I was kindly invited to write a guest post for another blog. Here it is...
“You’re from Manchester?” I was asked at an equalities event down south. “Your city’s always been miles ahead on gay rights, you must have done all this ages ago there”.
It was a well-meant question at a reception following the raising of the bisexual flag over Brighton Town Hall, which I’m reminded of today because it is again Bi Visibility Day, September 23rd.
At moments like that you get an odd mix of wanting to rush to civic pride and feeling exasperated at what your city is really like.
“No,” I said. “We were quite good in the 80s, but it sort of… stalled.”
I wondered whether to explain how the non-existence of bisexuals used to be a matter of council policy and how embarrassingly long it took for that peculiar notion to be unpicked.
As a city we were a leading light in gay and lesbian equalities, but we got lost along the way, and I think that the one-party-state problem is an important factor in why. For more than forty years Manchester has been run by one party with an absolute grip on power. In Brighton, meanwhile, majority and minority rule has ebbed and flowed, and different coalitions have taken their turns. As different issues of bi and trans inclusion became clear the council was able to respond to them.
Nothing at Manchester town hall had gone backwards: just the changeover in council spokespeople and in who was engaged with the council that changes in political power bring never happened.
Which meant we got stuck listening to the same set of voices. If you were content with the simple binary of “we’re all either straight or gay and both are okay” you were fine. If you didn’t you were probably not going to fit in with binary thinking of Manchester’s ruling elite, and so they were never going to wind up listening to you.
So Manchester ossified as an example of what had been best 80s practice on gay rights, while elsewhere councils caught up and then overtook it. For all that in the days of Section 28 coming into law Manchester was one of the places that were “good on gay issues”, by the 90s it was a bit of a laughing stock and by the 00s became literally a textbook example of failing in the era where “gay rights” had matured into LGBT+.
Which for a proud Manc is terribly frustrating when you have to admit to people in another city that they’re doing equalities better than your place.
There’s a similar effect nationally, by the by. As a grassroots campaigner for bisexual and transgender liberation and equality since the 1990s, the five years of a formal Tory / Lib Dem coalition at Westminster was the one time in my life where the central government made public its plans for LGBT issues.
The LGB&T Action Plan that Lynne Featherstone published in Manchester in 2011 let every small group know month-by-month what was going on for the rest of the parliament: who to lobby and when about what area of LGBT equalities. Before and since that kind of information has been the preserve of the wealthy, Westminster bubble groups like Stonewall, but for a few brief years the pyramid of power was brought low and whether well-funded or not, London, Manchester or the sticks, we could all have our voices heard.
So here’s to coalitions, oppositions, and (political) uncertainty. They make for a council that listens and keeps up with the times.
And happy Bi Visibility Day.