Welcome to Village Voice, the section of Gaylife Manchester where we hand the reins over to one of the prominent figures within our community for a bit of a reminisce and an occasional good old rant.This month Gerrard Woods, General Manager of Cruz 101 casts his eye over the last 21 years of life in the UKs largest gay scene, and raises concerns about the potential EMRO hanging over the village…
In 1991 the area now known as ‘the Gay Village’ was little more than a collection of disused mills, run-down buildings and an undeveloped canal side; a red-light district to some, but the beginnings of the Gay Village to others and an opportunity to bring the gay community into the mainstream to us at Cruz 101.
We picked a partially derelict shipping warehouse built in 1864 as the place to show Manchester what the community was capable of and created a nightclub that surpassed even what we thought it could be.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Even before the club had opened prejudice was rife with a straight refusal for a licence. ‘Not sufficient need or interest’ was the reason given for this denial but we were not to be denied. Fighting for the right to come out of the shadows and be proud of the community we sought to service, a legal battle followed ending up in the High Court with a victory for equality. Of sorts.
Having demonstrated the interest by signing up thousands of members we were not granted a full on-licence. Instead we were granted a private members licence which although disadvantaged us, allowed Manchester’s first mainstream gay club to start trading. Since that day in May 1992 we have had over 100,000 members, over three million visitors and have had the honour of being the place where so many have come to meet their loved ones and some have brought their loved ones after they have passed away.
Once a red-light district, the Gay Village became, over time, one of the most fashionable areas to socialise in Manchester – the stigma of homosexuality being replaced with its fabulousness.
Over the past 21 years we’ve watched the Gay Village blossom into the vibrant community it has become today. Here at Cruz we have remained true to our original intentions; to create a safe gay space that is welcoming and affordable to the thousands of our friends who visit us each week. Many venues have opened and closed, and we have certainly seen styles change – in terms of music, fashion and venues. Once a red-light district, the Gay Village became, over time, one of the most fashionable areas to socialise in Manchester – the stigma of homosexuality being replaced with its fabulousness.
As strides towards equality were made we were involved in campaigning for equal age of consent and the abolition of the much hated Section 28, and much progress was made. Equality was the new watch-word and this included television. One of our customers, Russell T Davies, grasped this opportunity and wrote the hit series ‘Queer as Folk’. Set in the Gay Village it told the not too-far-fetched story of life on the Manchester gay scene featuring a mix of characters portraying the diverse regulars who visited and found acceptance and safety within it. As I say, from my perspective it was not a million miles away from real life and I know many of our customers who could personally identify with it.
There was a problem though. With the celebrity of the programme came a wider awareness of the Gay Village and a far bigger desire by the wider community to ‘see what it was all about’. The Gay Village became a destination for visitors keen to explore and find out if what they had seen on their screens was a true reflection of life on the scene; if the excitement, promiscuity and social life lived up the fame. Some thought it had turned gay bars into goldfish bowls, others thought it had given the gay community the exposure it needed to finally achieve true acceptance. Whatever your view, it certainly made a big change.
With the charge for equality had arrived a whole new dilemma for us – how to provide our safe gay space for our community without ourselves being discriminatory; how to integrate without losing our identity. It is a dilemma that continues to exist for the community today with some of the belief that there is still a need for the safety and security afforded by our little enclave and others who see it as an obstruction to true equality.
So where do we find ourselves today? This rollercoaster ride we’ve been on for the last 21 years is certainly not immune from the ‘boom and bust’ of recent times. Manchester had become the largest gay destination in the UK and in the years leading up to the middle of the first decade of the new millennium the Gay Village had grown bigger and bigger to service not only the gay community but also the more diverse crowds who had chosen to socialise in this most fashionable of districts. With the onset of recession came diminishing attendances. With cheap supermarket alcohol and shrinking budgets house parties became more fashionable. The gay community continues to support the Gay Village but it is certain that the recession has been diffi cult for everyone.
And now, as the business owners dig deep to keep their businesses afl oat to service our community another spectre has appeared on the horizon. Reports of our Council’s intention to close our community down after 3am cast a long shadow over the Gay Village.
This is an area which has, for the twenty one years we’ve been here, been a safe space that has facilitated the social lives of the gay community. Partying until the early hours of the morning has been one of our community’s privileges and we have excelled at it. In a safe way. Now it’s the intention of Manchester City Council to enforce a terminal hour of 3am on all of the venues who operate within the Gay Village using new legislation called an EMRO. Why? By their own admission crime is falling month on month, year on year. Their reason is that the numbers of crimes that occur on the streets of the Gay Village is disproportionately high.
They say that the crimes are not committed by the venues or their visitors; that they are in fact committed by people from other areas of the city gravitating towards the Gay Village as it has later licensing hours, many food outlets and several taxi ranks. So is this the spectre of homophobia?
I hope not but when you look at the facts – our community has been descended upon by people who cause trouble; our bars and clubs operate responsibly and our customers behave when socialising yet the area defined as the Gay Village is to be the subject of an EMRO, it’s hard to see how it isn’t.
Surely when looking at the bigger picture the answer is not to close down the Gay Village but to deal with the people causing the trouble? Would a shopping centre be closed down following a spate of shoplifting? No. The police would be required to deal with the offenders. Targeting an area which is defi ned by its community has to be wrong.
There’s obviously going to be a passionate debate over the coming weeks and months about the merits and impacts of what an EMRO might do to, and what the future holds, for the Gay Village.
We’ve come a long way in the last twenty one years and I hope that sense is seen and that future is a bright one.
General Manager, Cruz 101