I run LGBT tours of Manchester's iconic Gay Village and it’s so much more than just a party destination

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A major new plan has been revealed for one of the most important areas of the city.

Most big UK cities today have a Gay Village, but none of them have a Gay Village quite like Manchester’s. On the surface, it may just seem like a party destination, home of the UK’s biggest Pride festival, but the history and significance of the area are far more complex and its story is one of politics, activism, business and, most importantly, people. 

Preserving and maintaining this rich history is the aim of a new action plan recently launched by Manchester City Council. In brief, the plan includes physical improvements to the area, including murals and heritage trail, as well as a safety assessment.

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In a statement about the new plan, Councillor Bev Craig, leader of Manchester City Council, said: “The Gay Village is not only an incredibly vibrant, welcoming and safe space for our LGBTQ+ community but is a living monument to the progress made by those who fought against bigotry and hatred, and those who dedicated their entire lives to building a more tolerant and inclusive society. I am immensely proud of the Village and as leader want to make sure that its character and history is preserved for generations to come.”

Canal Street in Manchester during the Pride festival.Canal Street in Manchester during the Pride festival.
Canal Street in Manchester during the Pride festival.

But defining this “character” that the council is trying to preserve is not so straightforward. We spoke to Josh Martin, 31, a Manchester tour guide who runs specialist LGBT+ tours of the Gay Village, to find out more about the area’s history and what it means to the community today.

‘When does a gay pub become a gay pub?’

“For a lot of people, gay 'began' in the 1950s,” Josh said. But that is not the case. On his tours, he tells visitors about a trans man from Manchester born in 1799 and a drag ball that took place in Hulme in the 1880s. Canal Street, however, became a gathering point for people on the “margins of society” – mainly gay men and sex workers – in the 19th century, when the canalside warehouses were rendered obsolete due to the expansion of the railway. 

The oldest pub in Village, the New Union, is one of the last remnants of that era in the Village’s history, having first opened in 1860. It’s here that Josh also had his first introduction to the Village as a young gay man, working behind the bar.

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Josh said: “It's really difficult to say, when does a gay pub become a gay pub? Because they were explicitly for gay people. But, at the New Union, there were drag performers since the Second World War, which is ridiculously early for that kind of performance. There was also a cottage, a public toilet where men would solicit sex with other men, near the Rembrandt.”

Josh Martin leading a group on one of his Manchester walking tours. Credit: Josh MartinJosh Martin leading a group on one of his Manchester walking tours. Credit: Josh Martin
Josh Martin leading a group on one of his Manchester walking tours. Credit: Josh Martin

By the 1960s, however, word had gotten out about Canal Street. Around 1962, the then owner of the pub was arrested for gross indecency, but later released on the condition that he change his ways – and he did, in a way, by changing the name from the Union to the New Union. 

Josh said: “If you're arrested then you're also in newspapers, people would read about the gross indecency in newspapers, then suddenly the New Union becomes very popular. It's now been mapped out, if you're a 'grossly indecent' person then that's the place to go.  And if you're an entrepreneur, you can see the potential of this area that, generally speaking, is left alone. And there are a lot of empty warehouses where businesses can be set up.”

In this way, business and commerce have helped “shape” LGBT identity in Manchester – something which happened in LGBT communities across western Europe and America. Although this may seem somewhat exploitative, as Josh said: “People might hate us but they don't hate tax receipts, so it was also an important part of liberation.”

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Manchester Pride ParadeManchester Pride Parade
Manchester Pride Parade

‘More than a group of bars’

Some of the biggest strides towards liberation in the Gay Village happened in the 1980s and 1990s as more bars started opening. Some of the most influential bars that are still open today are Vanilla, Europe’s oldest lesbian bar, and Manto, a portmanteau for ‘Manchester Tomorrow’. The latter was the first bar on Canal Street to have open windows, which gave the community a real sense of “coming out,” Josh said. 

"If you were inside, you were saying: Yes, everyone is allowed to see me. By the way, heterosexuals used to do that, just walk up to the front and watch in. As if to say: ‘Oh my god there are gays and lesbians drinking beer, they're chatting to each other, they're doing things that we do.’ It was still quite shocking.”

There is another important club, not in the Gay Village, that also had a big influence on the growth of the Village at that time – the Hacienda, which also had its own gay club night called Flesh. The legendary club was the epicentre of the Madchester era, when acid house and ecstasy fuelled the city’s nightlife. Party-goers and ravers would often migrate to the Village from clubs like the Hacienda in the early hours. 

Josh said: “If you're straight and you're taking this drug that makes you feel suddenly very empathetic and you want to dance all night, homophobia just goes away, and you want to find out where to go, where to continue dancing.” 

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The reason Canal Street became the go-to late night attraction was due to a licensing policy that allowed gay venues to stay open an extra two hours to prevent any “crossover” with the straight venues, Josh explained. Because while drugs may have helped combat homophobia on the dancefloors, elsewhere it was worse than ever, including politics.

Manchester's Gay Village. Credit: GettyManchester's Gay Village. Credit: Getty
Manchester's Gay Village. Credit: Getty

In the late eighties, with the global AIDS crisis at its height and the introduction of Magaret Thatcher’s homophobic Section 28 banning the “promotion of homosexuality," violence against gay men was increasing and the police were turning a blind eye. The chief constable for Greater Manchester at the time was the infamous James Anderton, nicknamed ‘God’s copper.’ He once said that the people suffering through the AIDS crisis were “swirling in a human cesspool of their own making.”

Amid this tension, the Gay Village became one of the only safe spaces for the LGBT community, thanks to groups like the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, founded by Alan Horsfall in the late sixties. Both positive steps like this, and the negativity against LGBT people at the time were essential in the Gay Village’s growth, Josh believes. 

He said: “On the one hand, these areas were created by the pull of sex, the allure of meeting someone that's a little bit like you, but they were also created by a push. And that push in Manchester, because of this police officer, the particularities of the homophobia in Manchester. It was almost like there was a necessity to create these gay villages, these gay spaces.

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“And so having both that push and the pull is one of the reasons why Manchester's Gay Village was particularly big and active in comparison to Sheffield or Liverpool or Derby, comparable post-industrial cities. Manchester is a lot bigger because it had the pull of sex but also the push of homophobia.

“The Village became more than a group of bars, it was a meeting space, a social space, a political space, it was the centre where activists, LGBT people, ravers, could get their heads together and think about what it is to be us and what is to be that.”

‘Keeping the Gay Village community-focused’

Manchester has changed a lot in the last few decades and now there are LGBT businesses and community groups all over the Greater Manchester region. Josh highlighted some of the more recent success stories, such as the Queer Lit bookshop in the Northern Quarter, Social Refuge bookshop, cafe and co-working space in Ancoats and Partisan, which is a community-led, queer-friendly venue in Salford. 

Canal Street and the surrounding has also changed, along with the way the community interacts with it. Josh said: “For younger LGBT, queer people maybe the space is less important than it was. I often wonder if it's like Irish bars became sort of theme parks for Irishness. I wonder if that's happening now to the Gay Village because some of the more interesting queer activity in the city doesn't necessarily take place in that area. 

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Josh Martin leading a tour group at Sackville Gardens, near Manchester's Gay Village. Credit: Josh MartinJosh Martin leading a tour group at Sackville Gardens, near Manchester's Gay Village. Credit: Josh Martin
Josh Martin leading a tour group at Sackville Gardens, near Manchester's Gay Village. Credit: Josh Martin

“Maybe the Village doesn't have the same function as it did to a lot of people. I still think if you're just about coming out and you don't know where to go, it still gives you that first step into that world of meeting people, physically meeting other LGBT people.”

Whatever the future holds for the Gay Village, Josh hopes that all this history is not forgotten and that the development of the area continues to serve the community. He attended the launch of the council’s action plan as a member of the Sackville Gardens committee.  

He said: “I think it's just trying to navigate and how do you keep it community-focused, how do you ensure that the businesses don't get priced out. All the new cocktail bars and restaurants – I think the council needs to think about how that will impact the area, which is kind of in the action plan. 

“Things change, there are winners and losers, maybe the Gay Village has served its purpose in some ways, and maybe we'll see the queer activity will move elsewhere permanently, but hopefully that change can be managed so that it still feels like a community space. 

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“It's a community space that's not just centred around beer, but somewhere if you have needs relating to your identity then there's somewhere where you can go.”

Josh’s walking tours of Manchester take place every day, meeting at the Alan Turning memorial in Sackville Gardens at 11am. More information can be found on Free Manchester Walking Tours website. The specialist LGBTQ+ walking tours take place most Saturdays. More information can be found via Eventbrite.

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