If you’ve attended Glastonbury anytime since 2007, you’re probably familiar with the notorious NYC Downlow, the festival’s resident sweaty gay club. Designed to replicate a seedy New York bathhouse-cum-meatpacking warehouse circa 1982, the temporary nightclub has developed such an internationally renowned reputation over the past two decades that it was once described by nightlife bible Resident Advisor as “categorically one of the best clubs in the world”.
NYC Downlow often has queues snaking around barriers. Punters wait hours to come inside and worship at the altar of queer hedonism before such world-class DJs as Honey Dijon or Kerri Chandler. It’s encouraging to see enthusiasm for such an unapologetically queer institution – but with it comes a familiar issue faced by LGBTQI+ parties beyond the festival.
As British society becomes more open to those of different sexual orientations, and queer culture is pushed further into the mainstream by shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Heartstopper, queer clubs and events are enjoying a major spike in footfall. While this increased interest can play a crucial role in helping to keep the lights on at venues and events during a time when queer spaces are rapidly shuttering around the country due to soaring rents and energy costs, it also presents some challenges to the communities for which these spaces were originally designed.
In the case of NYC Downlow, and countless other precious queer spaces, LGBTQI+ partygoers are often left outside for long periods of time waiting to get in while their straight peers enjoy the space. So how should organisers go about protecting these places for members of marginalised communities, while still maintaining an ethos of diversity and inclusion?
Holding on to the spirit of NYC Downlow is of the utmost importance to organisers Block9 (a set design company that constructs immersive temporary realities).
“The Downlow is not a theme party – it’s a space for queer people, queer culture, queer music, and the celebration of that,” says co-founder Gideon Berger. To try to filter the crowd, the crew position certain elements of the NYC Downlow experience front and centre to prepare festivalgoers for the nature of the space.
“Our door policy is to be so f**king in your face at the door, with the vintage porn kiosk, and literally force you to engage with what we do,” he says. “Our crew are feral as f**k, and we’re actively trying to encourage just the people who are up for it to brave the queues and come in.”
Of course, NYC Downlow is not the only popular queer space within a broader festival. While the likes of south London’s nostalgia-fest Mighty Hoopla cater more directly to a queer audience, over the past decade many more mainstream festivals have carved out corners for their queer contingent. GALA Festival, in Peckham Rye, south-east London, enlisted the help of queer nightlife aficionados Horse Meat Disco to establish its hugely popular Pleasure Dome tent.
“I see nothing but pros, really,” says Horse Meat Disco’s James Hillard of the rising popularity of such spaces.
“What we’ve been fighting for all these years is equality, right? Well, equality cuts both ways, so you can’t be exclusionary but at the same time want equality.” Hillard believes that queer sections at festivals exist not just to provide a safe space for the community but to act as a platform from which “to show people that this is our culture. This is what we do. This is why we’re amazing.”
He.She.They, an “everyone-friendly” events and record company that executes raucous parties at festivals such as Secret Garden Party, shares Hillard’s enthusiasm for their spaces being infiltrated by everyone and anyone who might be curious to explore. Although the company was conceived by Sophia Kearney and Steven Braines partly as a reaction to festival and club line-ups being dominated by straight, white, cisgender men, the pair are quick to clarify that their events are not designed with any one demographic in mind. “We don’t wish to exclude that group,” says Kearney. “We don’t wish to exclude any group at all, especially not the straight white men who share our politics.”
Both Braines and Kearney are adamant that inclusivity of all groups is the key to real progress. “This might sound slightly perverse, but I love the idea of someone who wasn’t necessarily super-f***king woke meeting a big, black trans person having the time of their life, getting on, and being best friends for the night,” says Braines. “And then the next time they see a different trans person getting shit from someone, they go: ‘Oi! Mate, do you want to leave them alone?’”
Protecting marginalised partygoers must be a priority for all event organisers, but, as Braines points out, events that operate with stringent door policies can often run the risk of excluding the very queer audience they aim to safeguard. “Apparently I don’t look queer – whatever the f**k that means,” he says. “The amount of times where I’ve been stopped and told: ‘You do know it’s a queer space?’, and I’m like: ‘Yeah, mate, I’ve got a boyfriend.’ My boyfriend is an ex-discus thrower so he doesn’t look particularly ‘queer’ either.” Even He.She.They’s flamboyant and fabulous dancers have been turned away from other parties on occasion because they weren’t believed to be queer.
“That also can be really othering, if you’re not allowed in the queer space because you don’t ‘look queer’,” says Braines. “For instance, if you’re agendered or you can’t wear a binder because binders are actually f**king sore, or you’re trans masculine and you just want to wear something that is loose fitting.”
Although their approaches differ slightly, Block9, Horse Meat Disco and He.She.They all seem to be in agreement that, in theory, everyone is welcome at their parties – so long as they behave appropriately and respectfully once inside.
“Straight people will always come to queer parties because they’re the best parties,” echoes MJ Fox, co-founder of bimonthly queer kink rave Joyride. “The challenge at straight festivals is maintaining the queer ethos and balance in the crowd when the majority of the people at the festival are straight.”
So, if you’re at a festival this summer and find yourself curious, how might you best approach entering the space? “Be mindful not to assume anyone’s sex, sexuality or gender,” Fox advises. “Be an active bystander – if you see something that looks problematic or meet someone threatening the space, report it to staff who can act upon it immediately.”
Horse Meat’s Hillard takes a slightly more laissez-faire position. “Just come! Don’t worry or overthink it. We’re all there to have a good time,” he says.
“And just be yourself… but don’t be a dick.”
Mighty Hoopla is at Brockwell Park, south London, on 3 and 4 June. NYC Downlow will be at Glastonbury from 21 to 25 June