Besieged gays win some new friends in the North

Once seen as enemies of the city's homosexuals, Manchester's police are now building bridges
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Rumours of a particularly vicious incident recently swirled through the gay and lesbian community of Manchester: a gay man had been violently attacked and beaten up, his ear was bitten off and he was thrown in a canal.

But unlike most violent crimes, the details could not be confirmed because the incident was not reported to the police, and the attacker escaped justice.

Manchester's gay "village", the rejuvenated streets near the city's Piccadilly district, is one of the country's most openly homosexual areas. Unlike Old Compton Street in Soho in London, the village is a definable community of pubs, restaurants, clubs, shops and flats.

Now, in one of the UK's first formal attempts to eliminate "hate crimes", Greater Manchester Police and the city's Lesbian and Gay Policing Initiative will next week launch a new way of dealing with homophobic attacks. Manchester police are open about their lack of knowledge on hate crime. If incidents like the canal attack do not get reported there are no official police statistics to warrant their attention. And in the village, where not all gay men, lesbians or transsexuals are "out", and where fear of employers, families or friends finding out is part of some people's lives, violence and associated crime is accepted as a risk rather than an infringement of civil rights.

From Tuesday, however, the usual route of reporting a crime to the police, having to give your identity and subsequently awaiting police action will change. In its place, will be a list of options that will include an "incident self-reporting form" where giving a name and address is optional. Inspector Kevin McLoughlin, the force's lesbian and gay liaison officer, claims the new "equality policy" will "enable reports to be made anonymously and we will begin to generate some statistics and target resources at homophobic crime".

The inspector admits that the police have a poor image in the village. "We don't get a good press, we're seen as macho and unsympathetic but the new initiative will make us more accountable." The incident forms say that "many offenders consider our communities an easy target because we suffer in silence ... hate crimes hurt more when they aren't reported".

The relationship between gay people and Manchester police has gradually improved since the days of the former Chief Constable, James Anderton. His comments about gays and Aids, including the observation that homosexuals "were swimming in a cesspit of their own making" did little for the force's public relations. Five years ago the newly appointed Chief Constable, David Wilmot, gave an almost immediate commitment to community policing.

However, the goodwill he initially generated soured in April 1994 when police raided the Mineshaft fetish club and arrested 13 men. Ian Wilmott, a local government manager and chairman of the Lesbian and Gay Police Initiative said: "At that point the wedding was off. The raid took us back to the old days of hostility."

Next week's launch is the result of recent years of negotiation that culminated in a conference in November last year called "Police and Diversity: An Agenda for Change". Around 350 delegates, including many from Britain's police forces, attended, aiming to deliver a national policing charter.

Ian Wilmott said: "We want police officers to be gay friendly - but that is not as important as preventing serious assault."

Today's village is a defined community catered for by a gay doctors' practice, gay lawyers and a growing array of smart apartments and restaurants; where there were once dark basements for a hidden culture, there are now mainstream breweries investing in expensive glass-fronted warehouse pubs.

Gay hotels are also being planned for the village and Manchester is likely to win a place on the international gay destinations route alongside San Francisco and Sydney.

With Manchester City Council wanting the regeneration of its city centre to continue, the village and its clubs such as Cruise 101, Paradise and The Danceteria may be seen as an island of specialist property now demanding mainland protection.