Canal Street is the heart of The Village, Manchester’s gay area… and I’m the ‘straight’. So what was I doing there, indeed should I have been there at all?
The Gay Village has become so famous that it probably gains ‘tourist attraction’ status for Manchester, and not just for gays. It’s not as if the National Trust are about to take it over, but its growing reputation as a ‘go-to’ place may make it a victim of its own success. On the plus side, maybe its popularity also reflects society’s (almost) acceptance of LGBT people.
‘Almost’ is in brackets because we’ve come a long way since the days of homosexuals being arrested, imprisoned or chemically castrated, but we’ve still got a way to go before a gay couple can snog in many straight pubs without risking stares, sniggers or even the sharp end of a broken bottle.
So there are gay clubs, bars and areas where LGBTs can meet, relax and enjoy themselves (snog) without interruption or intolerance.
The Canal Street area was once described by the then Chief Constable of Manchester as gays “swirling in a cesspit of their own making”. The area of locks and dark alleys was used for clandestine meetings and it was severely and aggressively policed.
How much society has changed for the better is demonstrated by what the area is now. Vibrant, buzzing and loudly, proudly and openly gay. The fact that straight men and women would want to go there too, with or without their gay friends, also speaks volumes about how far we’ve come.
If you’re not out on the pull, then The Village has several attractions to straights of either sex. Gay bars and clubs tend to be mostly free of booze-fuelled fights over football, spilled pints or ‘looking at me in a funny way’. They tend to be well-managed, fun, the people are friendly and if you have a liberal and adventurous outlook on life then it’s always good to see how other people live and love.
However, back to that ‘almost’, and the broken bottle part of our society that isn’t quite there yet. Gay clubs and bars exist so gays can relax in an environment they feel comfortable in. If straight tourists start arriving by the metaphorical coachload, hopefully to enjoy themselves and not to gawp, does The Village start to become less and less of a gay environment?
One current manifestation of this is that the area is used as a hen-party destination. I suppose that’s because it is fun, safe and free from unwanted male attention. The danger is that wherever pissed-up straight hens gather they are sniffed out and then followed by pissed-up straight cocks…and potentially we’re back to bottle-breaking.
This ‘straightening-out’ appears to be the subject of some debate. Should The Village be just for gays? Are ‘membership’ door policies workable? Should a community that spent years successfully breaking down walls start putting them up? Does The Village work in a positive way to increase acceptance of all things LGBT…or is the price of that, the dilution and demise of what the place was meant to be in the first place?
The answer is…there probably isn’t one. The only thing I would say is that if I was gay, and looking for a meet and greet as it were, I’d prefer to go to a bar where I was absolutely sure I could leave my gaydar at home.
From my own perspective, as one of those straight tourists, I had a great night out. I met some lovely people and you have to be grateful to those that paved the way in society so that such a place exists at all. In some countries and cultures The Village wouldn’t be allowed to exist, nor sadly would the people. However, I can’t help but feel that even my own touristic footsteps, in a small way, start to erode the path that led to it. There are also other moves afoot as the traditional pubs are being taken over for ‘other uses’. One of the oldest called ‘Napoleons’ has recently closed.
Am I making it sound like a treasured and valuable area that needs conservation and tourist management? Maybe the National Trust should get involved after all.
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