One of the Best Queer Clubs in the UK Only Exists in a Field in Somerset
NYC Downlow is the queer utopia that Britain desperately needs right now.
It is 2am on Sunday morning and there is a man wearing nothing but a leather jock strap and mud-encrusted wellies. We are outside the entrance of NYC Downlow, Glastonbury’s notorious queer club, and he has his arm around me, words spilling out of his mouth and into my ear. “Any moment now, Adele is going to walk through there,” he says, little beads of sweat, rain and glitter shimmering on his hairy chest. “Right through there,” he repeats earnestly, pointing towards an empty pile of mud beside a bin, surrounded by crushed beer cups and old chips. “My mates mate told me earlier that she’s coming, and I’ve been standing here ever since. I can sense her round the corner. I feel like she’s wearing a cardigan, don’t you?”
He doesn't sound entirely rational, but I decide that yes – yes, he’s right. Adele probably is around the corner, in a cardigan. Adele is coming. The wind through the trees seems to whisper it too – “Adele is coming, Adele is coming, Adele is coming.” I can hear it in the rumble of the crowd as well. “Adele is coming.” Any minute now, I think, Adele is going to burst out from that space by the bin, nearly sliding over that patch of mud. “HAAAAAAA!” she will honk like a foghorn, and we will cheer, and someone will pour her a paper cup of cava, and she will tell us anecdotes about married life and awards ceremonies, and we will all laugh so hard our stomachs hurt. I decide to wait with him, beside the bin. Watching and waiting for Adele’s inevitable arrival.
Adele never appears. I don’t know if I wait there for a few minutes or a few hours, but after some time I realise I should probably go inside to explore instead of spending the whole night staring at a bin. Still, every now and then I pop outside to glimpse at the space by the bin, and every time I catch that man’s eyes in the sweaty, heaving crowd, and every time he mouths “ADELE” at me and nods. I feel like we have a connection.
The next day, I would find out that the Adele rumour wasn’t entirely made up by some random bloke off his face on MDMA and in desperate need of a quest. She actually was supposed to turn up at NYC Downlow on Saturday night. It was where she wanted to have the after party following her headline slot. But she had got lost along the way, and spent the night drinking wine with Alan Carr in her winnebago instead (or so I heard).
Out of all the places Adele could spend her Saturday night at Glastonbury, I can see why she wanted it to be NYC Downlow. It is, by far, the most fun place to find yourself after the sun goes down. Tucked in between some trees a few steps away from Shangri-La, it is best described as a seedy yet beautiful queer utopia; a place where drag queens strut around in effervescent wigs on stage, occasionally breaking into a half-choreographed dance routine, while naked men in butchers’ aprons simulate giving them blow jobs (and sometimes actually do).
Along the walls outside, the space is adorned in glazed meat carcases, with a few swole dancers dotted around the entrance in sinister pig masks – a style influenced by New York’s meatpacking district in the 1980s, at the height of the city’s burgeoning BDSM club scene. It feels both liberating and chaotic – as if anything could happen, if you wanted it to.
When it opened in 2007, its existence was meant as a reaction to the lack of gay presence at British festivals. But in 2016, in a climate that has seen one of the most deadly mass attacks against LGBTQ people since the holocaust, as well as the rapid closure of some of the UK’s most vital clubs, it has become so much more than that.
London used to be heaving with alternative LGBTQ venues. But The Joiners Arms, Candy Bar, The Black Cap, and First Out café have all since shut down and been replaced by luxury flats, bank chains, or branches of Pret. In other words, they’ve been replaced with nothing at all. And as I stood beneath the strobe lights, surrounded by dancing men in leather and women wearing fake moustaches, I couldn’t help but feel like I was experiencing a snapshot of a queer culture that is rapidly being pushed out of our cities. It felt weird that this was possibly the best queer club left in the UK, but one that only exists once a year, in the middle of field in Somerset.
Stephen Gallagher, co-creator of NYC Downlow, told me that it was the gentrification of New York in the 1980s that inspired the style of the club. “We wanted the space to resemble the meatpacking district at a time when all those amazing New York clubs were shutting down. It’s happening to London at the moment too, so it felt fitting to mash these two eras together.”
“We didn’t set out to make it this big. We just wanted to do our own thing and hope that others were into it,” he added. “But there’s something about it that gives people the freedom to be themselves, or to be somebody entirely different for the night. You can stick on a moustache or a mask and throw off the shackles and do something weird for a few hours. It’s a gay club, but the focus of it is better described as: 'Do whatever you like. You don’t need to conform'.”
It is this spirit of rebellion that defines NYC Downlow as a whole, and it’s a spirit that occasionally veers off into the surreal. Later on in the night, I stumbled into what I thought was a side door to the loos. Instead, I found an extra room, swathed in darkness and partitioned by hanging slabs of leather. As I felt my way around, my hands accidentally landed on what felt like human skin, and as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I realised I was standing, alone, clutching a beer, in a room full of people having sex. “You have nice silky hair,” someone said to me. I mumbled something about Tresemmé and then left.
As the sun began to rise, I stood in the smoking area to get some fresh air and hang out with an older guy in a lopsided blonde wig and pink fishnets. “I can’t remember the last time I had a night this fun and disgusting,” he told me. “When I was a teenager, it was all about Soho, and after that it was all about Shoreditch. But now, it’s all about Grindr, and staying in, and selling out. It’s like, yeah thanks for legalising gay marriage and giving us your mainstream Pride events and all that, but I don’t want them. I just want a club to get filthy in and dance all night. I don’t want assimilation. I want chaos.”
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