Manchester club the Haçienda is synonymous with a few things: Factory Records, New Order, Peter Saville’s design, acid house, and people generally having it large. And while Manchester itself has a rich and storied LGBTQ+ history, the iconic nightclub’s own associations with that community aren’t discussed perhaps as often as they should be.
Now a new photography exhibition has opened in the city that focuses on both the Haçienda and the more political side of LGBTQ+ history. Titled Together As One – A Celebration of Manchester’s LGBTQ+ Community, the show has been orchestrated by the British Cultural Archive (BCA) — a non-profit organisation set up to document, highlight, and preserve the changes in British culture and society through documentary photography.
Images in the show by Jon Shard focus on Flesh, a mid-week night at the Haçienda that launched in October 1991. This time period was a tricky one for the venue: it was facing a ‘comedown’ of sorts, as BCA puts it, following its halcyon days of 1988-90. That period was the most successful for the venue since its opening in 1982: it was full every night by 1987 (having consistently made a loss in the years prior), largely thanks to its Friday night event Nude, which started life in 1986 and marked the Haçienda as one of the few British clubs to play house music — the definitive sound of that ‘second summer of love’ period from 1988-89.
The launch of Flesh by clubs entertainment and promotions manager Paul Cons and promoter Lucy Scher was partly as a way to revive the club’s ailing fortunes. Since that late-80s boom, “Hac nights were losing their appeal due to a number of heavy gang related incidents and laddish clientele putting off the punters,” says BCA.
However, the night quickly became far more than a marketing tool: Flesh “was one of the most important nights there — probably the biggest gay night in Europe,” says Flesh’s in-house photographer Jon Shard, whose work features heavily in the Together As One show. “My friends and people around me would be talking about it all month. People came from all over, you had people from Europe coming over for it — it was always packed and full of energy….
“It was always special,” he continues. “I was there for every single one, it was the best night to shoot because of the carnival atmosphere. It was really colourful, everyone would spend two or three days working out what they were going to wear for it.”
The night also made important forward-strides for female DJs. At the time, these were few and far between; but Flesh was known for two female resident DJs, Paulette Constable and Kath McDermott. “Jon was keen as mustard and came to talk to us about why we should let him take some pics at Flesh. He was even younger than me and absolutely slayed it. An absolute darling!” says McDermott, who was still a student when she was DJing at the club.
A less glitzy but nonetheless highly significant aspect of Manchester’s LGBQT history is the protests in 1988 against the Thatcher government’s implementation of Section 28 (also known as Clause 28), a legislative designation for a series of laws across Britain that prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities. One of these was the banning of schools from teaching the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
It was a period that was already incredibly hard for LGBQT people: coupled with the Aids epidemic and the subsequent backlash fuelled by media-driven scaremongering and cruelty, Section 28 looked to further suppress the gay community. More than 20,000 took to the streets of Manchester in February 1988 to protest it and demonstrate their anger at Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government, culminating in Albert Square and forming one of the largest LGBQT demonstrations ever held in the UK.
Documenting the protests was Peter Walsh, who worked as a photographer for Manchester’s City Life magazine in the 1980s and 90s, making a name for himself shooting Manchester’s acid house scene. “The Anti-Clause 28 demo was one of the largest demonstrations I had covered in Manchester during that period,” says Walsh. “The starting point was on Oxford Road, by the Poly and the participants seemed to go on as far of the eye could see.
“It was loud, happy and vibrant. The country had been under Thatcher’s rule since 1979 and people were determined to fight back against this law. The left wing council of Manchester welcomed the marchers and stood with them in solidarity against the divisive Tory government. The LGBQT communities’ civil liberties were under attack by Thatcher and we were prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with them and say enough is enough.”
British Culture Archive Presents: Together As One – A Celebration of Manchester’s LGBTQ+ Community is showing at The Refuge, Manchester, until September 30; refugemcr.co.uk