Drug gangs take the gay out of Gaychester

Violence threatens the club scene that has rejuvenated Manchester, writes Decca Aitkenhead
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The Independent Online
TAKE a stroll through Manchester's "gay village" and you will see the colour of money. The pink pound is parading the streets in designer clothes. It is ringing up on the cash registers of the new bars and clubs, which are crammed night and day. It has attracted media fascination, business investment, and a fashionable following. But this golden egg is now attracting Manchester's gangs, and as they muscle in to claim their share by force they are threatening to shoot the goose that laid it.

The village lies in the city centre, behind Piccadilly Gardens, where about 25 bars and clubs are clustered along Bloom Street, Canal Street, and Sackville Street, with gay restaurants, hairdressers, cab companies and gay doctors' surgeries. Once a sleazy haunt of prostitutes, in the 1990s the village has become Manchester's most vibrant quarter.

Yet now gangs from Moss Side, Cheetham Hill and Salford have taken over control of the door at some gay bars and clubs, and are operating large- scale drug dealing. Their sudden late-night and violent arrivals at other venues have closed clubs, put promoters out of business, and are starting to scare off customers. Protection rackets and intimidation transformed the "Madchester" of the late 1980s into a city whose main reputation was for violence. Many saw Gaychester as its salvation, boosting the city's economy and placing it at the forefront of fashion and music. But underworld violence is surfacing here too.

"I've worked in every straight bar in town and never had so much trouble as I had there," says Martin, until recently a barman on gay night at a small dance club. "It went from being a camp club to attracting every dealer, pimp and gangster in town. A man's ear was bitten off. There were two stabbings while I was there. One night we were threatened with a gun, the door was kicked off its hinges by gangsters, a bouncer was attacked and the promoter doused in petrol, and the police had to evacuate the club. After the gay bouncers left and a gang took over the door, I left and went on the dole rather than work there."

Gay clubs' appeal to gangs is understandable. Unlike the city's straight clubs, many are licensed to stay open all night, as they are traditionally trouble-free and the licensing authorities, mindful of queer-bashing, are anxious to prevent gay and straight clubs emptying at the same time. The clientele have a lot of money to spend on clubbing and dance drugs. And whereas straight clubs have always had to contend with gang culture and have defended themselves accordingly, few gay venues were prepared when it arrived in the village.

Using violence, the gangs demand control of the door, then charge extortionate rates for their doormen and take control of the drug dealing - an extremely lucrative business. But the safe atmosphere that accounts for much of the gay clubs' popularity is being destroyed. In turn, the whole success of the village is at risk. "You don't want to go out any more," says one clubber, Dominic Bellanti. "There are too many people out to make trouble - and money."

"The gay scene has become a major victim of its own success," says an established club promoter. "Once gay clubs became fashionable and the taboo disappeared, it was the natural progression for gangsters to see the money and move in. And once they're in, they're almost impossible to get out."

Some promoters who refused to capitulate are now out of business. Glenn Routledge has run gay nights in the village for several years but his latest venture closed within a month. "A group of gangsters turned up one night who our door staff couldn't refuse. We turned the music off and closed. The next week they were back, more of them, and the night folded. We approached another club owner to see if we could run a gay night on his premises and he said he wasn't prepared to take the risk."

Even the village's largest businesses are at risk. Manto, sister bar to the hugely successful Paradise Factory club, has recently come under siege. One regular, anxious to remain anonymous, said: "A group turned up late at night who were clearly gangster types - drug dealers, scally filth - and when they got turned away they came back with a gang wearing balaclavas with broken bottles. They started hurling them at Manto, smashing the windows, and a girl got bottled in the head. Everyone was showered in broken glass. It was terrifying."

Manto has refused to relinquish control of its door to the gangs, but will not comment on the problem. Other club owners admit they have given in, but will not talk about it. The fear that pervades the scene is palpable - making inquiries, I was threatened - but is understandable. Licensees are afraid of the gangs, but are also afraid to go to the police, fearful for their licence.

Some accuse the authorities of turning a blind eye. "You have to ask yourself how much has changed since James Anderton [the former avowedly homophobic police chief] quit," says Chris Payne, a journalist who covers the gay scene. "Perhaps they are looking at all the trouble now and thinking, 'Hah, you lot think you've had it good for so long in the village, now look who's laughing. You're getting what you deserve'. But the village has done so much for the city's image and economy - why aren't the police protecting it?"

"We are dealing with a very, very sensitive area," said Kevin McLoughlin, Manchester police's gay and lesbian community liaison officer, "and basically I'm trying very hard to say as little as possible." He fears that if the police move in on the drug dealers in the village, they risk appearing to be persecuting the area. "Yet if we don't do anything we look like we are neglecting the gay community."

In an attempt to combat security protection rackets, the police have introduced a scheme obliging all door staff to be vetted before being registered. But Chief Inspector Wallis, in charge of the scheme, admits that while they look at bouncers' backgrounds, "we don't look too closely. If we didn't allow people with previous convictions to be door staff, we wouldn't have any door staff in this city".

Paul Cons, promoter of the gay club Flesh, wants the police to operate door security themselves and take control as in football grounds, but believes they refuse for fear that officers will be corrupted. Other club owners blame each other for the problems, accusing individuals of allowing too many straights in and signalling their presence to the gangs. Some blame the media for attracting unwanted attention to the pink pound.

Tony Cooper, manager of the Equinox club, says: "There are straight people - and there are straight people. Ninety-nine per cent come for the right reasons, and go home with a more tolerant understanding of gay people. That's something we should be proud of. I don't want to go back to running a gay ghetto."