Vic Saule, a DJ and writer in Manchester, examines what the future of queer spaces looks like in a city where ‘gayness’ has undergone intense commercialisation.
EXTRACT FROM PANORAMIC'S PRINT ISSUE
The night your universe reopened you were in the Village. You let your body find itself, submerged within a mass of similar bodies. Queer and effervescent. A sweaty mass of euphoria, of other bodies learning how to dance again. In this strobe-lit forest of limbs, there was freedom from any codified identity. Everything felt fluid because there was no point trying to make sense of anything but the overwhelming feeling was that each body was safe to express itself how it wished.
This is how I imagine a queer future. I dream of an existence beyond the inadequate categorisation of bodies based on visual markers that have been anchored as constitutive of an identity within a society, a future where bodies are free to express themselves as they wish, where nothing is assumed about an individual or responded to based on a normative understanding of race, gender or sexuality. The process of imagining this requires an appreciation of fleeting moments where the norms of society seem suspended. Each occurrence of this is futuristic because it involves a transgression of the attitudes held by the outside world. Each occurrence generates hope that such a future is possible...
This brief glimpse of a future was one I hoped I would experience regularly within Manchester’s Gay Village. I wanted to be a part of the community I imagined was there. To see a part of my identity, which I felt was often neglected, proudlydescribing an area of Manchester filled me with excitement. However, the more time I spent along Canal Street, the less it felt like the inclusionary queer utopia I had first imagined it to be.
"The commodification of the Village, whilst providing legitimation for a narrow conception of queerness, has also stifled an evolution of the space to reflect a broader conception of a queer future."
Manchester’s Gay Village emerged from the rubble of abandoned warehouses along Rochdale Canal. At the time, the area was considered a bleak symbol of Manchester’s post-industrial urban decline and was overlooked by the local authorities. This provided the perfect conditions for the gay community to develop the area, undisturbed by the discriminatory practices of the time. The first recognised “gay” pub to be established was the New Union in 1959, a knownmeeting place for gay men which predated the legalisation of homosexuality. In the 1970s and 1980s, more venues began to open up along Canal Street and Bloom Street, and the area gained a reputation for being a shelter from the intolerance experienced by gay individuals in society. This shelter operated as a site of hope, its existence a testament to the possibility of a future where gayness might be accepted and even celebrated. The community that enabled this is memorialised by the regulars that frequent the New Union on a daily basis. Despite rising drink prices and the transformation of Village life around them, the pub is still their safe space. Yet this crowd is one in which my female-appearing, non-binary body feels unwelcome.
You sat at the New Union imagining a queer future,
And how to produce it
Sitting opposite Queer pasts You didn’t feel like you belonged with For whom this place was a sign of a potential future Wonderful queer and tolerant Was this present the future they wanted?
The decision of Manchester City Council to formally recognise the Gay Village as a “gay-friendly” space in the 1990s was a profit-driven tactic to help revitalise the city centre and promote Manchester as a cosmopolitan city. Its existence was central to Manchester City Council’s reimagining of the city and reflected a shift in attitudes towards being gay, which had begun to be viewed as hip and trendy. This marked the institutionalisation of gay life within Manchester, with development being shaped by this embrace of gay culture. However, the promoted aspects of gayness were limited to those deemed most “user-friendly” to the heterosexual, or otherwise normative, audience it hoped to attract.
EXTRACT FROM PANORAMIC'S PRINT ISSUE
The commodification of the Village as a result of this formal recognition by Manchester City Council has undeniably led to economic and racial exclusion, rendering it inaccessible to some of the queer individuals it was created for. Walking along Canal Street today, the Village does truly feel like an “urban spectacle”... as club flyers and venue exteriors areplastered with a single depiction of the gay body: the “attractive” white man. The gay future that the space offered queer bodies in the past has been frozen at a point in time when the city’s openly gay community was dominated by white and gender-conforming individuals. The commodification of the Village, whilst providing legitimation for a narrow conception of queerness, has also stifled an evolution of the space to reflect a broader conception of a queer future. This has led to the exclusion of BIPOC and transgender individuals through the Village’s prioritisation of a queerness deemed to be the least threatening and the most attractive to tourists and investors.
Today, queer BIPOC report facing greater scrutiny when trying to enter the clubs supposedly designated for their enjoyment. Meanwhile, these clubs are often dominated by hen parties and straight tourists looking for a good night out in Manchester. Specific “gay” nights held in venues remain exclusive to gay males, perpetuating an understanding of gender as something fixed and establishing male homosexuality as normative.
"Queer spaces, at the moment of their acceptance by the mainstream, lose their potency for the marginalised communities that first created them. They are, by definition, anti-normative..."
Despite its commercialisation, the Village nonetheless contributes to the validation of queer life within Manchester, which has been globally recognised as one of the most LGBTQI-friendly cities in the UK. When asking friends about their attitudes towards the Village, one hopeful response I encountered was that queer futures should not be anchored to the Village simply because it has been labelled “gay”. Phrases like “the Village is dead” are common amongst the community of younger queers working there. However, the tolerant and accepting space one would expect to experience is not lost entirely and can be found at events outside Canal Street. One such event is Homoelectric, which hosts monthly parties in a club in Salford, as well as an annual festival known as Homobloc. The event began in the 1990s as a response to the commercialisation of the Village. The event remains loyal to its ethos of tolerance towards “homos, heteros, lesbos and don’t knows,” with all these variations of bodies represented by the dancers that take centre stage during Homoelectric events. Venues such as the White Hotel are also known locally for hosting events with mindful door policies, which operate to ensure that any non-conforming or non-white body does not feel out of place.
You are now at Homobloc A messy warehouse Of so many bodies Each dancing on stage To the applause of thousands A celebration of transgressive existences
Manchester’s Gay Village no longer provides solace or shelter for individuals whose boundary-pushing sexualities transgress normative societal categorisations of gender and sexuality. However, to be gloomy about the future of the Village in the face of commercialisation is to overlook the fact that the space at one point did achieve this. Queer spaces, at the moment of their acceptance by the mainstream, lose their potency for the marginalised communities that first created them. They are, by definition, anti-normative, and – as norms and areas of gentrification expand – queerness will always situate itself at new frontiers. Just like Stonewall, or Berlin in the 1960s and 1970s, the Village retains its power as a symbol of sanctuary, rather than as the safe space for the majority of transgressive queer bodies in Manchester today.
The existence of the Village in Manchester, even if it no longer caters equally to all queer bodies, helps legitimate queer life within the city and continues to inspire visions of queer spaces as sites of radical acceptance and inclusion. Such is the case at events such as Homobloc, where within the dark belly of a club no body is distinguishable from another, yet all are accepted and celebrated. I have experienced this. Countless others I know have experienced this. And because of this, the future of queer life in the city feels hopeful.
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