The Evolution of Manchester’s Gay Village

Here’s a piece first published in The Guardian in August 2004:

It would have been his idea of hell. When Greater Manchester’s former chief constable, James Anderton, accused the city’s gay population in 1987 of “swirling around in a human cesspit of their own making”, little did he know he would come to be regarded as one of the instigators of Britain’s gayest city, and perhaps the most successful gay village in Europe. The roll call would also have to include Margaret Thatcher, whose notorious Section 28 – a clause in the Local Government Act passed in 1988 – galvanised a spectacular coalition, ranging from theatre impresarios to librarians, to defend the right to a gay life. Neither could have anticipated how their crusades would conjure up a queer constituency. Back then, Canal Street in Manchester city centre was still a red-light district. Anderton, an evangelical Christian, encouraged his officers to stalk its dank alleys and expose anyone caught in a clinch, while police motorboats with spotlights cruised for gay men around the canal’s locks and bridges.

This kind of surveillance was nothing new in the area. In 1880, a notorious raid on a nearby temperance hall halted “disgraceful proceedings” at which almost 50 men, half of them dressed as women, gathered “for the purpose of inciting one another to commit abominable offences”. They were dancing the cancan to the accompaniment of a blind harmonium player.

Raids on gay clubs were rife in the late 80s. “The biggest perpetrators of hate crime in the city were the police at that time,” says Mary Murphy, a lesbian city councillor. The effect was to activate the gay community, which forged an alliance with the city council, which, in turn, gave support to gay businesses. Now the place is so successful that it simultaneously welcomes and dreads hordes of straight invaders.

The ghost of missionary Anderton was finally laid to rest when the current chief constable led his gay colleagues’ contingent at EuroPride 2003, a 10-day Mardi Gras in the gay village.

“I love the village,” says Sergeant Jan Brown, one of the team that polices the 24-hour city centre. “It’s vibrant – and what could be nicer in summer than sitting by the canal, lovely food and lovely ambience? Crime? Next to nothing.”

A place notorious for “drinking, robbery and cruising” has been through a cultural revolution, says Pat Karney, one of the city politicians whose time as a councillor spans Manchester’s metamorphosis from a dirty old town run by rightwing elements of old Labour to a modernising metropolis run by a maverick, new-left council that is neither old nor New Labour. These municipal radicals took over the council during the 1980s when government money poured into inner-city regeneration and cultural entrepreneurs played midwife to Madchester’s pop renaissance.

But the very success of the gay village brought its own risks – it has had a trajectory which the gay quarters of other cities might recognise.

Back in the 1980s, there were only a couple of pubs on Canal Street, remembers Iain Scott, who now runs Taurus, one of the village’s many cafe/bars. “If you got off the bus and turned up your collar and turned left, you’d head for the Union or the Rembrandt – it was a sign to other people of your inclination.” Those were the days when gay punters had to “knock twice and ask for Dorothy”, Scott says. Gay men had cause to be wary, and as for lesbians, few bars made any women welcome.

The era of the bar-as-bunker changed in 1990 when Carol Ainscow and her business partner Peter Dalton bought a wreck of a building in Canal Street and opened up Manto, a gorgeous, glass-walled bar that turned everything inside out. Ainscow, a lesbian property developer from Bolton, says, “I didn’t feel comfortable in the places I was drinking in, and they weren’t particularly women-friendly. I felt sick of having to knock on doors and hide.”

French-style cafe society’s incarnation in Canal Street had a wider significance for the city, says Drew Stokes of Marketing Manchester. “We had the Hacienda, the made-in-Manchester new music and drugs culture, and the rise of frightening doormen but, for both gay and straight people, Manto and the village were stylish and safe.”

For all that, says Ainscow, “For the first six months we lost money: people were frightened to be seen.”

Metz, then run by Scott, followed across the canal from Manto, modelled on a Prague cafe/bar. “Our approach was, don’t discriminate, integrate, we don’t care how old you are, what language you speak, you are welcome.” That spirit was to define the village.

Every autumn, a new generation joins the city’s massive student population, curious, freed up, drinking too much and, for some, coming out. Michelle Reid arrived in Manchester in 1986 as a student from a small Northumbrian town, at a time when the gay village existed more in spirit than in space. “It wasn’t a beautiful place to be then, but it was magical. I looked around and saw all these gay people – it was a brave new world. I’d never come into contact with people with extremes, living a life, looking very different – I’d come from a place where there was only one black family – and I felt I could be part of this. There were moments when I thought, ‘Jesus – this is my life!'” Reid never left.

There had been a plan to clean up the canal and the dingy streets approaching Piccadilly station, but there had never been the cash. Then in 1988 a development corporation was set up by the government and, says one city hall insider, it “came riding into town with saddlebags bulging with money. It was like the IRA bombing of the Arndale Centre – we could access money for stuff we wanted to do, anyway.”

It was the ghost of Section 28 that seemed to spirit the gay village into existence. “There was no sense of a village,” recalls Ian Wilmott, a gay liberation activist and now a Labour councillor. “The main dance clubs were outside the village, and what gay space there was existed only once you went through the doors and paid your money. The concept of gay space didn’t exist. Section 28 was such a monstrous attack on civil liberties that hundreds of campaigners came together to oppose it. People were feeling besieged. We had no homeland, no part of the city. We needed somewhere … It had to be more than a club. We willed the village into existence.”

But if Section 28 brought together three communities – customers, commerce and the council – there was by this point another galvaniser: Aids. John Hamilton, now chair of the Village Business Association, arrived in the city 16 years ago as an HIV health adviser. “Everybody had heard the message from the government ads, and nobody was taking any notice.” He worked the venues and events to raise funds and awareness about Aids. All that activity, he says, was “integral to bringing the village together”.

When a vigil was organised spontaneously in the village in memory of a man killed by the virus, it metamorphosed into the Gay Pride every August bank holiday which, after a few years of sulks and spectacular success, climaxed in the triumphant EuroPride 2003. That, too, was backed by the city council.

The village’s hot sex, drugs and rock’n’roll culture was famously showcased at the end of the 1990s when the television screenwriter Russell T Davies, encouraged to “go gay”, wrote Queer As Folk. Nothing like it had ever been shown on British television: men at work, bickering, buddying, cruising, swaggering and shagging. If people weren’t already consuming the village as an urban erogenous zone, they became tourists to Canal Street, which was now, like Coronation Street, “As seen on TV”.

Businesses loved it, and their influx provided an attractive model which has been admired and attempted by other provincial cities such as Newcastle. But it can be a victim of its own success in that it can move through the cycle of undesirable area to desirable very quickly indeed and the gay people for whom the area was once a haven find that it soon becomes yet another place in which they feel alienated. A change in the gay village was under way, and punters felt as if they were in a zoo. “As soon as the corporate breweries arrived, out went discernment about who was coming into the area,” Scott says. “They didn’t care where the money was coming from, they just wanted to get ’em in. The people working the doors didn’t care, either. They were predominantly big, straight guys who let loads of girls in for hen nights. So there were large groups of girls who felt they could have a fun time, they felt safe, they weren’t harassed. Says something about straight bars, doesn’t it?”

Former Take That manager Nigel Martin-Smith opened his Essential club in 2000 and remembers truckloads of hen parties, “wearing bunny ears and flashing bras, having a savage night out. But they were followed by coachloads of lads”.

As Scott confirms, “Big groups of straight lads were looking for totty and late-night drinking, and they started taking it out on gay men.” By the beginning of the new millennium, one of the police officers patrolling the area noticed a “straightening of the village”. And it was generally agreed young, straight men cause the problems in city centres.

A safe sex worker in the village recalls recoiling from the hordes of party people “who didn’t understand the gay lifestyle. They were abusing us – undesirables without any manners, people who didn’t understand where they were”.

Sergeant Brown says, “The gay community are great – they’re very keen supporters of safer clubbing.” But two-thirds of the big new bars on Canal Street were now heterosexual and corporate, and some venues were “commercially driven to sell as much alcohol as possible, and didn’t care about the consequences”. Suddenly, the village seemed at risk from the straight invaders.

“I remember sitting in a bar reading the Pink Paper and a huge party of women came in, and I felt they were pointing and laughing at the funny gay people,” recalls Michelle Reid, now chief executive of one of Britain’s oldest HIV trusts. It was lesbians, above all, who found themselves unwelcome. Nick Dearden, a solicitor who regularly parties in the village, doesn’t have much time for “unchecked masculinity” at large, but says that “hen parties, a load of women out in the white stretch limo, can visit a lot of grief on your lesbian friends. They may celebrate the poofs, but straight women are not nice to lesbians.”

Brown reckoned “some straight men seem to think that gay men’s very presence is waving a flag at them”, and by meeting it with aggression, they felt they were “reinforcing their own sexuality”.

Difference, it seemed, had to be met by domination. “I’d like to say, ‘You’re welcome in my space – which is tiny, as it happens,'” added Dearden, “but I don’t want to have to account for myself.”

Now the village is changing yet again. “It would not exist without the clubs and bars,” says Martin-Smith. “The corporates moved into the village and they thought money could be made out of the pink pound. But the gay community began to think: you’re not investing in us, you’re exploiting us.”

Hamilton calculates that at least half a dozen straight, corporate bars on Canal Street have had to sell up in the past year or so. “You can’t just come in as a corporation and hope you’ll make money,” he says. “You have to know your clients.”

Claire Turner, the director of EuroPride, treasures the moment when the Slug & Lettuce chain was confronted by the community: the chain didn’t support EuroPride, but decorated its windows with rainbow bunting as if it did. “People just went in and pulled it down.” If it didn’t support the community, then the community would use its power and withdraw its custom. The Slug & Lettuce closed. Martin-Smith acquired it and cheekily reopened it as Queer, a dance and internet venue next to Velvet, an elegant eaterie, and Scott’s community cafe bar, Taurus, which offers free space to gay organisations and artists. “None of this is rocket science,” says Scott. “It is back to basics.”

When Steph Kay, formerly general manager at Manto, canvassed the banks to bankroll a women’s club, however, none would. But backed by Colin Rigby, whose Cruz 101 appeared as Babylon in Queer As Folk, she created Vanilla, the village’s only lesbian club. It prospers. She directs custom to other venues, because though her club may be small and perfectly formed, it can’t house a kitchen or a lounge; she puts on club nights at other venues, too, because Vanilla attracts a bigger constituency than can be satisfied by a little lesbian nook. “I have to get deliveries four times a week because our cellar is probably the smallest in the village,” she says, “but it’s a cracking business.”

The ratio of independents is growing, the space is becoming more diverse, and Ainscow reckons, “The village is going gayer again.”

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