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
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