DRAG queens and bare torsos, leather and sequins; white knickers and black Lycra, gay ravers and lipstick lesbians. This is Flesh. A flamboyant, outrageous, frenzied celebration of all that is good about gay culture and clubbing in general, the North's largest gay event draws 1,200 a month to the Hacienda club in Manchester. The tribes come from all over the North-west, from the Midlands and London; one devotee flies in from Amsterdam.
Flesh is run by A Bit Ginger, the first gay public relations company in the North, opened by Paul Cons and Lucy Scher a year ago. 'The name comes from Cockney rhyming slang: 'ginger beer' meaning 'queer',' explains Ms Scher. It also refers to the duo's hair - they are both redheads.
Mr Cons, formerly the Hacienda's public relations manager, and Ms Scher, a promoter of lesbian events, teamed up with the aim of making Manchester the gay capital of the North. The demise of the local centre of musical excellence, Factory Records, and the recent shooting of 14-year-old Benji Stanley on Moss Side, have severely dented the city's public image. But against a background of drug-related gang violence affecting the city's clubs, the success of Flesh, with its melting pot of gay men, lesbians and heterosexuals, has been conspicuous.
'This isn't 'Madchester' any more,' says Mr Cons, referring to the city's past reputation as a place of young scallies in flared trousers and laddish dance-rock bands, such as the Happy Mondays. 'It's Gaychester.'
A wide range of media has provided glowing coverage of Flesh. The Manchester listings magazine City Life has even been inspired to start a gay section called 'Fresh'. Paul Cons sees this partly as a change in public attitudes towards homosexuals, and partly as a reaction to what is perhaps the most successful club night in Manchester since the Hacienda's halcyon days in 1988-89.
'The Manchester Evening News used to be really anti-gay,' he says. 'In the early Eighties, when the council was a bit more leftwing and had a gay rights unit, it used to run gay scare stories; but now - though I wouldn't say it's actually promoting gays - it's certainly not negative.'
Mr Cons says that the local council and police have been more than supportive. Response from the local gay community, however, was initially ambiguous. Murmurs of discontent about the use of a straight club for gay events and about the door price of pounds 7 blossomed into a protest petition against the club.
To understand why, one has to look at the options in the city. In what A Bit Ginger disparagingly calls 'the commercial gay clubs', men and women do not usually mix; each sex has its own venues. Ms Scher calls these 'trade clubs, where you go to cruise. They're generally run by 40- to 50-year-old gays and they're pretty tacky, they don't have any sort of musical integrity.'
The Ginger founders were young upstarts, offering a new formula to compete with the established gay clubs - an untested mixture of ages and subcultures, upfront music and high production standards - and attracting much attention. They countered the opposition by arguing that all Flesh's staff and DJs were gay and the Hacienda (its stark design was originally based on the gay clubs of New York) was used because it was simply the best venue in town.
Further antagonism was provoked by Flesh's slogan, 'for queers and dykes'. The word queer, previously an insult, has been adopted by a younger generation of gays to symbolise a more confrontational attitude towards heterosexual society.
After finally winning over the gay community, A Bit Ginger encountered a second source of conflict, this time from heterosexuals. The problem was not homophobia or harassment, it was simply that so many straight clubbers wanted to get in on what had become the North's premier night out. It is received wisdom on the gay scene that gays have pioneered many youth trends - from Doc Martens and Levi 501s to house music - which have subsequently been picked up by straights. Now the same was happening with Flesh.
'We have had a real mob situation when Flesh has been sold out,' says Ms Scher. 'If there are gay people outside and straights come up with pre-bought tickets, they're not allowed in. Crowd pressure means we have to give them a refund.'
To ensure that Flesh remained a predominantly gay event, a policy of positive discrimination was introduced. Flesh tickets now read: 'The management reserve the right to refuse entry to known heterosexuals.' But Mr Cons says that straights still try to get in, often claiming that they are homosexual. He says there have been arguments with the door staff: 'You're not gay]' 'Oh yes I am]'
Building on Flesh's success, A Bit Ginger has expanded its operation, promoting the regular women-only event, The G-Spot, which aims to showcase female DJs, and the wild new weekly club The Glory Hole. The company also promoted Sandra Bernhard's local show, and was involved in gay events during the Manchester Festival - when a massive billboard bearing the slogan 'It's Queer Up North' was pasted up in the city centre. An attempt to run Flesh across the Pennines in Leeds was a failure, however.
The Leeds gay scene was too small and 'too traditional', claims Mr Cons. 'Leeds is similar in size to Manchester, but all that gays have there is two grotty pubs and one grottier club. Liverpool is the same. In Manchester there's at least half a dozen pubs for a start.'
A start, yes, but not the end, not if A Bit Ginger has anything to do with it. 'We'd like to do a gay television programme,' says Mr Cons. 'And we'd really like to gather some gay talent and put together a band.' A gay version of the Happy Mondays? Now there's a thought.
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