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Photography Alasdair McLellan

remembering 20 february 1988 — the day that manchester came out

Paul Flynn

In 1988, a rally through central Manchester turned the city upside down. Not only was it the start of Manchester becoming Britain’s unofficial capital of Gay -- it was a useful microcosm for what would happen in the rest of the country.

Photography Alasdair McLellan

The following is an edited extract from Paul Flynn's Good As You.

Manchester has form for proving itself as a 'can-do' city, over and over. "That's how Manchester perceives itself and the gay scene could ride off the back of that, as well as benefiting from Manchester pushing itself forward to compete with other European cities," says Chris Payne, a short, confident man who edited City Life's sister magazine, Gay Life, at the tail end of the 1980s. It is a city particularly good at bouncing back from adversity. "It bid for two Olympic Games and didn't get them, but actually it gets the Commonwealth Games. An IRA bomb goes off and, after the emergency services have dealt with the aftermath, a competition is announced to rebuild Manchester. It's a renaissance city."

There may just be something in the water. "It's strong-minded, strong-willed and independent. It has a history of being radical, being independent, standing on its own two feet. With my marketing head on I go back to product, place, people, price and promotion to assess Manchester's village and where Manchester is in terms of selling itself. So Manchester as a scene is big enough to attract the biggest names and businesses, but it isn't as big as London, which people can feel isolated in, in a series of mini-villages that don't always connect."

Manchester is a small enough place to hear them all talk at once and yet big enough to facilitate real, effective engagement on a common cause. It is a city of gobshites and polemicists, of personal publicists and poetic mavericks. It is blessed and occasionally cursed with mercurial levels of city pride. "The emergence of the gay village all sits," says Payne, "in a wider position of where Manchester was in the mid- to late-eighties, under a Labour administration that was willing to work with the Conservative government if it was willing to promote Manchester."

"Manchester is strong-minded, strong-willed and independent. It has a history of being radical, being independent, standing on its own two feet."

The city's student population regenerates the city every September, a new demographic at entry level of their serious, independent thinking. "The fact that Manchester has a very strong, vibrant student population," says Payne, "the largest in Europe both then and now, means that every year Manchester is reborn, with tens of thousands of new people living in the city. It's continually refreshed." It's continually, visibly young in a way a city as prohibitively expensive as London can never be. "Within that there are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, curious, what we would now describe as metrosexual and polysexual people. Manchester gives space to them all. This builds conversations about human rights, women's rights, rights for people of colour, a whole range of progressive issues. So there is a wellspring of support there that was particularly strong in the eighties, archetypally so. It's a backbone to what everyone's doing."

All of it coalesced on 20 February 1988 with a march through the city centre supported by the already thriving underground gay world of the city and facilitated by a cleverly pragmatic city council -- and policed by the force of the city's evangelical Christian chief of police, James Anderton. The No Clause 28 rally saw over 20,000 demonstrators emerge from the sidelines and stomp down Market Street, towards Albert Square. This was a historic act, constituting a record number of protestors drawn to the city, and a symbolic one, too, with the council handing over the civic reins to the gay and lesbian community. "Just to be able to have the event in Albert Square and to be inside the town hall," says Payne. "You were looking out and down on the square and watching it fill up. It really was magical. There are famous shots from that day, aerial views of Albert Square just full of protestors. The energy that gives people is quite incredible."

The demonstration looked like the end of one era of gay Manchester and the beginning of another. Spotting familiar faces from the gay village was like playing a local game of pin the tail on the donkey. Council leader Graham Stinger made his triumphant speech: "First of all, on behalf of the Manchester Labour Party and the City Council I'd like to welcome everybody from outside Manchester to Manchester and say what a wonderful and magnificent demonstration this is." The crowd roared. "This is the largest national demonstration there has been in Manchester in the last 20 years and we are very proud of it … We're told by the police that there are 12–15,000 people here, though given the police aren't the most numerate people we're still counting." Another roar. "We think there are about 20,000 people."

By now the crowd was cheering like the terraces at Old Trafford and Maine Road football grounds, the regular soundtrack to Saturday afternoons in two corners of the city. "People at the moment in this country are very concerned about health and about civil rights, and we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that Clause 28, the attacks in the national media and the press on gays and lesbians are disassociated. The real project that the Conservatives are on is to destroy public service, to destroy local democracy and to place the power into the hands of those people and those organisations with most money. The reason Clause 28 has been introduced is to divert attention from their real project: to scapegoat, victimise and create a new second-class citizen. Manchester City Council and the Labour Party in Manchester are not prepared to be used to help create second-class citizens in this city or anywhere else."

"Manchester is a small enough place to hear them all talk at once and yet big enough to facilitate real, effective engagement on a common cause. It is a city of gobshites and polemicists, of personal publicists and poetic mavericks. It is blessed and occasionally cursed with mercurial levels of city pride."

Stringer left the stage for Tom Robinson to sing Glad to Be Gay. The crowd sang back as one, "Sing if you're glad to be gay, sing if you're happy that way", the city's first, collective, unifying good-as-you moment. Sir Ian McKellen, the marvellous Lancashire-born-and-bred actor, then just plain old Ian McKellen, delivered a speech to give proceedings his personal touch: "I'm here because I'm one of millions of normal homosexuals who are affected by this new law. Clause 28 is designed, in part, to keep us in our place. But it didn't work with me. We must be out and about in the streets of Manchester. We must be out and about in the media. We must be out and about in pubs and clubs and in the classroom, talking about homosexuality, encouraging our friends and families to think about homosexuality and, in fact, in that sense, promote homosexuality. Until this whole country realises, as we do, this Clause 28 is, in itself, to coin a phrase, 'an unnatural act.'"

McKellen stepped down to introduce Michael Cashman, who had moved on from playing Colin in EastEnders, one half of the first gay couple featured on prime-time British TV, and was now at the start of his serious political career. "I'm here because I'm proud,' said Cashman, clenching his fist to the air. "Gay men and women are ordinary men and women made extraordinary by society's focus on what we do in bed. As ordinary men and women we demand the same rights, no more, no less, the same rights as other ordinary, civilised human beings. There's been a lot of talk about the money that is spent to 'promote' homosexuality. Even Saatchi & Saatchi couldn't sell it for us. In a civilised society it shouldn't be necessary to spend money to promote equality. Because that's all we want. Equality. Nothing more. Finally, I want to leave you with this. They can round us up. They can gas us. They can shoot us. They can do whatever they like with us, but they will never annihilate us, because so long as a man and woman procreate, so homosexuality will exist. And we will never surrender."

By now the scenes in Albert Square looked something like the work of Harvey Milk during his galvanising work for gay rights in America. Cashman handed over the microphone to fellow soap opera alumnus Sue Johnston, then playing matriarch Sheila Grant on Brookside. "I'd not intended to speak," she said. "I'm not very good without a script. But when I first heard about Clause 28, I thought about Hitler's burning of the books. And we all know what happened there. It must not happen here." Later, at a Never Going Underground concert at the Free Trade Hall, one of a series in support of the rally, Jimmy Somerville took to the stage to sing There's More to Love than Boy Meets Girl. McKellen followed the Communards on stage to tell the hollering crowd that the first time he was in the building was to see a Cliff Richard concert, leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions about what that might say about past gay visibility in Britain.

"Manchester is acutely about a sense of its own place, and within that the lesbian and gay community is able to bloom and blossom and grow because there is a fertile and sympathetic environment. It's all about coming out of the shadows and into the sunshine."

"The party went well on into the night," says Chris Payne. "We'd enlisted all the bars and clubs. They had all got extra licences which the council had granted. What we did was invite all these people to our city, to demonstrate and to have a great time."

The city's emerging nightlife had a part to play. "It was political but it was with a purpose, and there was the party element. We made sure people actually enjoyed themselves. Suddenly, all these people that had come together and had never been to Manchester before thought, this is all right here, we'll come back again. That helps create impetus. We didn't stop there. In 1989 we did Love Rights, then followed that on with Liberation 91, all things continually in opposition to Clause 28 and then spreading out to fight for the equalisation of the age of consent. We just kept the momentum up."

He continues. "Things rub off on each other. This is a transformational moment for Manchester and a transformational moment for wider gay culture. I'm not saying that Manto [which became the first glass-fronted gay bar in the country when it opened on Canal Street in 1990] couldn't have happened without the Clause 28 march, but it helped. This is also Manchester that is consumed by itself as 'Madchester'. It's the summer of love and ecstasy from 1988 onwards. It is that party atmosphere. It is The Haçienda and FAC 51. It is T-shirts that say 'On the Sixth Day … God Created Manchester.' Manchester is acutely about a sense of its own place, and within that the lesbian and gay community is able to bloom and blossom and grow because there is a fertile and sympathetic environment. It's all about coming out of the shadows and into the sunshine."

Good As You is out now.