I have lived in a series of small Northern towns, and as a queer person, I have faced constant harassment in the places I’ve lived. It was not safe for me to come out until I left my hometown and moved to a new place, which was still not much better, but was definitely an improvement. There was pretty much no queer scene and I had met very few LGBT+ people growing up. The only queer person in my school was bullied and tormented, so I could never feel comfortable in my own sexuality. I tried to deny it to myself, but when I could no longer, I had to hide it from everyone. It created a lonely life, with fake relationships where I had to lie to my friends and family.
Fast forward to when I moved out of my hometown and moved to another Northern city. After a few months, I felt comfortable enough to come out to my family who, gratefully, were entirely accepting. I met more people who were LGBT+ and formed a small social circle of other queer people. I thought this was a new chapter of acceptance in my life in this city, but then I started dating.
Gay Unity Parade, Manchester, 1988
Life before Manchester
In my first relationship, we were walking through the town to a restaurant, holding hands. There were large groups of people staring at us. People began shouting at us. People even opened their windows to high-story blocks of flats and shouted slurs at us. At the restaurant, we ended up having to leave, as a group of men were looking and pointing at us. We had to leave through a back exit, so they could not follow us home. On the way home, two cars followed us down the street. They honked their horns at us, and opened their car windows to shout slurs at us. They circled back around so they could continue to shout at us.
In another relationship, we were walking home through small-town streets. A man approached us and asked offensive, intrusive questions. We got away from him, but down another street, a group of three men began to follow us and shouted obscenities at us.
Eventually, over time, these experiences did little to faze me. My personal record was experiencing seven hate crimes in one walk. I thought this was normal. I thought this was just the reality of being queer. I got used to it.
Then I moved to Manchester.
Clause 28 Protest, Manchester, Albert Square, 1988
Life in Manchester
The first thing I noticed was the LGBT+ community had expanded, greatly. There were suddenly so many more queer people to make friends with and queer social circles I found myself in. When you are primarily surrounded by people not like you, it can feel lonely and alienating, but I was suddenly surrounded by many other people like me. It felt good, and it helped me feel comfortable in my own identity.
Walking through the streets, for the first time, I saw other queer couples. They were holding hands and going on dates. I had rarely seen other queer people in public before. I also noticed pride merch, for the first time. People had pride pins on their bags and lanyards. Shops had pride flags in their windows and anti-homophobia posts on their walls. There were even entire shops dedicated to pride merch, or LGBT+ bookshops, or other related shops. There were queer event nights, queer nightclubs, the Gay Village. There was such a large queer community here that I had never experienced before.
Clause 28 Protest, Manchester, Albert Square, 1988
This also meant that there were so many more people to date. I had been asked on a date once in my life, but I was asked on multiple dates in the first week of being here. For the first time, I had choice over who I could date. Beforehand, the dating pool was extremely small, which left me in strange, incompatible or half-hearted relationships. With such a bigger dating pool here, I had the freedom to find a better connection, one that was deeper and more genuine.
So I started going on dates, and for the first time, we didn’t stick out in public. We were just ordinary people and nobody looked at us. I sat in restaurants and cafes across from a girl and we got no stares from other people or were made to feel uncomfortable. I realised I didn’t have to think of my safety, I didn’t have to think about who was watching us leave or if we were going to be followed.
Fast forward a little and I found myself in a relationship. One night, we were walking through the city centre on the way to a restaurant, holding hands. The first person walked past us and, instinctively, I braced myself for a comment as they passed by us. I was used to it by now, and I accepted it as the norm, but they walked past us without a word, or a look. Then the next person, and the next. We made it the whole way to the restaurant without a single comment or a look. I turned to my girlfriend and said ‘we haven’t experienced hate crime once on the way here.’ She looked at me with surprise; ‘you’ve experienced a hate crime?’
Albert Memorial Rally, Manchester, 1988
I told her about the experience I’ve had growing up and she was shocked. She had grown up her whole life in Manchester and had never experienced a hate crime before. The concept was alien to her. I wondered why this was. I wondered how there could be such a cultural shift when I had come from only an hour away. She told me about the queer history of Manchester. She told me about how the campaigns for early law reforms for gay rights began in Manchester, how the protests and riots and marches all happened here and about the history of pride parades. She told me how queer life had always been a big part of Manchester. It made me realise that, for the first time, it was safe to exist as a queer person.
This is not to say that homophobia doesn’t exist in Manchester. There is still, unfortunately, plenty that needs to be addressed and worked towards. But, on the whole, Manchester is a much more welcoming place in comparison to other Northern cities, and is a step in the right direction for queer inclusivity, pride and acceptance.