Photo: Chris Bethell
It's 2AM on Sunday morning at Glastonbury's NYC Downlow and everyone is dripping in sweat. There's sweat on the tent walls and droplets in the air, beads of it clinging to reveller’s pumped-up biceps and dripping off the endless leather harnesses and chaps that are a mainstay at the festival's resident queer club.
There is so much sweat, in fact, that it seeps into VICE photographer Chris Bethell's camera lens and ends up actually breaking it. I've never heard of sweat breaking a camera before, but somehow it's leaked inside the machine, giving all the nights’ photos a hazy, unreal quality. Which is quite apt as, for 72 hours, the whole thing felt like a fever dream.You've probably heard of NYC Downlow by now. Launched by creative duo Stephen Gallagher and Gideon Berger back in 2007, the famously seedy and glorious “homo disco” is where you go if you want to dance until the sun rises in a pop-up venue that smells like mud, poppers and bare naked flesh. Since then, the area has expanded into Block9 – which currently includes new venue IICON and Genosys Sound System. All are fun and wild, but Downlow is the funnest and wildest.“It’s the best festival in Europe but there’s zero gay presence there,” Berger told me in 2015, speaking about why he launched the party at Glastonbury. And it worked. These days, LGBTQ people travel to the festival specifically for Downlow. On Sunday night, one person in a glittery bikini and moon boots told me that they'd not left the area at all. “I just dance, drink and eat here, then camp just over there [gestures vaguely to the middle distance] whenever I need to rest my legs for an hour or two.”
Every year, the rumour mill at Downlow goes into overdrive. At one point, I overheard three people claim that Diana Ross was going to make an appearance at 3AM. “They'll just wheel her out for one song I think,” said a tiny drag queen in chaps and a pineapple bra (the theme on the Saturday night was “Club Tropicana”). “Yeah, she’s probably got jet lag as well, so she’ll be fine,” replied their mate.Seventy-eight-year-old Diana did not in fact get wheeled out, but the weekend saw sets from Honey Dijon, Todd Edwards and DJ Paulette and more, alongside constant energy and performances from Downlow’s resident troupe of east London drag queens (led by nightlife icon Jonny Woo). Then, on the Monday morning, at 2AM, Roisin Murphy showed up in red PVC and flares to play her hits to an adoring and somehow still dancing party crowd.
NYC Downlow always brings a euphoric vibe, but after a three-year break which included multiple lockdowns, this year felt particularly freeing and special. Among the die-hards, there were some younger faces, plenty of whom had never been. “I’ve not really been to many queer clubs or spaces. I’m from Reading and there’s not much there. This is my first Glastonbury as well,” I’m told by 19-year-old Harry in the smoking area. “It kind of makes me want to get into drag… We’ll see!”
For 37-year-old Ran, being locked up and away from gay bars was depressing as hell. “For 20 plus years, clubbing has always been the thing that makes me happy and relaxed. It just makes me feel myself and it’s same for a lot of people obviously. So I feel in my element right now! Surrounded by glitter and testosterone. It’s a midsummer miracle!”By the time revellers went home, you could tell which ones had probably been to NYC Downlow. “I could have died in that crowd,” said a small, dishevelled-looking character in destroyed Crocs, a few hours later, in the queue for a coach home. “In a good way.” Others had finally taken off their cowboy hats and fishnets, their stick-on moustaches long lost in the mud, neon eyeshadow streaking across tired cheeks.Right now, this past weekend feels like a dream. If you weren’t there (or you were and simply wish to relive the all the lost moments in time) you can peep Chris Bethell’s photographs below:
@daisythejones / @christopherbethell