We were chatting on the ground floor of the King’s Head Members Club in London’s East End. To the untrained eye, the venue looks like a dilapidated Irish pub, but ring the bell and sign in, and you’ll emerge through a black velvet curtain to one of the strangest venues in the city. Gold chandeliers line the ceiling, red velvet sofas kiss the walls, a taxidermy tiger pounces above the cocktail-shaking bartenders. The place is rammed with queer women – only queer women — drenched in red light, giving the sense that you’re walking into an underground lesbian social club in 1920s Prohibition-era New York — the secrecy, the intimacy, the grandeur.
It’s rare that you go to a party sober as a nun and somehow feel like you’ve got four tabs of acid marinating on your tongue. Let me take you on a tour — “Fear and Loathing in East London,” if you will. Upstairs in a sky blue room, a stuffed polar bear towers over the crowd, and a stalk is perched in the corner on a golden branch. Women chat feverishly in pairs or large groups. There are Irish women and Greek women; women from Guadeloupe, Seychelles, and Ethiopia; entrepreneurs, professors, and social workers. The world is in London, and the international lesbians all seem to be congregating at Mint.
Tonight isn’t just any Mint party, though. It’s Mint Tease, a debaucherous party with live performances and, coincidentally, a full moon. In the words of a psychotherapist I got chatting to, “We’re 60 percent water, so it’s definitely doing something to the atmosphere in here.” Every 30 minutes, there was a seriously sexy show, be it strip tease, burlesque, body paint, a married lesbian couple doing aerobics in lingerie, or something happening with squirting milk. “Milk will never be the same again,” an Irish artist turned to me and said.
Though undeniably hot-under-the-collar, the international crowd was showing their appreciation in a British way: demure, reserved, some clapping, the odd whoop, and a whistle. The crowd was self-reflective — no one tried to look too aroused or too thirsty. It was a far cry from strip events in New York, San Francisco, or LA, where everyone laps up every move — every splash of milk — and stuffs suspenders with dollars bills. (To be fair, we don’t tip in the UK, and pound coins don’t quite have the same effect.) In the States, things are more bacchanalian and transgressive; people are unafraid of public displays of arousal — something for the English queer women’s scene to work on.
Continuing on our proverbial acid trip upstairs, there was an entire taxidermy room with more preserved animals than you’ve ever seen in your life: pouncing panthers, growling leopards, cheetahs, lions, and tigers. Name a wild cat and it was there, alongside a giraffe with the base of its neck attached to the ceiling and zebra head busts. People reacted in very different ways. Some found it cool, while others found it creepy, eerie, and haunting. Some mourned as they sincerely (drunkenly) looked in the glass eyes of a leopard or apologized to the giraffe. Others were blasé, unphased by it all.
Next door, there was a room full of wall-to-wall butterflies — silver, blue, white with orange tips, and black with white stripes. These butterflies looked like they died in a psych-trance rave in the 90s; they were made of colors you didn’t know natural things could be. Cute dates were happening all around, and couples new and old were browsing and marveling.
Winding down the mahogany staircases past a screeching baboon and a roaring brown bear, we enter the basement club. Absolute bangers, 90s house, and techno were rolling from the sound system as people pulsed up and down, praising the DJ, El Conchitas, for her range and mixes. Rhythm coursed through the crowd as women from all over the world threw shapes under strobe lights and a (stuffed) chimpanzee carrying a machine gun stood on a podium overseeing it all. I promise I hadn’t taken acid.
There are a million ways to be a queer woman; London’s scene is amorphous. There were thousands of women in that venue. I saw faces I knew, but many more I’d never seen before. People from different places, with differing perspectives, styles, tastes, ages, backgrounds. Flaming lesbians, trans women, bi women, women who are ridiculously out, others who are very in, those who breathe dyke into the world every time they step out of the house, those who only reveal their sexuality when and if they decide to. Women who have come to unwind, to dance, to pull, to socialize, to see how it goes, to keep one eye on the crowd as they talk to their friends. It’s really nice, and actually really important, to take over such sprawling venues. It allows people to find their vibe, their nook, and their crew.
As things stand, Mint is the gold standard for spaces like this; no other party in the UK has the economic might and reputation to do what Mint does (though I expect this will change soon enough; dyke nightlife is blossoming rapidly). Mint has taken over Soho House, L’Escargot, St. Paul’s, Century Club, and exclusive venues all around town. Lesbian nightlife has never been regarded as lucrative, but Mint’s founder Nicola Chubb has built something really phenomenal. It’s been 13 years of claiming spaces, fighting for venues, and building foundations, communities, and a reputation that makes Mint the longest continuously running lesbian party in London. Making game-changing spaces for women to come together, explore, understand and expand their sexualities, identities, friendships, and relationships is their purpose — to help women discover who they are in the night.
Mint is a cornerstone of the London scene. It has changed the lives of more queer women in this city and this world than we may give it credit for. If anyone needs me, I’ll be dancing to Lil’ Louis’ “French Kiss” with some of the world’s most powerful lesbians under the watchful eye of a chimpanzee with a Kalashnikov — a sentence I *somehow* always knew I’d write.