Peaky Grindrs
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Stag, 2008.

Dancing around the right hooks of homophobia in the UK - Ethan O'Connor writes that Manchester in lockdown is still a roaring gangland of “us and them”.

Words Ethan O'Connor

Photography Aaron Guy

Manchester’s Canal Street, standardly a renaissance oil painting of house white, feral drag, colliding tongues and shadowed fondling at the canal side, now resembles a closed theme park. The glimmer of being out in the Gay Village crunching plastic pints together has been quashed by the arrival of Lockdown: Collector’s Edition. Before this second instalment, I had thought that we gays would be first to come out in full force, purses swinging until the barmaid that is COVID-19 came to cut us off at 10pm.

 

Through conversations with friends across the UK, feedback has proven that if we can’t go out on 100%, then we seemingly couldn’t stomach this ‘low power mode’ alternative. The opposing colours of Manchester’s football fans were still knocking between pub doors and the curb, with the puffer jacket traffic of Market Street paddling through autumnal Saturdays in a day-drinking stupor, heads in toilet bowls and frothing into the gutter. Gays usually love mess; we just weren’t part of this one.

 

For better or worse, Manchester isn’t one for subtleties. The locals are nothing if not brazen, possessing brutal charm with uncaring honesty. Confrontation is a Mancunian flirting technique, whether it be behind the cardboard menus of your nearest hallowed “Gin Palace” (Wetherspoons), or transplanted to a doggish Ayia Napa fortnight for a chlorinated slew of slaggings-off. In town, hoards of blood orange legs bare their overspill in stained white skirts, showing both the right and wrong amount of flesh to the meat and potato audience, while hijabs make the mad-eyed gammons of Britain First marches roar and then retreat.

 

A male duo holding hands on Piccadilly Gardens is downright blasphemous, with “political correctness gone mad” being grumbled at ale houses on the fringes of the city; all such acts are to invite abuse: Slapper-this, poof-that. I grew up on the outskirts of the city, returning from London for this immortal quarantine, having long misplaced my version of the Northern code of conduct. Despite playing a tug of war with Brighton as the UK’s ruling Queendom, it's commonplace to hear scathing remarks if you find yourself outside the safe zone of the city’s pink compound. I exist here on a suspension bridge between the two towers of a Britney Spears upbringing and an Aphex Twin-induced Spotify wrapped.

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The Village, and Moving Van, 2008.

I’ve always been cheerily proud of my family’s estate-born, suet pudding origins, but there comes a point where you wonder if class pride and queerness, or just plain otherness, can co-exist?

Obviously, homophobia in the UK is not confined to the less-liberal enclaves. Many parts of our savior-city London are the same: enduring kissed-teeth, slurs, or assaults. On one occasion in the capital, an Uber driver realised I was gay mid-conversation and asked me in bafflement, “Wait, so how does that work then? And bloody hell, don’t make me crash my car”. Manchester is part of an increasingly violent nation, catching up with Liverpool, Birmingham the capital; flooded with stabbings, the reds and blues of the pitch mutating into the hounding glare of police sirens as night falls.

 

Every time the city is referenced, a Blue Monday vinyl begins to play, the fact that the far right operates here very comfortably being glazed over in an attempt to paint the city as the “Manc-Hattan” of overseas investors and Tanqueray midnights. Before the pandemic, hate-related attacks in the UK had risen by 144% in the five years leading up to 2019, The Guardian reporting figures of 11,600 hate crimes against gay people and 1650 towards the trans community within this time frame across England and Wales. My adopted liberal Londoner brain tells me to calm down, trust in people, this can’t be real? Then you see the numbers, hear the comments, relive your experiences.

 

In London’s playground for A-List gays, with Pinterest interiors, PhD certificates and oat milk brunch spots, LGBTQ+ strife mostly operates in theory or in brief moments of #Woke social media reposts. In reality, PrEP refills and managing the bedroom’s open door policy takes precedence. These Michelin-star mincers belonged to the broadsheet readership shocked into reality by the pro-Brexit win in 2016. “Curse those provincial chavs and their racist ways. We, the educated and our captive surrogates tried to save you all, and look what you did! You grey-fleshed-pie-scoffers! Step one Churches loafer out of the Home Counties and you’re in the Somme”, cry the Cocaine Socialists. But bigotry swings both ways; it's just more covert in bijou Barbican apartments and the floral fantasia of Columbia Road.

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Function Room Duo, 2008.

My wardrobe gets greasier, maleness pumped up, faggotry hidden in a cross-body bag, away from the sanctuary and anonymity a city like London can offer. I can see this in my friends, partners and acquaintances here, forming a gang of Peaky Grindrs that appear straight to dodge the spewing menace

Once called ‘Cottonopolis’; Manchester, like other Northern cities haunted by the factory bell, is overwhelming straight and pallid. The city has made headlines for decades off its inherently male energy through sport, gangs, pub crawls gone awry. All are such examples of heightened gathered male-ness. Rusholme, in the south of town, stood for a long time as an Indian theme park, “The Curry Mile”, which would be frequented by the same racist fog-horners that would abuse black and brown players at City and United matches, the moronic cognitive dissonance never failing to astound. I’ve always been cheerily proud of my family’s estate-born, suet pudding origins, but there comes a point where you wonder if class pride and queerness, or just plain otherness, can co-exist?

 

Gay Pride comes once a year in its feathery march through town, bringing a glittering bacchanal to the discoloured streets. Families, locals and visitors from the corners of the country marvel at floats carrying the platinum stars of Drag Race, go-go boys, leathered lesbians and pensioners in rainbow sashes for a brief hour or two, and go back to the rest of their lives largely untouched by anything tangibly gay. This happens in the country where a show as cartoonishly camp as Strictly Come Dancing achieves top ratings, but same-sex couples are still cause for almost 200 complaints with last year’s first male-male pairing, and continued taunts of public boycotting this winter with Olympic boxer Nicola Adams’ female duo. The backwards British idea of gay perversity continues to beat away at the nation’s rotten heart.

It’s easy to become intoxicated on this Stone Island Iced Tea. Being here, my wardrobe gets greasier, maleness pumped up, faggotry hidden in a cross-body bag, away from the sanctuary and anonymity a city like London can offer. I can see this in my friends, partners and acquaintances here, forming a gang of Peaky Grindrs that appear straight to dodge the spewing menace. Every man, straight or gay, is the trophy male: a watery metrosexual.

 

The beefier, more masculine my appearance, the more attention I get from gays through my potent cloak of testosterone. In my Carhartt cosplay, I could be a real alpha, a warrior, a conductor in the battle between rival stags, their noses caked in marching powder, the commander of this lads-versus-fags Derby Day! A cliché through and through, but my macho costume forms a protective insulation in this chilly broth of Adidas-striped masculinity.

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Bingo Town (series), 2008.

The memory of Queer as Folk lies in wait, a heavenly neon poltergeist perched on the glowing roof of G-A-Y, desperate to administer the amyl-flavoured chaos we’ve been missing all year

I remember jolting down Oxford Road as a teenager when a friend drunkenly turned to me, “Why is everyone on this bus posh?”. The many southern pilgrims in their dirtiest streetwear, passing as locals around us had come to our mucky city to attend university, all praying at the altar of Salford Lads Club, beckoning them to come to this damp Mecca of converted factory accommodation. As the class dynamic of the city heads upward, away from its beating working class origins, will this help the city’s LGBTQ+ population in terms of safety?

 

Manchester has become the chip-wrapper-strewn star of the BBC’s Manc-Topia: Billion Pound Property Boom, featuring the city as a sort of impending entrepreneurial class project, an Anglo answer to Dubai with designs for a few ‘Gherkin' homages. Perhaps the lux landscape catering to the heavy flow of upper-middle classes will provide a cushion of safety for us, allowing Manchester to add some queer pixie dust to its right-leaning shell suit? I’ve never wished for gentrification, but the garish straightness of the city needs reupholstering as more than a giant LADbible mood board.

 

The irony of course is that if all of our othered communities homogenised, our cultures would sink into the abyss. Queerness is elitist because the second we discover ourselves, we automatically become a part of this rich culture that goes back thousands of years, in hundreds of cultures. We want our macaroons and to eat them too. For every glimpse of a future with Harry Styles in a dress, there might be less hateful football chanting and less people being spat on, but then again, it could just be more polyester for the bonfire of polarisation. The memory of Queer as Folk lies in wait, a heavenly neon poltergeist perched on the glowing roof of G-A-Y, desperate to administer the amyl-flavoured chaos we’ve been missing all year.

 

For now, it’s going back to the old Haçienda flats for another party to look out over the unrecognisable city: an infinite factory field of industrial constellations, with the faces of Shaun Ryder, Morrissey and Ian Brown looming over the city as a wet and weathered Mount Rushmore. The flavour of Manchester, and the North as a whole, can still have its potency enjoyed, even if momentarily, for the lad culture it thrives on so chaotically. It may be nice to belong to a brotherhood of sorts; with camaraderie in the phallus-obsessed gay world often only making an appearance at Pride. A streaked, condensed window separates our cultures, allowing me to see into the world I don't belong in, but can make a disguised cameo in for an hour or two. The football reds and blues are yet to blend with the Pride flag, the drenched rainbow never quite visible through the pouring rain, in a city not so united.

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The Moors, 2008.