They're only here for the queers

It was Britain's gay capital. Everyone was out and proud. But that was before Queer as Folk and coachloads of gawpers hit town.

When the attackers struck, they did so from the safety of a moving vehicle. Their target was hard to miss - the 7ft frame of the doorman stationed outside the Manhattan Showbar in Manchester's gay village. Ken, aka Truly Scrumptious, drag queen and security guard all rolled into one colossal, sequinned package, points proudly to the evidence of the hit. Half a dozen eggs, she says, flew out of the passing car, skimming her hairpiece and smashing against the wall. The traces have yet to be cleaned up, and a sticky trickle of egg yolk remains, a glutinous reminder of the hazards of working as a gay club's "door whore" in the year 2000.

When the attackers struck, they did so from the safety of a moving vehicle. Their target was hard to miss - the 7ft frame of the doorman stationed outside the Manhattan Showbar in Manchester's gay village. Ken, aka Truly Scrumptious, drag queen and security guard all rolled into one colossal, sequinned package, points proudly to the evidence of the hit. Half a dozen eggs, she says, flew out of the passing car, skimming her hairpiece and smashing against the wall. The traces have yet to be cleaned up, and a sticky trickle of egg yolk remains, a glutinous reminder of the hazards of working as a gay club's "door whore" in the year 2000.

It is a similar story over the road at the New Union, only there it's not just eggs that are involved. In the last six months, the pub's bouncer has twice had a gun pulled on him. "It's like a cabaret," he says; "people are coming here to have a look at the people they used to poke fun of at school. I've had more trouble here in the last 12 months than in 15 years of doing doors."

Things have changed in Britain's gay capital. "I don't think you could even call this a gay village any more," Scrumptious says. "It's a straight village now. When I first came here, three years ago, it wasn't like that. Queer as Folk made it all look glamorous, but if you work in it or go out in the village, you'll know it's a totally different place. There has been a lot of fighting lately."

In the village's hedonistic heyday, that kind of talk would have been unheard of. The gay village - a glorious, liberating, hedonistic celebration of queer culture - was not only the jewel in the crown of Manchester, but the gay capital of the UK. Perched on the edge of the Rochdale Canal, just behind Chorlton Street bus station, next to the red-light district, the village was first stamped on to the map when Manto bar moved into a derelict waterside warehouse on Canal Street in 1991. With walls made entirely of glass to ensure maximum visibility, the mantra was "out and proud", and the era of "knock three times and ask for Dorothy" was well and truly over. Other bars were quick to follow - the Metz, Via Fossa, Velvet and hordes of others. Today, the gay village is the epicentre of the city's social life, the place to go. In an area measuring just a quarter of a square mile, 70 licensed premises are crammed in.

But just as Last of the Summer Wine did for Holmfirth, on the Yorkshire Moors, or A Year in Provence did for the south of France, Channel 4's gay drama Queer as Folk is threatening to turn the village into a victim of its own success. The attention focused on what is essentially a tiny dot on the Manchester landscape has, say some, turned it into a human zoo. It's a process that possibly would have happened anyway, as the big breweries, quick to recognise the power of the pink pound, moved in during the mid-Nineties. But whereas other tourist hot spots just run the risk of having their patch trampled by herds of tourists, the implications for the gay community are more worrying.

"The crime figures for my area are the highest in Manchester," says Steve Dodd, the village's community beat officer. "And the ones I get to hear about are just the tip of the iceberg." One bar-owner says: "I see ambulances on Canal Street virtually every weekend." Stories of abuse are rife. Channel 4's cult gay performance artist Divine David was assaulted in Manto while drinking with friends in the run-up to Christmas. Four men walked in, ordered a drink and attacked him. "My friends all thought they'd turned me into a vegetable," he says. "My eyes were shut and I had blood and froth coming out of my mouth, from my head being slammed repeatedly on a concrete floor."

"The village has a veneer of freedom and emancipation but it's a very thin veneer," says the local performance poet Chloe Poems. "I consider the village to be one of the most violent areas of Britain. It's barbaric; it's not a safe area at all. Queer as Folk has created a new caricature in exactly the same way as John Inman or Larry Grayson did, but instead of limp-wristed effeminacy, it's the rich, sexually confident, high-powered business exec, and that brings with it a new kind of anger and animosity coming in from the outside."

The village now seems to be in danger of imploding. Once it was unheard of to call it anything but the "gay village", but now the prefix is increasingly being dropped. The legendary Canal Street road sign, which for years stood proudly defaced to read "anal treet", has disappeared; no one quite seems to know where it went. Last year, Marketing Manchester, the organisation responsible for promoting the city, had its knuckles rapped. One of its many promotional pictures featured a gay man dressed in bondage gear - too gay for the gay village. The Manchester Evening News slapped it on the front cover and asked, "Is this how we want to promote our city?" The answer from the Manchester public was a resounding "no". Recently the local gay community has rechristened its own stomping-ground "Banal Street". "Couples", said one member, "are getting scared of walking down Canal Street holding hands."

Traditionally, Friday is the biggest night of the week for gay revellers, but recently they have been notable by their absence. Tonight, most activity comes from girls travelling in packs, naked flesh oblivious to the drizzling rain; the only things missing are the "Kiss me quick" hats. Two stripograms dressed as firemen are trying to talk their way into Velvet, where a drunken hen party is clamouring for their flesh. On the bridge outside the Rembrandt, a boy and girl are locked in a clumsy, drunken embrace. She catches her foot in the handle of her handbag and nearly pitches head first into the canal. Newcastle may be talking about acquiring a gay village of its own, but it looks like Manchester's already got its own Bigg Market.

For a while there have been rumblings of discontent about the disappearing gay culture, but now it seems the villagers are gearing up to fight back. A small group of bar-owners have recently introduced strict vetting procedures on their doors. The policy is simple: if you're not gay, you're not coming in. Julia Grant, the transsexual owner of the Hollywood and Manhattan Showbars, headed the campaign when she announced that entrance to her Hollywood branch, at least, would be strictly members only.

"When we opened and announced our gay-only policy, the whole village was in uproar," she says. "In the other bars, it's money that speaks: if there aren't enough people in by nine, then anybody gets in. For our own security, we have the right to turn nobheads away, and we've lost a lot of money on this, but now we have the safest, gayest bar in the village." The Vanilla bar followed suit by introducing ladies-only nights for local lesbians. The Spirit bar, which opened at the end of last year, and Cruz 101, while not strictly gay-only, have a similarly thorough vetting procedure on the door. "We're all fighting the same thing," says Julia: "we're all fighting against Canal Street."

Just as the boys baled out to the States in the finale of Queer as Folk, another tactic among the city's gay community has been simply to take its money elsewhere. Last month, a new 1,000-capacity club opened up on Ducie Street, a 10-minute walk from the village. Its name, the Village Edge, perhaps says it all. In the next couple of weeks, a couple more gay venues are scheduled to open; both have opted for sites in other parts of Manchester - their thinking being that there's simply not room for everyone any more.

"The general consensus is that, somewhere along the line, gay people lost ownership of their scene," Chloe Poems concludes. "It was the gay people who created it and the gay people invested in it right at the beginning. I'm in the process of developing a concept of gay civil war. Canal Street is flabby; it has gorged itself and now it's an over-bloated corpse of its former self. And the most sickening thing is that we weren't even consulted."

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