Liverpool: a city that is finally glad to be gay

The Gay Village is a long overdue addition to a place where homophobic crime is rife. Jonathan Brown reports

Journey on any typical Saturday night to downtown Liverpool and you can expect to find the dance floor at theG Bar on Erbele Street rammed and the music pulsating at ear-splitting volumes. Around the corner in Stanley Street a slightly older crowd will be found sipping cocktails and enjoying a more sophisticated vibe at Superstar Boudoir. Meanwhile, those seeking a more intimate dance-floor experience will have headed to the Masquerade on Cumberland Street.

From next year, those three venues will find themselves firmly within the confines of Liverpool's new Gay Village – a creation that, local gay and lesbian businesses in the area hope, could see the city one day compete with its great rival Manchester in pursuit of the "pink pound".

The city council, with the help of a European grant, is poised to give the go-ahead to a pedestrianisation scheme that will see traffic banned from the area around Stanley Street after 10pm on weekends, allowing revellers to flood out into the streets and help foster the nascent cafe society emerging despite the chill eddies blowing in from the Mersey. While the Liberal Democrat-run council steadfastly refuses to use the term Gay Village it seems it is fighting a losing battle.

For as anyone who frequents this corner of Liverpool's multibillion- pound transformed centre will tell you, the port city has a long and illustrious gay heritage, despite the overweening presence of the Catholic Church here. Icons such as Brian Epstein, Holly Johnson and Pete Burns all found sanctuary long before the area enjoyed any type of official sanction.

But these are difficult times for Liverpool's gay community. In July, gay teenager Michael Causer was murdered in what police believe was a homophobic attack at a party in Huyton. The 18-year-old lay in a coma for nine days before his life support system was turned off, during which time thousands paid tribute in the bars and clubs of the gay quarter, taking part in a series of moving silences and by dancing to his favourite track "We've Got Tonight" by Ronan Keating and Lulu. This week, a special service will be held at Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral in his memory.

Even before the tragedy which the gay community believes has been largely ignored by the national media – and despite the city's long-standing tradition as an anything-goes seaport – there was mounting concern over the scale of homophobia on Merseyside. Last year, a report by Stormbreak, a specialist research agency, found that nearly six out of 10 lesbian, gay, bisexuals and transgender people had experienced homophobic crime in Liverpool – a figure that was nearly 12 per cent higher than London.

It found that the average homosexual adult living or working in the city was likely to experience 15 crimes in their lifetime with more than half of respondents saying their lives were blighted by fear of attack.

Steve Radford, leader of the Liberals and co-chairman of the Gay Business Association, the driving force behind the plan has accused the city of harbouring "rabid homophobia".

Many within the community believe that, with more than half of all children attending faith schools in Liverpool, more could be done. "It's my personal concern, particularly where schools have a strong religious tradition, many of them are not taking the need to protect young gay men from discrimination seriously," he said. But others point to evidence that far from being the queer-bashing capital of Europe, Liverpool remains an excellent place to be gay. Though there has yet to be a Gay Pride march to rival that of London or Manchester, for the past five years the city has hosted the annual Homotopia festival which showcases gay and lesbian talent. Its director, Gary Everett, is unconvinced by the need for official intervention.

"I am not convinced that social engineering of this sort is a good idea. These things should be organic and it is happening organically. This quarter is already edgy and dynamic and it is definitely mature, building on a great gay heritage stretching back for the past 50 years," he said.

However, with many critics believing Manchester's famous Canal Street area has become over-commercialised and overpopulated with straight urban trendies and hen night parties looking to flirt with flat-stomached gay men, this may be the time to seize the initiative.

"It has been stagnant for too long. It has yet to be really exploited. There is an audience out there looking for this," added Mr Everett.

Ben Summerskill of Stonewall welcomed the move but said he hoped for a day when "Gay Villages" would not be needed. "Having areas where people can gather together and feel safe in is really important. But in the long run you might hope it was not necessary and people should feel safe absolutely anywhere," he said.

Pink and proud: Other gay hotspots

Sydney

For all the macho misconceptions, Sydney, with its King's Cross district, offers one of the most mainstream gay cultures anywhere in the world. Each February, the city hosts a Mardi Gras, bringing thousands on to the streets.

Manchester

On the banks of the old Rochdale Canal a run-down industrial site was once the meeting place for gay men and women keen to avoid prying eyes. Today, Canal Street is the capital of gay culture in the North.

San Francisco

The Californian city has long claimed the title of gay capital of the world. Most gay businesses are in the Castro area but the culture permeates all levels of Bay life.

London

The area around Old Compton Street teems with life 24 hours a day. With its bars, restaurants and theatres, it is the centre of the capital's gay scene.

Sitges

This Catalan seaside resort was the scene of Spain's first gay disco 25 years ago. Now the town claims to attract 200,000 gay tourists a year.

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