This weekend in London, the streets would ordinarily be strewn with glitter, rainbow flags and a mass of people all out to celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride. As usual, cities around the world had planned their own respective annual parades to commemorate the anniversary of the first ever Christopher Street Liberation Day.
Mariah Carey was set to headline Brighton Pride. Marches from Deptford to Denver were in the latest stages of organisation. And then along came Ms Rona, putting an immediate end to any prospect of Pride as we typically know it. “It’s a fucking disaster,” says Gideon Berger, co-founder of Glastonbury’s iconic dance destinations NYC Downlow and Block9. “We should be together.”
Originally held in New York in 1970, the first Pride march was a sombre political protest, held to commemorate an uprising which took place a year earlier outside New York LGBT+ venue The Stonewall Inn. Controlled by the mafia and catering to some of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of the community, Stonewall was subject to regular police raids, during which customers would be ordered to line up with their identification cards, arrested for wearing gender-nonconforming clothing or dragged into the bathroom for invasive checks.
At this time “solicitation of homosexual relations” was illegal. On 28 June, 1969, the punters of Stonewall Inn fought back, and years on, the uprising is viewed as a major flashpoint in the global LGBTQ+ rights movement.
The shape of Pride has changed vastly over the years – bigger city parades particularly are subject to rightful scrutiny around ticketing and corporations funding and profiting from the event. But at its core Pride remains an event about loudly taking up space en masse, in all kinds of ways. Visibility can arrive in many different forms, from a protest banner held aloft to a drag queen belting out ‘Diamonds are Forever’ for the revellers of Soho Square.
And amid a backdrop of gloom – politicians attempting to dismantle existing LGBTQ+ rights, and a troubling and poisonous rise in vocal transphobia – getting together to celebrate queer culture on the streets is a big, brash middle finger slung in the direct of bigots. This year, the community is grappling with how to celebrate Pride, from a social distance.
Since it was founded in 2007, NYC Downlow has raised over £80,000 for a variety of charities, including HIV AIDS Alliance, migrant search and rescue operation Sea-Watch, and Sexual Mnorities Uganda.
“We should be raising money for charities on the door,” says Gideon Berger, pondering a Pride that looks altogether different in 2020. “We should be meeting, seeing each other, fucking each other, dancing together, drinking together, and generally enjoying our community and our culture. In a world that is so full of bad news, the NYC Downlow is a gathering of radical likeminded people who dine off that energy for the rest of the year, myself included. It’s terrible that we can’t be together this weekend.”
Indeed, this very weekend Berger was supposed to be at Worthy Farm, back at the utopian queer institution he’s created alongside an international family of collaborators. As anybody who has ever donned a mandatory moustache and headed into the debauchery of Downlow will know, this five-day-a-year club is the purest spirit of Pride, bottled, shaken and sprayed across its rammed dance-floor.Due to Glastonbury taking place on the last weekend of June, the festival nearly always overlaps with at least one major Pride parade. “We don’t mark Pride, so to speak,” Berger laughs. “We just are it”.
This sentiment is true for many of the vital queer spaces around the UK – for LGBTQ+ people, these venues often symbolise far more than just a night out. They’re a place to escape and let loose; a place to laugh, chat, and dance with your community, to feel less alone, to feel proud. “It’s taking us [the LGBTQ+ community], and how we are,” says Berger, “and creating a space where that is paramount, the North star, the sole reason for us being together.”
In light of coronavirus, inventive virtual parties have popped up during lockdown in the absence of physical spaces. Throughout lockdown, it has been possible to attend online nights in the click of a mouse. Though it can feel a little surreal getting dressed up to shimmy on your sofa (I felt a bit like a Love Island contestant getting glammed up just to stand in my own living room) it was also great fun; even if it was a thousand miles away from Dalston Superstore, The Glory or Royal Vauxhall Tavern, it captured at least some of the core spirit.
And Pride is no exception; this weekend, Pride Inside – a collaborative effort led by the charities UK Black Pride, ParaPride, Gendered Intelligence, Amnesty International and Stonewall – is hosting a free online festival as an alternative way of marking Pride. Grunge-tinged musician Marika Hackman, South London poet and singer Arlo Parks, and rising pop star L Devine are among the performers at the launch party, and there’s a whole series of online events planned in the following weeks including panel discussions, workshops, and Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer reading Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf’s love letters.
“We don’t mark Pride; we are it” – Gideon Berger, co-founder Glastonbury’s NYC Downlow and Block 9
“Pride is a movement against the persecution faced by people around the world for who they are, and who they love. The fact that about 70 countries still criminalise homosexuality and the fact inequalities are still rife for LGBTIQ+ people in a range of communities mean that we still need events like Pride to fight for a more just world,” says Pride Inside organiser Sen Raj – who also sits on the committee of Amnesty International’s Rainbow Network.
Marches, he explains, represent “an opportunity for LGBTIQ+ people to march together, celebrate our identities, protest inequalities, and build solidarity. While we are unable to do this physically at present, we can still achieve those goals online. Some Prides are also confronting, alienating, or inaccessible for many LGBTIQ+ people,” he points out. “We hope the online events will offer people who don’t normally attend physical Pride events a more accessible opportunity to engage.”
He adds: “LGBTIQ+ people have used online platforms as places of refuge and socialisation for decades. When it has been unsafe at home or school or in the workplace to be ‘out’ as who you are, LGBTIQ+ people have turned to online spaces to connect with each other and build community. While online Pride events are even more significant with the requirement for social distancing, it’s important to remember that Pride was happening online before COVID-19 and will continue now. We hope to see more safe, accessible, and inclusive Pride events online in the future.”
Laurie Belgrave, founder of The Chateau hopes that virtual parties and the “resourcefulness” of LGBTQ+ people will help to keep the community connected, even while we keep our physical distance. The south-east London venue was supposed to host a month’s worth of farewell parties when their time at the venue came to an end back in April, but due to the UK lockdown, the in-person celebrations had to be paused. Many of the venue’s best-loved club nights have been hosting virtual parties instead.
“We had all these spaces taken away, in an instant, in the space of 72 hours,” Belgrave reasons. “And for queer people, the need for that space is so significant and transformative in their lives. As we’re all sitting at home on our own, it feels like a good moment to reflect on why they’re important. It’s a massive struggle to keep a queer space open in London. The finances are really difficult. Hopefully when we come out of this, there will be a swell of support.”
Lately, Gideon Berger has been reflecting on the “secret ingredient” that makes queer venues like NYC Downlow so special in the first place. “It’s all motivated by the love of the underground LGBTQI+ culture and the music, and elevating us and our people, our music, how we dance, how we dress, move, and what we do. It’s one big…. magic thing that happens by itself.”
“I remember shitting myself with nerves the first time we ever built it,” he tells NME. “Is it going to be a success, or fucking tumbleweed blowing through the dance-floor. Is it going to be a shit-show, and completely empty? Are we going to be old-school female impersonators on the stage, with straight people observing and consuming the show of gay performance? But coming outside the venue and seeing a huge queue a couple of hours before we opened on the first night was a moment.”
“Pride is movement against persecution” – Sen Raj of charity collective Pride Inside
“One of my favourite memories is of Michael Eavis wandering into the NYC Downlow when Kerri Chandler was playing,” Berger adds. “[Chandler is] my childhood hero, and as far as I’m concerned, the inventor of deep house as we know it. The club was just fucking rammed from floor to ceiling, side to side, just fucking rammed with the queerest body and mass of flesh possible to find outside of [Berlin club] Berghain – or planet Earth. And then, Michael Eavis wanders in.”
“I got a radio call saying: ‘get down here, Michael’s in the fucking Downlow’. Bear in mind this was the first time that Michael – who had funded the NYC Downlow – had actually been inside. I think he was in his late-’70s when we first approached him with the idea of building a fucking gay club in a field in Somerset. It was the club at its best. I accosted him halfway through the dance-floor and he looked at me and said in his broad Somerset accent: “Gideon, it doesn’t get much worse than this does it?” And then he laughed.”
Unlike most Glastonbury attendees, the festival’s original founder gets to skip the enormous line to get into Downlow. “There’s a few people who get to queue jump,” Berger laughs. “Mick Jagger, Dua Lipa, and Michael Eavis.”
“But they still have to wear a moustache,” he concludes, firmly. “There’s no getting beyond the moustache.”
Moustache or not, whether you’re planning on joining with the virtual festivities this weekend – or marking Pride in another way (from a two-metre distance) – this year’s celebration will feel a little strange. But as the community tries to make the best of a bad situation, and reflects on the importance of queer spaces in the first place, there’s no doubt that – if we’re able to gather again by then – Pride 2021 is going to be brilliant, absurd, and unadulterated carnage.
Featured image credit: Kamil Kustosz/@kamilkustosz