Full disclosure, young Instincters: I’ve got T-shirts older than you. Well, okay, maybe just one. It’s from my very first non-American gay Pride, which I just happened to stumble on in 1991 in Manchester, England. I’d come for the city’s amazing music scene, which in the late ’80s and early ’90s was experiencing one of its many peaks, this time as the leader of the exploding global rave movement. Bands like The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, and 808 State were putting Manchester on the map with their trippy brand of dance music, and I was so into it all that I had to check out the source.
Little did I know—because remember, kids, these were the dark days before the Internet—that the very weekend I chose to show up in Manchester would coincide with one of the city’s first-ever Prides, known that year as Liberation ’91. Hence the T-shirt and the beginning of a lifelong love affair with Manchester.
Manchester’s initial splash on the global stage came (before my time even) during the Industrial Revolution, when, thanks to its copious cotton mills, the city became known to the world as Cottonopolis. A statue of Abraham Lincoln still stands on Brazennose Street in the city center, a reminder of Manchester’s longtime commitment to equality. (The city supported Lincoln’s anti-slavery stance, even though the North’s shipping blockade of raw cotton from the South during the Civil War caused serious local hardship.)
Alas, it was Manchester’s dreary industrial image that stuck with the outside world for so long. (“What is it about this deeply unlovely city that’s nurtured so much great music?” Kurt Loder smugly asked in a 1990 MTV report that I still have somewhere on VHS.) But by the middle of the ’90s, a full-fledged cultural renaissance was under way in Manchester, and the city began shaking off those silly old stereotypes. By the turn of the millennium, it had markedly beautified itself and emerged as a bona fide gay capital, even serving as the setting for the original British version of Queer As Folk. In 2003, it hosted the continent-wide Europride.
For a city its size (just a hair over half a million), Manchester is now home to an astonishingly vibrant gay scene. This includes a staggering array of gay bars and clubs (some 40 in all), the bulk of which are clustered in the blocks fanning outward from the corner of Canal Street and Sackville Street in what’s known to everyone in town as the Gay Village—or more commonly, just the Village. Whether you’re in the mood for a schmancy cocktail or a huge dance floor or raunchy cruising, there’s a place here to suit you (like Velvet and G-A-Y Manchester and the Eagle, respectively). And great new spots keep popping up all the time, à la the social shabby chic at the Molly House and the gayified traditional English finery at Richmond Tea Rooms.
Right at the heart of the Village in Sackville Park, you’ll find one of Manchester’s coolest gay artifacts: a bench-sitting bronze statue of local icon Alan Turing, the father of modern computing. In 1952, Turing was arrested for his homosexuality, which led to forced hormone treatments and, shortly thereafter, his suicide at the age of 41. In honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth, last year Turing was remembered citywide with a special exhibition at the University of Manchester and a “Queer’d Science”-themed Manchester Pride parade.
Said Pride has come a long, long way since I first experienced it more than two decades ago. A parade that once felt militant and almost dangerous is now warmly embraced by the whole city, with entire families lining the streets to cheer on the thousands of marchers. (The only grumpiness now comes from the infamous drag mock-biddies of the Salford Ladies United Temperance Society—er, SLUTS—whose signs wonderfully scream things like “Gay sex gives me the willies!”) The parade is just part of a wild and extremely popular extended Manchester Pride weekend, which every August packs the Village with revelers from near and far and features nightly performances by major recording artists, in the process raising thousands of pounds for local LGBT charities. A moving Monday evening HIV candlelight vigil always closes the festivities.
To soak up all that Pride booze, you need look no further than the greasy delights of Krispy Fish & Chips on Bloom Street, which I seem to have enjoyed so much during last year’s visit that I’m still its mayor on Foursquare. But to experience most of the true best of Manchester’s vibrant dining scene, venture a little beyond the Village. Australasia serves up fantastic pan-Asian in an ultra-stylish city center setting, while Kaleido, at the top of the same building that houses the new, popular National Football Museum, offers great city views and “British with a global twist.” In the funky Northern Quarter, Bakerie is the perfect cool but casual spot for a midday shopping break—or wine tasting, for you liquid lunchers.
While it’s possible to unpack your bags right in the Village, a much better choice is the manly luxury of the Radisson Blu Edwardian, just a 10-minute walk from Canal Street. It’s also closer to some of the city’s top sights, like the Manchester Art Gallery and the stunning John Rylands Library, as well as the many upscale shopping options on King Street (for funkier shops, be sure to check out the Northern Quarter area, reachable by the city’s amazing—and free— Metroshuttle). The Radisson Blu Edwardian itself is located in one of Manchester’s most historic buildings, the former Free Trade Hall, which began life as a public auditorium and later went on to become the city’s most famed concert venue, hosting shows by everyone from Bob Dylan to Shirley Bassey. Dylan and Bassey are two of the four artists now honored with special and rather fabulous suites on the hotel’s 14th floor.
Manchester’s musical history is indeed pretty storied and spectacular, having spawned the likes of Joy Division, New Order, Oasis and probably most gay-famously of all, the Smiths and their lead singer, Morrissey. The city still draws legions of Mozzer fans from around the world, eager to retrace the steps of their melancholic idol. A great way to do this is via the “Panic on the Streets” expedition offered by Manchester Music Tours on the first Saturday of every month.
When you’re ready to start your own love affair with Manchester, American Airlines makes getting there incredibly easy, with daily direct flights from both Chicago’s O’Hare and New York’s JFK. For more info about what to do once you arrive, check out the official dedicated LGBT section of Visit Manchester’s website at visitmanchester.com/what-to-do/lgbt
Get the details on where to “Stay, Eat, Play & Be Mary” with our Manchester Springpad Notebook here!