Thursday, 23 August 2012

LGBT rugby in Manchester: an interview with Manchester Village Spartans

Earlier this month Leeds Rhinos became the latest rugby league club to reaffirm their active lead in the fight against homophobia. Dedicating their home match against Widnes Vikings to raising funds for Stonewall, it represents the latest in a substantial number of efforts within the sport to diversify and push for equality, following the launch of the multi-faceted equality campaign, “Tackle It”. It also comes just two years after the RFL took a hard-line stance towards the Castleford fans caught hurling abuse at Gareth Thomas, the first notable rugby player to ”come out” whilst active in the game and a year after Stonewall awarded RFL a place in its top 100 gay-friendly workplaces.   Altogether this has had the effect of encouraging some commentators to say rugby league, whilst still having considerable way to go to eradicate homophobia completely has made more significant ground than football in recent years.

It's sporting twin, rugby union, has made significant grassroots level efforts to attract more LGBT defining people to the game who may have distanced themselves from the sport due to fears or experiences of homophobic attitudes. The International Gay Rugby Association Board (IGRAB), a predominantly union based organisation founded in 2002 as an umbrella organisation for the growing number of inclusive, self-defined LGBT rugby clubs around the world, is trying to promote rugby as a non-discriminatory, all-inclusive sport .

This year its gay rugby world cup, named after player Mark Bingham who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, celebrated its sixth contest in Manchester.The city is also home to IGRAB member Manchester Village Spartans RUFC, formed in 1999 initially to provide a supportive playing environment for men who identify as gay or bisexual. Gareth Longley, representative and player of the Village Spartans, talked to me about the positives of having self-defined LGBT-friendly rugby teams, how the sport is making progress in terms of equality and what more there is to be done to reach a time when self-defined LGBT teams need no longer exist.

Why did you choose to get involved with the Village Spartans?

I’d always played rugby as a kid but when I came out just before going to university I gave it up because the perceived macho image of university clubs didn’t appeal to me and due to a fear of discrimination within them for being gay, although this was only a perception rather than due to an actual bad experience. It was only when i moved to Manchester when i was 24 that i got back into playing rugby after discovering the Spartans.

Do you think that LGBT rugby clubs are important to the LGBT population?

I think they are important. It’s not that they necessarily act principally as a haven for people who fear being persecuted for being openly gay, although LGBT teams can be a valuable place to gain enough confidence in the sport to perhaps join a mainstream team or at least play with others regardless of their sexuality. We hope that rugby players and officials in general are really trying to work towards greater inclusivity within their clubs both nationally and internationally.

LGBT teams can, however, additionally offer a certain type of social understanding that a chiefly straight team can’t always do to the same degree. On a night out for example, Manchester Spartans go predominantly to the gay bars and I can talk to them about my relationship more openly because the majority of them are gay too so I think it offers the opportunity to feel a real part of the team both on and off the pitch due to having that common ground in social terms. We hope to be capitalising on this aspect with gay men interested in rugby.

At the end of the day we are there to play rugby and our team is an inclusive one, it’s by no means exclusive to any particular sexuality so we welcome all men who show an interest in playing for us. I think self-defined, LGBT-friendly teams work both ways in attempting to encourage inclusivity and diversity whilst highlighting to everyone that sexuality is by no means a barrier to being good at sport.

Do you think that rugby is more progressive in terms of its attempts to ensure substantial LGBT equality and inclusivity than football and if so, why?

I think rugby in the main has been more progressive in this area. I can’t comment on rugby league but in terms of rugby union I’d say that maybe this is due in part to the fact that historically union was and continues to be a lot more of an upper middle class sport where it’s been easier for people to ‘come out’ due to their more privileged positions. This can be seen on an international level too to some extent.  Rugby Union is now gaining popularity in the more affluent gay scenes in countries where it’s traditionally not been played such as the US within some expensive universities.

In general though, perceptions in sport are changing for the better across the board in terms of real inclusivity due to changing social attitudes. Sexuality shouldn’t be a barrier to sport and I envisage a time where in ten, 15 years we won’t have to have LGBT teams because sport will be completely inclusive. We’ve still got a long way to go yet though both in union and league as in other major sports.

Have you been successful in attracting more LGBT people into the sport?

I think we’ve helped make an impact; some people shy away from the sport at school because of fears that they’ll be discriminated against for being gay and feeling that they couldn’t adequately identify with the people that they were playing with. LGBT teams offer people the chance to take up the sport at a much later age than in regular adult teams where a certain standard of playing is more likely to be expected. Because of this it has the ability to offer newcomers a safe inroad into the sport that’s more open to beginner level playing.

We like to give opportunities to people who haven’t come from a sporting background not only to gain confidence to play the sport but get involved in the team-oriented social side too. We want to give people the chance to become involved in an activity that’s bigger and broader socially than just going to a gay bar, its giving people the chance to be part of something bigger that comes with a solid support network founded on team mentality.

I think hosting the rugby world cup in Manchester definitely highlighted the sport’s attempts to encourage people interested in playing the sport but with little experience to get involved, but I’m not sure that it alone radically increased our team’s LGBT following or participation. 

What do you envisage for the future of LGBT teams such as yours?

Now that we have an established team our focus is to improve the quality of the rugby that we play. Being a niche team in the past we’ve struggled to get enough players to ensure we’ve got reserves which has limited us in terms of inevitable injuries that players suffer. We’d love to do more outreach to change people’s perceptions of gay men not being sporty and to encourage gay men and boys that do like sport to stay involved in it; unfortunately we don’t have the resources to be able to do that effectively at the moment. We hope that by improving the standard of the team will be able to challenge any continuing stereotypes some people may still hold about gay men in sports.

Now that we’ve been established for a while people’s attitudes towards us have changed; they realise that we are just blokes who happen to fancy men and are good at rugby. Hopefully that’s something that will ripple throughout the community; we want people to see us as rugby players first and as gay men second.

I think educating people that just because you’re gay it doesn’t mean that you’re going to jump on them in the shower or be remotely interested in them is an important part of what both LGBT teams and the wider rugby community need to focus on. Hopefully with the support of big names like Ben Cohen, Gareth Thomas and Mark Bingham alongside other notable LGBT public figures and governing sports bodies like RFL and RFU we will all play a part in helping stamp out homophobic bullying in sport. 
The Manchester Village Spartans team photo

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Living amongst ghosts: Manchester's under-appreciated local history

How well do you know where you live? You probably know the shops, the best takeaway (and which late night kebab place to avoid) and more likely than not, your local pub. You know the best way into the town centre, the local amenities and there's a good chance you'll know some if not all of your neighbours; whether that's out of choice or due to the thin walls. But when you stand outside on the street and look up at the places you know, how well do you know their history?

Living in Victoria Park for the last year our local shop on Anson Road, Venus supermarket,  has been famous to my housemates and myself for its incredible baklava counter, turkish delight and whole aisle devoted to pickled vegetables (and deservedly so!). So when I stumbled upon Longsight's Manchester history page I was not expecting to find photos and recollections of the very same building 80 years ago in its past life as Birchfields Skating Palace.

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Lemn Sissay advert for  the International One
A quick google search later and this now already historic building was revealed to also have been more well-renowned as International One, an epicentre of Manchester's 1980s music scene, host to bands like Husker Du, Inca Babies, Simply Red and REM as well as the base of The Stone Roses. That a building of such historical importance, not just for Manchester's local history but to recent British musical history has had its past literally plastered over and hidden away only for those lucky enough to remember its legacy to revive its from time to time and share it with a wider audience is an all too saddening reminder of the reality of Manchester City Council's attitude when it comes to honouring its musical heritage.

The demolition of the Hacienda
As much as the image of Manchester as a city proud of its musical clout prevails and is countlessly regurgitated in its official tourism drives, the council itself has a much more dismissive day-to-day relationship with the city's musical history. Whilst its long-standing plaque scheme honours Manchester's notable people, events and buildings none pay homage to the places where scenes were born, raised and nurtured. The International Nightclub is of course not the only, or even most famous musical building to have been snubbed by the Council. The Hacienda, a locus of the acid house and rave music scenes that inspired the cult film 24 Hour Party People was demolished in 2002 to make way for a luxury apartment block, despite attempts by groups such as the OK Cafe to highlight the threat to the building's future and reclaim it for the community.

Marcel King in the 16 track set up at The Kitchen,
Barry Crescent
This story of demolition is by no means an anomalous conclusion to landmark venues in Manchester. The existence of the infamous Kitchen squat club in Barry Crescent in Hulme which formed part of the thriving counter culture scene there, where John Robb believes it felt like "every band in the city had done time there" can only be traced through the memories of its attendees.

The Russell Club aka PSV and Factory records
In the cases of the Hacienda and The Kitchen it is perhaps very easy to see why the Council have never been too keen to commemorate sites that during their heyday occupied a large amount of time in the minds of authority figures. The untold quantities of not so legal substances that helped keep the parties going well into the next day (at least) and their dislike of locations that were inevitably going to be difficult, if not impossible to police, makes it unsurprising that they were all too keen to bury their fiery pasts in unmarked graves. Yet it does not fully explain the Council's apathy towards revered venues that attracted less notoriety whilst they were open. The plot of land  which was home to the former Russell club (AKA PSV and home to the Factory club night) on Royce Road in Hulme is now host to a generic brick flat cube, a now sadly ubiquitous sight in an area which has been purged of much of its meaningful infrastructure.
Unrecognisable: the current view of the site on
which the Russell Club once stood.

The Twisted Wheel, a veteran Northern Soul club that emerged out of the Left Wing Cafe helped pioneer the scene in the early 1960s is the latest iconic music venue to feel the icy indifference of the Council planners. Last week they approved the destruction of the 6 Whitworth Street building which the club made its home, after moving from premises on Brazennove Street, to make way for the building of a Motel One chain budget hotel. Attracting fans from across the UK every weekend during the years it was open and a strong following when the building re-opened as Legends, hosts of the successful alternative gay clubbing night, Bollox, the building's cultural significance sadly seems no match for the Council's finance-capital oriented preoccupation.

A resurrected all-nighter at the soon to be
demolised Twisted Wheel
Even the Lesser Free Trade Hall, the legendary location of purportedly the most influential concert of all time that a good many more people than the 40 capacity allows claim to have witnessed first-hand, including Mark E Smith, Morrisey and the members of the Buzzcocks has been given no formal recognition by the Council. Today it too is occupied by a hotel chain magnate, though as a listed building it has survived the council's profit-driven chopping block.

This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list (and probably couldn't be having not lived in the area long enough to know the full extent of the 'musical shadows' I'm walking in). It's overlooked the Electric Circus, only open for a year or so but host to many early punk bands such asThe Clash, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Rezillos, Warsaw (later Joy Division), Buzzcocks, Penetration alongside John cooper clarke whose last night has been immortalised on a 10 inch colour vinyl recording. It doesn't mention Rafters on Oxford Street or The Mayflower in Gorton that operated within the same era, the Gallery on Peter Street, the mostly reggae 'The Osbourne' on Oldham Road or even the Free Trade Hall proper that was home for one night to the likes of Lou Reed and Captain Beefheart.

What it does show is that the extent of Manchester City Council's disregard for our musical inheritance leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to representing the interests and honouring the memories and accomplishments of its residents, the very people who elected its members into power. Its eagerness to turn venerated institutions over into private hands in return for financial gain over a sense of responsibility to respect all aspects of local culture, not just the more traditional and canonised types is explicit and seemingly remorseless. Fortunately, the people of the city themselves are ensuring that this integral part of Manchester's history is not forgotten. Whole websites, exhibitions and community initiatives are constantly being generated to try engage residents both old and new with their home-town's musical legacies and provide a lasting memorial long beyond the disengenous actions of the council.
Have a look at the links below, keep your eyes peeled and keep wondering: do you really know the story behind the places you thought you knew so well?

...this one needs no introduction!

Thanks to Michael Herbert Exhulme, Manchester District Music Archive, Culture Word and Manchester History for their invaluable insights.