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Queerfest 2022: A Chat with Founder Sara Gougeon

By Christopher Treacy

While the rest of us are waiting for the sky to fall, Sara Gougeon is busy wondering, “What if it all works out?”

As the founder of Nashville’s annual Queerfest, which takes place in Nashville this coming Sunday, July 24, Gougeon could easily let anxiety swallow her—planning a festival is no easy feat. But she’s learned that optimism is the better-suited approach.

“Asking myself ‘What if it all works out?’ has changed my life,” she said during a quick pre-fest chat. “I’ve had many moments where I’ve questioned if I can do this, if I’m crazy for trying—because you have to be a little crazy. And I’ve battled through crippling impostor syndrome. But at the end of the day, it’s that question— ‘What if it all works out?’—that dares me to try. And it’s been working so far.”

Gougeon has undoutedly posed that question to herself quite a bit as she and her festival attempt to find their way amid a pandemic that won’t subside. Thankfully for her, and for all of us that need live music in our world, folks seem willing to take some risks in order to, er, get back to where they once belonged.


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

And really, Queerfest is all about belonging. Whereas some of the larger, big name festivals have become more about clout and ‘being seen’ than anything else, Gougeon’s festival remains focused on a sense of tribe, buoyed by artists and music.

“Queerfest is different from most festivals,” she told us. “It’s being built slowly, with community at the core. It’s about creating spaces for queer community and highlighting queer artists. It’s a great place not only to listen to amazing queer music but also to meet friends and collaborators and foster new connections, which is something we’ve already seen happen with our series of monthly shows.”

Gougeon, a singer-songwriter as well, partnered with Harvard Square’s legendary Club Passim to launch Queerfest in 2021, which was hosted virtually last June. Since then, a series of monthly events has taken shape, leading up to Queerfest 2022, which is the first time the festival is being held, fully realized and in-person. To some, it might seem like a lousy time to start such an ambitious project, surrounded by unusual degrees of uncertainty and concerns about large gatherings. But Gougeon indicates that she’s in it not only to win it, but also to learn along the way.

“I’ve learned to value process over accomplishments,” she said. “It used to be the other way around, which would always lead to a nagging sense of ‘what’s next?’ But somewhere along the way, I’ve learned to fall in love with the process. Every day I get to create, explore, try, fail, learn, and grow. I get to come up with visions, put my asks out into the world, revise, and eventually put together incredible events. It’s like a giant puzzle, and I’m living for that journey.”

Gougeon, onstage and off

Gougeon has programmed Queerfest 2022 to deliver value, spreading 14 LGBTQ+ identifying artists across three venues in East Nashville: The 5 Spot, The Groove, and The Basement East. The festival runs from 1:00 pm to 10:00 pm and is staged in succession so that artists are not competing with one another for the crowd’s attention. And with performers lined up like Mercy Bell, Zach Day, and Zoe Cummins, they’re not going to want to miss a second.

Gougeon tells us that The Basement East will also be the site for artist merch as well as LGBTQ+ vendors, a professional photo booth, and, for those that get hungry, the Birria Babe Taco Truck. Tickets for the either the full day or just The Basement East finale can be purchased here.

“I believe that slow, steady growth is crucial to longevity and customer loyalty,” she said. “I give more than I get – it’s a huge time investment. But it has already paid off emotionally and will eventually pay off financially.”

Perhaps starting such an ambitious endeavor at a time when it seemed like the sky might fall has its perks: the future always looks bright. It almost seems as if it all just might work out.

Christopher Treacy has been writing about music and the music industry for 20 years. He’s contributed to The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, and Berklee College of Music’s quarterly journal, as well as myriad LGBTQ+ outlets including the Edge Media Network, Between the Lines/Pride Source, Bay Windows and In Newsweekly. He lives in Waitsfield, VT.