2020 – It has been a queer year

With Manchester’s Gay Village in lockdown and Pride effectively cancelled, Ben Knight shares his personal thoughts on where Manchester’s LGBTQIA+ community finds itself in 2020 – and how the law fits in.

Pride 2020

I am writing this whilst sat on my sofa. Ordinarily, on an August Bank Holiday weekend Saturday, I would be up early to make sure that chambers is open, the breakfast buffet is arriving on time, banners are to hand, and the growing group of LGBTQIA+ lawyers and allies know where to go and get ready to take part in Manchester’s Pride march.

This year, as with everything else in life, things are different.

Pride logo - Progress Flag
PSPOs, Covid and the Village

The Village looks very different this Pride weekend. Friday night was quieter than even a regular covid Friday. The bunting and flags in the city are limited – though there are some, at least.

There are few revellers out. Bars and doorstaff report more straight couples than LGBTQIA+ people hitting the town. Sackville Gardens is dark and silent.

GMP and the city council informed us this week that they would not be allowing people to drink in Sackville Gardens, this weekend. This is significant to quite a few people. That small patch of grass is the home of the Beacon of Hope (a memorial for those we have lost and continue to lose due to HIV, hate crimes, and homelessness). It is home to the statue of Alan Turing (the gay war hero persecuted by the country he helped to save). It is the home of the Tree of Life. It is the home of the National Transgender Remembrance Memorial.

It is a community space that, every Pride, holds the candlelit vigil that honours and reflects upon the tragedies that have befallen the LGBTQIA+ community.

Image by Matt Bramford
Pride - Beacon of Hope
The Beacon of Hope in Sackville Gardens

Sackville Gardens is covered by a Public Space Protection Order. That means that, ordinarily, it is possible for police to issue fines to people drinking alcohol within the park. During Pride, that is not only eased but the area is licensed for the sale of alcohol. This year, it is empty and GMP has issued a warning that it will be actively enforcing that drinking ban.

It is questionable as to whether the PSPO that affects this area is even appropriate in the first place. It was renewed in July of this year, during lockdown. Here’s the legal test:

Power to make Orders

(1)   A local authority may make a Public Spaces Protection Order if satisfied on reasonable grounds that two conditions are met.

(2)   The first condition is that –

        (a)      Activities carried on in a public place within the authority’s area have had a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality, or

        (b)      It is likely that activities will be carried on in a public place within that area and that they will have such an effect.

(3)   The second condition is that the effect, or likely effect, of the activities –

        (a)      Is, or is likely to be, of a persistent of continuing nature,

        (b)      Is, or is likely to be, such as to make the activities unreasonable, and

        (c)      Justifies the restrictions imposed by the Notice.

It is difficult to see how an order that is, by admission, left unenforced pretty much 365 days a year can be necessary at all. These orders are not to be left “on the books” just in case a police force or local authority wants to invoke them for a specific event. There are separate legal powers for that. Or, of course, if actual offences are being committed (public order, drunk and disorderly for example), those offences could be utilised instead of creating a blanket ban on such a vital space.

Think that these are always used responsibly? Well, you may recall that it was a PSPO like this that was used to “ban swearing in Salford Quays”. So, maybe not. And legal aid is not available for challenging a PSPO. Also, there are very hefty costs implications if you challenge one and lose. In short, this is a blanket power being arguably misused and, in this case, the use of it is the thing that is detrimental to the community.

As to the consequences of the PSPO:

ASBCPA 2014 Section 67 creates an offence of failing to comply with a PSPO and states:

(1)    It is an offence for a person without reasonable excuse –

        (a)      To do anything that the person is prohibited from doing by a Public Spaces Protection Order, or

        (b)      To fail to comply with a requirement to which the person is subject under a Public Spaces Protection Order.

(2)     A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.

Indeed, the Secretary of States own guidance on the use of PSPOs may not have been given due weight here.

At page 49 it is stated: “In deciding to place restrictions on a particular public space, councils should consider the knock on effects of that decision and ensure that this is a reasonable and proportionate response to incidents of anti-social behaviour in the area. Introducing a blanket ban on a particular activity may simply displace the behaviour and create victims elsewhere.”

Having frequented Sackville Gardens at many a Pride weekend, other than littering, I cannot think of any anti-social behaviour that I have witnessed there. And Covid is not an excuse to impose such a ban when there is robust legislation in place to deal with the particular challenges of the pandemic vis-a-vis such events.

On a personal note, this has angered me – can you tell? That ban was not enforced during the rest of the lockdown (when the park served as an outdoor space for people to enjoy the sun and few drinks whilst keeping a safe distance). The need to do so this weekend is, at best, questionable.

Sackville Gardens could have served as a micro-Pride area this year – if only for the vigil. Access to the Gardens is easily restricted (as it is every Pride). There is no need for bars and the like. Numbers being allowed in can be easily monitored. The “virtual Pride” events (being streamed from 10am on Saturday) could be displayed on a big screen at the end of the park. Limited staffing/policing would be required. Pride could be respected and people still kept safe.

Instead, the mixed message from police was 1) we have no officers for a large-scale policing event like Pride, this year but 2) we have a veritable army of officers marching up and down Canal Street and the neighbouring streets to ensure that the bars are behaving and to issue “advice” or fines to those who drink other than in the extended terraces of Village bars.

Pride police warning to the Village p Page 1
Pride warning to the Village - Part 2

The feeling has long been growing in Manchester’s gay community that Manchester Pride has become increasingly London-centric in terms of those involved; it has become more about sponsors and PR for big business than about celebrating diversity and campaigning for equality for LGBTQ+ people; it has become about a music festival and headliners than about a mixture of protest, celebration, remembrance, and freedom.

The absence of any attempt to use the community space at the heart of the Village feels to many like an abandonment of Pride because it is not worth any money to organisers and is an inconvenience to the authorities. It would not have been hard to make provision and it does not appear to have been on anybody’s agenda.

What was very different about Friday night this weekend was the number of police in the Village. There were loads. And licensing officers. And a film crew! Now, the Village is no stranger to film crews. From the days of Queer As Folk to more recent news clips when bars were worried about having to close due to Covid, there is often some controlled, clearly advertised and avoidable-if-you-want-to filming.

However, to take a film crew with no indication of where they are from, what the footage is for, who will see it, what rights you have to decline to be in it etc. into the one designated safe space for the LGBTQIA+ community is frankly unforgivable. To do that on what would have been Pride weekend is so tone-deaf as to be hard to believe. If this filming was for some sort of enforcement action (as they were with the police and licensing teams), that’s what body-worn cameras are for. They record and overwrite unless something happens that is needed for legal purposes later. It is proportionate and very limited in terms of how the footage can be employed later. A film crew flanked by police is upsetting to many in such safe spaces. Moreover, GMP has an “colourful” history when it comes to giving video footage to the press and posting distasteful/inappropriate social media content online. After the GMP failings at last year’s parade, the trust level of police in the Village are low. This will not have helped at all.

2020 – a regressive year for LGBTQ+ rights

Since this time last year, we have seen an increase in hate crimes against pretty much all minority groups. That is on top of the staggering increase in the figures for 2018-2019. Over that period, police recorded 14,491 crimes committed against people because of their sexual orientation.

Police recorded a further 2,333 offenses against transgender people because of their gender identity. But, despite that increase, the number of people charged with offences has actually fallen as many offences are not investigated and police forces fail to train officers on the applicable law.

The global Bannonite movement has targeted the public’s empathy in a way that has never been seen before. Minority communities have been collateral damage to the movement. Dehumanising people because of their ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, immigration status, physical ability, and socio-economic status has gone from being an undercurrent to being mainstream and being given a platform in politics and media as if it were something other than hateful bigotry.

Arguably, no domestic group has been more targeted by this hatred and weaponisation than trans people. This is especially irrational as trans people have been around literally forever. The baby steps that have been accomplished by trans rights activists (such as the Gender Recognition Act) are being undermined by headline government policy and by an odd alliance of incels, far-right “activists”, and so-called “gender critical” zealots.

During last year’s Pride march, the legal, authorised march was obstructed by a group of these campaigners in a disturbing way. Of particular note was the handing-out of various leaflets including some declaring trans women to be “rapists” and trans men to be traitors to the “L” of LGBTQIA+. They suggested that transition pathways were being “imposed” upon young girls. This is a lie. They argued that trans men don’t exist and that they are simply lesbians who are being forced into gender transition. This is a lie.

These leaflets were actively forced on the young children marching proudly with their trans parents. Just consider that for a second: young kids being told that daddy is a rapist. [They are easily found online but I will not be reproducing them here as they are blatantly disgusting.]

Trans people exist. Trans people are not “illegal”. Gender identity is not the same thing as sexuality. The irony of a group of people historically marginalised, ridiculed, victimised and straight-washed by history deciding to perpetrate those same abuses on the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community is breathtaking.

The product of this weaponisation is depressingly “on-brand” for 2020. A minority of trans activists have resorted to hateful behaviour. Offence as defence, many say. That is no excuse.

Meanwhile, the anti-trans activists double-down on their spreading of misinformation and provide fuel to the media fire.

Instead of calm voices of education, information and understanding, the “T” of LGBTQIA+ is angry, hurt, frustrated, scared and vocal. And it is entirely understandable.

Manchester is an international city and this year, we would do well to look at the increase in violence and murders of gay men in 2020. As close to home as Poland, the world is taking a frightening turn and the absence of a Pride march has quietened our voices from raising awareness and demanding action.

I write this as I hear more about the disbanding of the Village Angels – a group of volunteers who have provided tireless welfare support in the heart of Manchester’s gay village.

Covid has hit the LGBTQIA+ community particularly badly, too. Homelessness is an issue that affects the community disproportionately. But so does abuse in the home. This has consistently resulted in LGBTQIA+ youths (especially 15-18 year-olds) being stuck between abusive homes and sleeping rough.

Of note this year has been the very large number of LGBTQIA+ people who came out and stood side-by-side (at a distance of over two metres!) with BLM activists in Manchester. This must been seen in the context of the long-overdue attempts to reverse the “invisibility” of POC in the LGBTQ+ community. We have a long way to go but the tragic events that boosted the BLM movement this year may have served as a catalyst for some introspection within community.

Chambers proud place in Manchester’s LGBTQ+ Community

Central Chambers are proud to have led the way in terms of barristers supporting Pride in Manchester. Not just our visible presence at the Parades over the years but also in providing a free LGBTQ+ Law Clinic (even during lockdown, thanks to our long-established availability of video conferencing).

  • Central Chambers at Pride
  • Central Chambers at Pride

We are thrilled to see that other chambers on the Northern Circuit have now followed by changing their logos and the like but we are still the only chambers in this city to march en masse in the parade. At a time when legal aid lawyers are under attack by the government (yet again) and when LGBTQIA+ people are in desperate need of our services, we are happy to be a visible and friendly face at this event. We would welcome others joining us.

We have enjoyed hosting the pre-march breakfast for our fellow lawyers and allies. We have enjoyed working with the Law Society and its members in spreading the demand for equality in the law. We will continue to do so now and when the world returns to some sort of normality.

So, have a good Virtual Pride. Remember that the first Pride was a riot and for many, it still is a protest.

Enjoy drag queen story time and Mel C’s set from a few years ago. But also tune in to the vigil on Monday and try to remember what this is about.

Pride was a riot

Above all, know that the community is there. Be part of it and/or be an ally of it. And if you are part of the LGBTQIA+community and need our help, please get in touch. It costs nothing to ask.

See you in the parade, next year.


Views expressed in this article are those of the author.