Tracing the Journey: The History of Manchester Pride

Manchester Pride stands as one of the UK’s most prominent and enduring Pride festivities. Yet, its origins were much humbler. Beginning as a modest community gathering in 1985, it emerged during a time when the nation grappled with widespread homophobia, facing antagonism from both law enforcement and the general public.

In the last 38 years, Manchester Pride has gone from a small discreet get-together to a vibrant city-wide gathering of over 20,000 people all joining to celebrate queer culture in Manchester.

Keep reading for the complete history of Manchester Pride. 

Being LGBTQ+ in Manchester in the 80s

Being LGBTQ+ in Manchester in the 80s was very different to being queer in the city today. Back then, there was still a lot of institutionalized homophobia and the city’s Gay Village (Manchester’s gay scene with thriving bars, clubs and restaurants) was a secretive part of the city where people visited covertly; the majority of the bars had blacked-out windows that made it impossible for anyone else to see what was going on inside. 

At this time, the LGBTQ+ community in Manchester faced a lot of prejudice, including regular police raids to stop what they termed as ‘licentious dancing.’ 

In a 1984 excerpt from a Mancunian Gay magazine, a scene is described in which one night 20 plainclothes officers stormed into a bar and forced everyone inside to give over their personal information before being allowed to leave.

Manchester Pride People

The first “Gay Pub and Club Olympics”: August Bank Holiday 1985

Despite the hostility from the police, the first “Gay Pub and Club Olympics” event took place on the August Bank Holiday weekend of 1985. These days, this weekend is still the same weekend that Manchester’s Pride celebrations happen.

The “Gay Pub and Club Olympics” was very low-key compared to the Pride of today. The event consisted of fun but smaller events like boat racing down the canal, tug-of-war, and egg and spoon races judged by local drag queens.

This event was a particularly important landmark for LGBTQ+ rights in Manchester since it was publicly supported by a new generation of Labour councillors who were elected in 1984. Not only did these councillors create an Equal Opportunities Committee, but they also appointed Lesbian and Gay officers Maggie Turner and Paul Fairweather in a milestone move for queer rights in the north of England.

Northern Pride: 1986

In 1986, the councillors furthered their support for Manchester’s LGBTQ+ community by contributing public funds towards the previous year’s event and introducing what would now be called Northern Pride.

The council publicly donated a large sum of £1,700 towards the event which was centred around fundraising for the AIDS epidemic – at this time, concern began building around the new vastly spreading virus.

Section 28 March: 1988

Near the end of the decade, Manchester’s fight for LGBTQ+ rights continued with the Section 28 march in 1988. 

Brought in by Margaret Thatcher, this draconian legislation prohibited teachers from talking openly about homosexuality in schools. This led to unprecedented levels of anti-LGBTQ+ bullying and deprived thousands of queer students of support from teachers who could face disciplinary action for just alluding to homosexuality.

In protest of Section 28, 20,000 Mancunians took to the streets – both those who were a part of the city’s queer community, and allies marching in solidarity.

Love Rights 89’: 1989

In 1989, the Section 28 march of the previous year brought together the many different parts of the LGBTQ+ community in Manchester; Love Rights ’89 was described as a “celebration of Lesbian and Gay Sexuality”.

Manchester’s first openly gay bar: early 90s

Despite police raids continuing in Manchester’s Gay Village right up to 1994 and many other locals continuing to call this zone ‘Satan’s Square Mile’, in the early nineties this area saw the opening of its first openly gay bar. Nightclub Cruz 101 and seminal events Poptastic and Electric Chair helped put the city’s gay district well and truly on the map. 

The Village charity and Manchester Mardi Gras ‘The Festival of Fun’: 1991

The Village charity was formed in 1991, alongside the Manchester Mardi Gras, ‘The Festival of Fun’ which raised £15,000 for the city’s LGBTQ+ community. On the closing night of this event, a fireworks show ended with “Manchester Cares” spelt out in the night sky.

Pride Manchester

“Pledgeband” introduced: 1999

Through the rest of the decade, the free-to-attend Manchester Mardi Gras grew and grew. Stages were erected in the public park and in the car parks to welcome local drag performances and other queer artists.

Then, in 1999, the Gay Village area was fenced off and a “pledgeband” was introduced. Despite many campaigning that charging an entry fee prohibited some members of the community from attending the event, the “pledgeband” included an important commitment that 50% of proceeds raised would go to Manchester LGBTQ+ charities.

Mardi Gras renamed Gayfest: 2001

By the early 00s, Mardi Gras was attracting more than 100,000 people a year. So much was the publicity growing behind this event that it was renamed Gayfest in 2001.

Manchester Pride officially born: 2003

In 2003, Manchester became the host city of EuroPride. After welcoming 37,000 attendees and raising approximately £128k for good causes, the city announced that events going forward would be known as Manchester Pride. As a result, Manchester Pride was born and in 2007, Manchester Pride became a registered charity. 

Manchester Pride adopts Pride progress flag: 2018

Pride Flag

In 2018, Manchester Pride became the first Pride in the UK to adopt the updated Pride progress flag; the additional black and brown stripes on the iconic rainbow flag ensure that LGBTQ+ people of colour from Black, Asian and other ethnic minority backgrounds feel represented and included in Pride events.

Manchester Pride today

For queer Mancunians, the August Bank Holiday weekend has become synonymous with the city’s Pride celebrations. 

Every year, thousands of LGBTQ+ locals and allies take to the streets to march for queer equality, while the Manchester Pride charity works hard to raise thousands of pounds for LGBTQ+ good causes; in 2022, the Manchester Pride Festival raised £120,062.38 for LGBTQ+ charities in Greater Manchester.  

Manchester was also the first UK city to include services like the police, NHS and army among its Pride floats, showing how the city has continued to push boundaries nearly 40 years after the first Pride event was held. 

The future of Manchester Pride

There’s no denying that Manchester Pride has come a long way. But some would say there’s still a long way to go.

In 2019, the festival’s Chief Executive, Mark Fletcher, went on record to say that “the fight has only just begun.”

Every year, people question me, asking if we still need a Pride celebration. My answer has always been a resounding “yes.” It’s crucial for us to stand by every member of every LGBTQ+ community, relentlessly advocating until each one feels genuinely equal and can freely express their true selves.

As one of the UK’s most pioneering cities, there’s no surprise that Manchester’s Pride event has played a big part in the UK’s queer liberation movement. Who would have thought it all began with a simple egg and spoon race?

Gay Worlley
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