Former Mr Gay UK launches Manchester Histories Festival 2016

Polly Checkland Harding

The first openly gay Lord Mayor of Manchester on being outed by a guy he met at Cruz 101, baggy pants – and the importance of the city’s LGBT history.

In his speech for the launch of Manchester Histories Festival 2016 at Manchester Craft & Design Centre, Carl Austin-Behan recalls winning annual beauty contest Mr Gay UK for Manchester in 2001. “What I was wearing was a little different to what I’m wearing now…” Very diplomatic, I think, before he adds naughtily, “just a sash and a pair of pants. And they weren’t baggy pants.”

Austin-Behan stands before us now in a dark grey suit, a shirt that matches the Histories Festival’s tangerine orange, and the weighty chain of office for the Lord Mayor of Manchester. He is not only the first openly gay man to take up the ceremonial position (not to be confused with the newly-created mayor of Greater Manchester role, part of devolved powers to the city), he is also the youngest in the post’s 128 year history. Austin-Behan’s nomination has, in his own words, “created history in itself” – leaving him well placed to open a festival that makes looking forward, as well as back, its rationale. His story has much of Manchester’s LGBT history wrapped up in it, too.

His story has much of Manchester’s LGBT history wrapped up in it

When Austin-Behan came out to his Mum at the age of 17, she said it was a phase he was going through. Awarded The Royal Humane Society Bronze Award for rescuing a pilot from a burning Hawk Aircraft during his time with the RAF, and mentioned on the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 1996, he was outed as gay to the air force by a guy he met in Cruz 101 – who he then found in bed with an ex-boyfriend. Having been suspended (it was illegal for homosexuals to serve in the British military until 2000), he was the first openly gay person to go into the fire service – but was told not to tell anyone about his sexuality.

Years later, in 2014, he noticed that Manchester had “never had an openly gay Lord Mayor before, never had someone who represents our community, who you can look at and think, ‘I can relate to that person, and they will represent me.’” He has set about modernising things; his colourful shirts and low-key suits are just the most visible part of a real attempt to shake the cobwebs off the role. “The chains automatically create a barrier,” he argues. “When we go to things it’s like ‘is it Carl, is it your worshipfulness, is it Lord Mayor…’ And I’m like, look, you’ve known me all my life – it’s still Carl.”

‘Is it Carl, is it your worshipfulness, is it Lord Mayor…’

He’s also keen to keep things moving forward for Manchester’s LGBT community, with HIV and Trans rights two central parts of his campaign. Events like the Histories Festival are, he suggests, a key part of reminding the city about the struggle to get where we are now – and the need for continued progress. “We’ve got younger people who don’t know the history of how they can walk up Canal Street without any issues,” he says. “People fought for those rights.” The Manchester Histories Festival is one way to tell that story.

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