No, Adelaide's LGBT Festival Manager Wasn't Suspended Because She's Straight

Cassandra Liebeknecht, the manager of the Adelaide Feast Festival, claims she was suspended for being "too straight." As we discovered, this is bullshit.

26 September 2016, 12:00am

Feast Festival at the Adelaide pride march in 2013. Image by Flickr user Jenny Scott

When the Adelaide Feast festival began in the late 90s, it was supposed to represent what was possible from a better world. The LGBTQI arts festival was fun, inclusive, and most of all safe in a part of Australia where gay people have known violence for a long time.

But almost two decades on, the festival is deeply in debt and lurching between controversies surrounding its general manager, Cassandra Liebeknecht, who was hired to turn things around. The saddest part of this isn't that Feast's manager has let the community down, rather it's the way the national press have focused on something that would be irrelevant if Liebeknecht had worked anywhere else.

You see, Liebeknecht was a straight woman, working for a LGBTQI organisation. Earlier this month, The Australian reported an emergency meeting of the organisation's board had suspended Liebeknecht from her role. According to the paper, she was suspended from the queer arts organisation for being "too straight" and four board members had quit in support of her.

"I've been spat on, I've had people scare me, I've had people contact me at work anonymously, saying 'I know where your children go to school','' Liebeknecht told the Australian. "There was also a gentleman who continues to this day to slander me for my sexuality. It just gets vicious."

In her story, the same paper that ran a cartoon depicting LGBT Nazis found what appeared to be real-world proof of concept. The follow up reporting drummed up outrage—all on the basis that Liebeknecht was being targeted for her sexuality.

It's not the whole story, but it is enough to give a taste of the dangerous coverage to be expected from a national plebiscite on same-sex marriage. Because if we scratch the surface on Liebeknecht's story, it's obvious she is being investigated for doing a lousy job. Her sexuality has nothing to do with it.

After the first reports began to appear, the festival's board released a statement to clarify that the four directors who resigned had done so because they had only attended three meetings since June. Feast has also employed people in straight relationships to senior positions without issue in the past—as former manager Jennifer Greer Holmes confirmed for VICE.

"When I was the manager at Feast, I was in a long term relationship with a man for 15 years," Holmes said. "We were part of the queer community prior to my appointment. It was a job that I lived and breathed. Most people accepted that I was doing a job well, and therefore didn't question my sexuality as a qualification to do it."

So if Cassandra Liebeknecht wasn't being targeted for her sexuality, what happened?

Liebeknecht couldn't be reached for this story, but after speaking to several people who had been involved with Feast either as artists, volunteers, or staff, about their experience of working with her, it was quickly clear she's a difficult manager.

Some had to fight to be paid, while others felt they'd been manipulated by what they described as Feast's bruising internal politics. However, no one was willing to speak on record, fearing professional or legal reprisals.

"Cassandra still has a lot of friends," one said.

These kind of complaints also extended back to Liebeknecht's time with the 2013 Adelaide Vintage Expo who were more willing to talk about their experience. One artist, described working with Liebeknecht as "painful, frustrating and maddening," but refused to say more.

Another volunteer, Cara Brown, remembered how she received three calls from Liebeknecht saying $25,000 had gone missing, and implying she'd taken it. Brown denied the accusation and offered to go to police to make a statement. At mention of the police, she claims, Liebeknecht immediately backed off.

"I worked as a volunteer and I had this bizarre experience where [Cassandra] made three phone calls where she seemed to infer I stole $25,000, but didn't want to involve the police," Brown said. "There was no possible way I could get access to the safe and seriously, if I had taken $25,000 I would be in Paris."

VICE tried to contact Liebeknecht to clarify what happened, but did not get a response to its messages.

Out in the wider LGBTQI community, that feeling of anger and frustration had been building since April 2015, when Feasts' former artistic director, Catherine Fitzgerald, was made redundant after an internal power struggle with Liebeknecht.

Until that time, the festival's day-to-day leadership was split equally between a general manager and an artistic director. But by 2015, Feast was $79,125 in debt. While the board had options, their ultimate decision was to cut costs by letting Fitzgerald go.

The result was that Liebeknecht assumed control of the organisation. Not long after, Feast was involved in its first scandal when the LGBTQI festival added an Adelaide venue called Go Go Lady Boy to its program. Many in the Adelaide's LGBTQI community felt the venue's name verged on transphobic, and a petition calling for the venue to be dropped was delivered to Feast. The complaints went nowhere though, and Liebeknecht gave a now notorious radio interview denying any had ever been made.

"We haven't had any complaints in relation to that that have come our office, or to our board, to my knowledge, no," Liebeknecht said.

To top it off, the festival's debts grew to $82,841 in 2015, and Feast made $44,541 less than the previous year—despite the heavily publicised appearance of festival headliner Conchita Wurst and higher attendance numbers.

But Liebeknecht's biggest fight yet started after she appeared to betray the owners of the arts venue Tuxedo Cat earlier this month. Liebeknecht had been talking to Cassandra Tombs and Bryan Lynagh about running a joint venue, but when Tombs stepped out of the lease, Feast quietly took it over and then secured $200,000 in state government funding to run it—apparently drawn from the state Premier's "contingency fund."

In simple terms, a high profile arts venue was made homeless, while someone with questionable financial management skills was awarded a large government bailout. Which is why the picture coming into focus is less about "LGBT Nazi's" persecuting a heterosexual woman and more about a "corporate" style manager whose arrogance alienated many within the wider LGBTQI community to the point it almost prompted a boycott.

And with a national plebiscite on same-sex marriage potentially on its way, the manner in which Cassandra Liebeknecht's story has been framed shows us what can go wrong.

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