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The world’s queerest club celebrates 16 years of LGBTQ+ disco and drag hedonism

"It’s just a black box inside, we keep it simple – it’s just about the music and energy."

By Cliff Joannou

Images: Henry Mills + Allan Gregorio, Layout: Jack Pengelly

“This year we celebrate 16 years of the NYC Downlow,” exclaims Jonny Woo, the resident Master of Ceremonies of Glastonbury’s notorious queer club. “And there are only two people who have been to every single NYC Downlow, and that’s me and Gideön,” Woo declares as Gideön Berger kicks off a punchy two-hour set in which he also debuts ‘A Road Called Destiny’, the forthcoming self-produced track from his recently launched record label Home-Centric Records.

Gideön, along with Stephen Gallagher, are the architects behind NYC Downlow at Block9 – the late-night dance music zone in Glastonbury’s South East Corner. Its formation was driven by the desire to give queer people a space to gather each night when the main stage acts end. After receiving the blessing of Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis, the NYC Downlow was born in 2007.

“In there, something magical happens.”

The red brick warehouse exterior harkens back to the meat packing district of 1970’s New York: giant carcasses of meat hang by the entrance as drag queens and gogo bears dance outside, teasing the hedonism that awaits. The imposing bold design being at odds with the stripped-back interior was fully intentional. “Stephen’s idea was to turn it inside out. It’s just a black box inside, we keep it simple – it’s just about the music and energy – but in there, something magical happens,” says Gideön.

“We thought about the concept of safe spaces, what happens when you take away the policing? The best parties that happened in this country were the free parties of the 80s and 90s, with no production, no police, no DJ riders,” he adds of Stephen and his dream to create a space where queer people could express themselves freely without fear of judgement or violence, if only for five nights of the year. It’s a place that welcomes all, be they LGBTQIA or curious straights. “The queue can look straight, there are up to 5000 people waiting to get in from the outside, but inside it’s faggy as hell.”

“What happens when you take away the policing?”

As we enter, the sweat drips off the overhanging curtains. Vests and T-shirts are shed – not just by the boys, but the girls, too, baring breasts – and hands are thrown into the air with every beat that drops in a soaring crescendo of disco-house heaven.

Glamorously dressed-up individuals wearing wigs and dresses
(Image: Henry Mills)

To the right of the main dance floor is the Meat Rack, a smaller club room, where the crowd shakes itself to the sick tunes of DJs like Guy Williams and Maze as dancers gyrate on the bar. The smoking area is buzzing as strangers exchange looks and chatter, new friends are met, and more intimate acquaintances are made in the dark room at the far end of the main dance floor. Even the stewards are grooving away to the music. 

One thing is for sure: the energy of the NYC Downlow is seriously contagious. 

a group of drag queens and glamorous, dressed up people outside NYC Downlow
(Image: Henry Mills)

Celebrities are spotted in among the crowd: Jessie Ware, Jake Shears, Nick Grimshaw, Layton Williams… and was that Jonathan Bailey? There’s no VIP here, the stars get down and dirty with the rest of us. We visit every night. How could we not? 

Bimini takes to the stage on Thursday night for a rabble-rousing performance, while Friday night’s main stage show features an army of performers – drag queens, kings, six-packed gogos, hairy bears, and more – presenting a goosebump-inducing routine to ‘Walk The Night’ by the Scatt Bros, choreographed by Downlow queen Lottie Croucher. Last year, Lottie and the dancers served us a phenomenal show-stopping dance spectacle with a disco mix of ‘Hollywood Seven’ by Alides Hiding, and this year’s adrenaline-jacking show is equally magnificent.

“Try it… you might like it.”

As future-forward as the NYC Downlow is in its utopian vision, it’s also a place that fully recognises the ground-breakers that paved the way for us to sashay proudly forward. Saturday night is given over to honouring Lily Savage, the legend that brought unfiltered queerness to British television, with the queens serving their own unique interpretation of Lily’s iconic look. On Sunday night, DJ Prosumer closes the weekend with Tina Turner’s ‘Simply The Best’.

NYC Downlow at Block9 outside shot of the building and crowd.
(Image: Martin Perry)

Walking in each year as I have done since 2011 feels like coming home. This is the best kind of family – chosen family. As the lights come on in the early hours of Monday morning, we make our way into the daylight, turning to take one last look at the building before we say goodbye for another year. Our eyes look up, and there at the very top of the NYC Downlow are two billboards unapologetically carrying the message that lies at the heart of the world’s most infamous pop-up queer club: “Try it… you might like it.”