NORTH­ERN SOUL

CARL AUSTIN-BEHAN, MANCH­ESTER’S FIRST OPENLY GAY LORD MAYOR, TALKS TO NIGEL ROBIN­SON ABOUT POL­I­TICS, COM­ING OUT IN THE AIR FORCE, BE­ING A FOR­MER MR GAY UK, AND WHAT MAKES MANCH­ESTER SO GREAT

Pride Life Magazine - - CONTENTS -

We talk to the gay Lord Mayor of Manch­ester

You’ve been in the job for six months now. How are you en­joy­ing it and is it ev­ery­thing you ex­pected it would be?

I’ve loved it – it’s ev­ery­thing I ex­pected it to be, and more. As Lord Mayor, you ac­tu­ally get to see parts of the city and com­mu­nity you’ve never seen be­fore.

As the first openly LGBT mayor I ex­pected to have fewer en­gage­ments with our Mus­lim and Jewish com­mu­ni­ties, purely be­cause they are often por­trayed as quite ho­mo­pho­bic. But, I’ve been to a lot of syn­a­gogues and mosques and over­whelm­ingly, they want to know my story. They ask me about be­ing gay, about how I was kicked out of the Air Force. Dur­ing Ra­madan I broke a fast at a mosque in Cheetham Hill. I tweeted about this and the next thing the na­tional me­dia picked up the story. There was a dis­cus­sion about how multi-cul­tural, how di­verse and in­clu­sive Manch­ester ac­tu­ally is. It was a mas­sive turn­ing point.

Two weeks ago I was asked by the head girl of a lo­cal school to speak to a group of 11-13 year old pupils. I was a lit­tle un­sure what I should talk about. Did they want the truth, or the Dis­ney ver­sion? I spoke to the head­mas­ter and class teacher, and they all told me to be hon­est. So I was. Af­ter speak­ing for 45 min­utes I took ques­tions for an­other half an hour. They found it re­ally strange that you could be ex­cluded from the mil­i­tary, or any­thing else, for be­ing gay. This hap­pened in ’97, be­fore these pupils were born, and they’ve grown up dur­ing a time when it’s OK to be gay and they have never known any­thing dif­fer­ent. So that was also a mas­sive turn­ing point.

I asked them if any­one knew a gay person or whether there were any gay peo­ple in their fam­i­lies. Hands went up. Back in ’97 the stereo­typ­i­cal gay person was Larry Grayson, or Ju­lian Clary. Nowa­days we’re rep­re­sented in all walks of so­ci­ety. It’s clear that be­ing gay is much more widely ac­cepted now.

How did you come to join and then be dis­missed from the Air Force?

I’d tried to come out be­fore. At 16 I told my mum, who said it was just a phase. Then I vis­ited my brother, who was with the Air Force out in Cyprus. I re­alised there were fire­man in the force and I had al­ways wanted to be a fire­man. So af­ter about 18 months I joined up. My mother thought great I’d ac­cepted who I was. They asked me when I ap­plied whether I had “ho­mo­sex­ual ten­den­cies”. I said no.

But by the time I was 26 I knew to be hon­est with my­self, I had to draw a line. So I told my mum and my dad. My mum didn’t want me to tell my dad. She was afraid he’d dis­own me and kick me out of the house. I’d al­ready left so I told him any­way. For the first time since I was a child my dad gave me a hug, told me he loved me and kissed me on the cheek. He told me that no one ever told him how to live his life, so he wasn’t go­ing to tell me how to live mine!

Back then a rule stip­u­lated that if you knew any­one who was gay in the RAF you had to re­port them, so my brother who was also in the Force asked me not to tell any­one. I had al­ready told a few peo­ple in the Force that I was gay. I was shar­ing a dor­mi­tory and wanted them to be aware and I didn’t want any­one to ever say I had hit on them or tried to shag them! So I re­moved my­self from that sit­u­a­tion and slept in a dif­fer­ent room. The strangest ques­tion I was asked was from a lad who wanted to know what I did at week­ends when he was at home cud­dled up on the sofa watch­ing TV. I told him I did ex­actly the same!

I then started see­ing a lad in Manch­ester. It was go­ing quite well un­til I was of­fered a pro­mo­tion in Bel­gium. My boyfriend didn’t want me to go so he tele­phoned the Air Force and told them I was gay and we were in a re­la­tion­ship! I was sum­moned to HQ, and asked again if I had “ten­den­cies”. I just burst into tears. I ac­tu­ally felt like this was fi­nally an op­por­tu­nity to be my­self. To ac­cept who I was.

I was told I had to leave camp straight­away, but my sergeant stuck up for me. He in­sisted they show me some re­spect and al­low me a few hours. They could have quite eas­ily thrown me into a mil­i­tary prison for six months.

So how did you fill your time be­tween leav­ing the RAF, and be­fore en­ter­ing pol­i­tics?

Hav­ing ini­tially been sus­pended for six months I did some TV ex­tra, mod­el­ling and pro­mo­tional work. I was also work­ing for Asda. Fun­nily enough, about the same time I was of­fi­cially thrown out of the RAF for be­ing gay I was ac­cepted by the Greater Manch­ester Fire Ser­vice as their first openly gay fire­fighter! There was no di­ver­sity, no equal­ity and I was told not to tell any­one on the train­ing course I was gay. It was a res­i­den­tial course and I’d try not to be out.

We’d all go home at week­ends, then come back and dis­cuss what we’d done. I was liv­ing with my boyfriend at the time. (Not the same one. Two weeks af­ter he’d made that call I caught him in bed with his ex-boyfriend. That’s gay life for you!) Even­tu­ally, I just told peo­ple. There was no is­sue. One day we were swim­ming. Some­one said some­thing. There was some ban­ter and some­one else who had over­heard pointed the fin­ger and cried ho­mo­pho­bia. It was di­ver­sity gone mad. They didn’t have a clue how to deal with the sit­u­a­tion. There were gay guys in the fire ser­vice but I was the first openly gay person. Af­ter about 18 months I hated it, well, af­ter 6 months re­ally. I re­alised I had gone into it for all the wrong rea­sons. Try­ing to please all the peo­ple I felt I’d let down.

In ’99 I en­tered the Mr Gay UK com­pe­ti­tion in Manch­ester and came sec­ond over­all. In 2001 I en­tered again. I felt it was im­por­tant and some­thing I rep­re­sented. Rather than be­ing a stereo­typ­i­cal camp guy, a dancer or hair­dresser or some­one who just worked in a bar, I’d been in the Air Force, the Fire Ser­vice, was quite “straight-act­ing” and wanted to be more of a role model rather than just be­ing in a beauty pageant. I then trav­elled to other towns and cities to pro­mote Mr Gay UK, to pro­mote the fact we should have a voice, and be lis­tened to and to lose that stigma of the camp queen im­age that seemed to be out there. The fi­nal was in Manch­ester and I won it. I had a re­ally good year with that. Then I ap­peared in an ar­ti­cle in At­ti­tude headed Pos­i­tive Role Model. The RAF saw this ar­ti­cle and then ap­proached me to ask how they could re­cruit gays to mil­i­tary! I met them and then in 2003 they marched in a Pride fes­ti­val for the very first time. Peo­ple asked how I could be happy about it but this is progress. This is what I was fight­ing for. We’ve come a long way in a very short time.

What drew you into pol­i­tics?

In 2005 I was liv­ing in Manch­ester city cen­tre and found my­self com­plain­ing about ev­ery­thing! I’d been in­volved with the Labour party as a child, and Mum and Dad were in the party, so I re­joined and got in­volved with the coun­cil and the lo­cal party, leaflet­ting and speak­ing to peo­ple. In 2010 I stood for a coun­cil seat in Bur­nage in South Manch­ester. The Lib­eral Democrats had a ma­jor­ity of 1,500. I man­aged to re­duce it to 183. I stood again in 2011 and won. I’ve al­ways been some­one to do some­thing, not just to sit on my lau­rels.

When I was elected to the coun­cil I be­came lead mem­ber for LGBT is­sues. But I also re­alised that when it came to Lord Mayor we’d never had any rep­re­sen­ta­tion from younger peo­ple. It’s al­ways been some­one who’s been on the coun­cil for 25-30 years, some­one 65-70 plus. They’ve al­ways done their best but I ac­tu­ally wanted to get in­volved with our com­mu­ni­ties. Also, we’d never had an openly gay Lord Mayor. So I put my­self for­ward. Thank­fully I was elected to coun­cil again in 2015, get­ting one of the biggest Labour ma­jori­ties in the city, and I think the other coun­cil­lors, who vote for you, saw the po­ten­tial. I be­came deputy Lord Mayor in 2015 and then Lord Mayor in 2016.

“They found it re­ally strange that you could be ex­cluded from the mil­i­tary, or any­thing ElsE, For BE­inG GAy - they’ve grown up dur­ing a time when it’s OK to be gay and they have never known any­thing dif­fer­ent”

Did you en­counter any neg­a­tive feel­ing to­wards you?

I’ve re­ceived no neg­a­tiv­ity at all. I know that when my ap­point­ment as Lord Mayor was an­nounced the coun­cil was a lit­tle bit care­ful about the word­ing. They didn’t want to say “Manch­ester’s first openly gay Lord Mayor”, be­cause they didn’t want peo­ple think­ing; “Oh, have you had a gay Lord Mayor who wasn’t open be­fore?” I un­der­stand that. I get it com­pletely. When I gave my first in­ter­view I gave them the full story. It broke that bar­rier. The in­ter­viewer wanted some pic­tures. I spoke to Terry Ge­orge (founder of Mr Gay UK) who was per­fectly happy to sign over some pic­tures to me as long as they would be used pos­i­tively, so we man­aged to get all that out of the way im­me­di­ately.

All the cov­er­age from the me­dia was pos­i­tive. I think that if we’d not been com­pletely open then by the fol­low­ing Thurs­day the Daily Mail would have run a story - Shock, Hor­ror, Manch­ester’s new Gay Lord Mayor etc. They would have made it into some­thing it wasn’t. Right from the start we’ve been trans­par­ent and I think that’s bro­ken down any bar­ri­ers. There’s been no neg­a­tiv­ity what­so­ever. We’re leaps and bounds ahead of where we could have been.

You men­tion break­ing down bar­ri­ers - and lots have come down. What do we have left to fight for?

One of the things I’ve spo­ken a lot about as Lord Mayor is hate crime. I re­cently went to a Justin Bieber con­cert in Manch­ester and heard a girl telling a ticket tout, “I’m not pay­ing that to see a dirty gay dance.” I asked her if she thought that was ap­pro­pri­ate. I re­ceived a whole bar­rage of abuse. She asked if I was a “dirty gay”. I said, “Yes, and I’m also Lord Mayor of Manch­ester!” The good thing was I then couldn’t say back to her all the things I prob­a­bly would have said’

I took a pic­ture of her and an­other girl, which I put on Twit­ter. It went mad. Within about ten min­utes I had a call from the Manch­ester Evening News. It turned out that al­though you couldn’t see the girl’s face you could see her hand­bag, which she had been caught on CCTV steal­ing from Sel­fridges! Karma!

There are bar­ri­ers still, even in our own com­mu­nity, bar­ri­ers be­tween gays and les­bians. The biggest dif­fi­cul­ties are faced by trans­gen­dered peo­ple. I don’t un­der­stand what peo­ple don’t get, es­pe­cially in our own com­mu­nity. They should be treated as they wish to be treated, what­ever their sex­u­al­ity, or gen­der or tran­si­tion.

It doesn’t mat­ter what race or creed or colour or re­li­gion or sex­u­al­ity, ev­ery­one should be treated equally. That’s a big mes­sage to get across. But it’s true. Manch­ester has so much di­ver­sity, so many cul­tures. We are an ex­tremely in­clu­sive city. I think it’s unique.

Go to Work­sop or Sh­effield and you’re in a dif­fer­ent time zone! It’s im­por­tant to keep the mes­sage out there and keep fight­ing the fight for peo­ple who haven’t got a voice.’

Apart from its di­ver­sity what else makes Manch­ester so great?

Be­cause of the univer­si­ties, and the club scene, you get a lot of 18, 19 year olds who come to Manch­ester and end up stay­ing here. It’s not just about be­ing gay or les­bian, black or white. Ev­ery­one just falls into it and it’s like a jig­saw. Yes, we have trou­bles and is­sues like ev­ery­one else but I like it when peo­ple come to Manch­ester to see how we shape things. We had the peo­ple from Fab­ric night­club in Lon­don come up to see how we cope with the same is­sues they face in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent man­ner. That’s down to the lead­er­ship, not just of the coun­cil but of the po­lice. We’ve come a long way since James An­der­ton, for­mer Chief Con­sta­ble of Greater Manch­ester, said we’re all go­ing to drown in our own cess pit.

In the old days Manch­ester was con­sid­ered the work­shop of Bri­tain. Now it’s seems to be seen as the work­shop of ideas.

With the univer­si­ties, work schemes in place, in­vest­ment, even the foot­ball clubs, peo­ple want to come here and feel a part of it. You get to work, rest and play all within a beau­ti­ful city.’

What ad­vice would you give to a 16 year old want­ing to get into pol­i­tics? Is it a ca­reer for them?

I think get­ting in­volved in pol­i­tics, or any­thing with a be­lief be­hind it, even re­li­gion, if you’ve got a pas­sion, if there’s some­where you be­lieve you can make a dif­fer­ence, de­velop and be­come a role model in any way, shape or form, I would push you to do what­ever you want to do. It’s about hav­ing pas­sion and drive. It’s a roller-coaster. I’ve had my downs but I pick my­self up. You have to turn a neg­a­tive into a pos­i­tive. That’s how the real world is.

Af­ter your ten­ure as Lord Mayor has fin­ished, what’s next?

I haven’t got a clue. Ob­vi­ously, I’ll go back to be­ing a lo­cal coun­cil­lor. Me and my hus­band Si­mon are in the process of adopt­ing. We com­pleted the first stage, then took a break for six months. Be­ing Lord Mayor lasts for a year, so hope­fully the tim­ing will be per­fect. It’s been mad busy, but you have to make the most of it. Only by putting in so much can you get so much out of it.

We’d like a new-born. We don’t care what race, what creed or colour. Ob­vi­ously, be­ing two gay men we’re never go­ing to fit the norm that so­ci­ety says is right, but at the end of the day what is nor­mal?

“Manch­ester has so much di­ver­sity, so many cul­tures. We are an ex­tremely in­clu­sive city. I think it’s unique” “If there’s some­where you be­lieve you can mAkE A Dif­fEr­EnCE… in any way, shape or form, I would push you to do what­ever you want to do. It’s about hav­ing pas­sion and drive”

LORD MAYOR OF MANCH­ESTER CARL AUSTIN-BEHAN (LEFT) AND HIS HUS­BAND SI­MON AUSTIN-BEHAN

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