here this weekend.

“I’m sure the lesbians who attend the parties have a sense of freedom and comfort,” said Spencer-Devlin.

But except for picking up an award from the National Organization for Women on Friday--when she missed the cut to keep playing in the tournament--and another one Saturday from An Uncommon Legacy Foundation, she planned to skip the gay festivities.

In fact, the events may sometimes be victims of their own success. Some guests gripe about the huge size of the parties.

“I just wish there was more room,” said Jackie Barden, taking a break from the crowded and smoky dance floor at the White Party at the Marquis.

Another couple was oblivious as they made their way into the hotel, both dressed in white dresses and shoes. At 21, the two women had arrived from Las Cruces, N.M., on Friday to celebrate their first anniversary together.

They splurged on their credit cards to take this vacation. “We are the poorest people out here,” laughed Sharon, a security guard.

The scene around the main hotels could have been an advertisement for the diversity of the gay female community. Women came in jeans and leggings, Lycra and chiffon, silk blouses and cotton shirts. Some were ripped to shreds and model-gorgeous, others look like they’ve never visited a gym in their lives.

“Not all women who choose to be with women look like UPS drivers,” Angela, a 26-year-old Palm Springs nurse, said as she stood Thursday night outside the Riviera with three friends from Houston.

Her friends looked like any other perfectly groomed Texas women--perfectly cut blond hair, make-up, jeans, gold jewelry.

“I thought it would be fun to be around a bunch of women,” said Jennifer, a 30-something teacher who came with her girlfriend, a 25-year-old lawyer. They are out to their friends but decline to give last names, worried about how it would affect their jobs.

Women lounge in the sun in shorts and tops and sometimes nothing more than bikini bottoms. Here, going topless is a political, fashion and comfort statement.

“I think women should be allowed--like guys,” said 29-year- old Lisa France, who flew in from New York for this event. “Why should I have to keep my top on?”

France’s pal, Molly Mullen, kept her bikini top on--"I like a little more mystery"--as she sized up the crowd. “It’s exactly what I expected--a lot of good, bad, and ugly,” said the 32-year-old marketing manager from Columbus, Ohio.

Some of the women brought their children. Isabelle Norman, 30, from Moreno Valley, came with her 3-year-old son, Dominick, and her partner, Stephanie Martin, 29.

“This is really the family vacation,” said Norman. “You meet people because they come up and goo and gaw over him. He loves it.”

As Dominick sat wrapped in a towel, he eyed the inviting pool. “You want to go play with the girls?” Martin asked. Yes, said Dominick, heading for the water.

Martin grinned. “He’s such a boy.”


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