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Permanent visibility equals permanent acceptance: an interview with LGBTQ+ Adviser Carl Austin-Behan OBE DL

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Carl Austin-Behan OBE DL was the youngest and first openly gay Lord Mayor of Manchester, UK, from 2016 to 2017. Since 2018, he has served as the LGBTQ+ Adviser to Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham.

Carl spoke to LGIU’s Freya Millard about how his background motivated him to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, his advice for organising effective community-led Pride events, and his strategies for making LGBTQ+ issues visible in local government all year round.

Background

Growing up during the late 70s and early 80s was far from easy for Carl. He knew at an early age that he was ‘different’ – a synonym for being gay at this time. Unfortunately for Carl, like many others, coming out was challenging: “I tried to explain to my Mum about four or five times that I thought I was gay and she just kept saying it was a phase.”

After leaving school at 16 with limited qualifications and a lot of confusion, Carl moved between dead-end jobs, feeling deeply conflicted about how his true identity and his hopes to get married and have children would never be allowed to align. The devastating HIV/Aids epidemic added to the confusion and fear faced by LGBTQ+ people at this time, as Carl recalls: “We had the Chief Constable telling us that we were going to die in a cesspit of our own making. So, it was very much a case of how do you handle that?”

Carl found solace by becoming a firefighter in the Royal Air Force (RAF), following a long-held ambition – despite it being illegal to be openly gay in the RAF at the time (a discriminatory policy only amended in 2000). While Carl loved his career, he still struggled with his conflicting identity: “I was now living a double life because I was pretending to be someone I am not.”

Carl had a noble and impressive RAF career, including freeing a trapped pilot from an aircraft crash in 1992, for which he was recognised by the Royal Humane Society and in the 1996 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. However, Carl’s world turned upside down in 1997 when the RAF found out he was gay:

“They asked me if I had homosexual tendencies and I burst into tears. I was then discharged and told I could go to prison for six months. In the end, they suspended me, but I was marched off camp with a police escort and not able to say goodbye to anybody.”

Carl did everything he could to challenge this decision, appealing to decision-makers from his local MP to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. But despite his exemplary service, there was no interest in his story.

Carl decided he never wanted to live a double life again. In 2001, he came across the Mr Gay UK competition and won. Soon after, Carl got involved with Manchester Village Business Association, before local politics piqued his interest in 2005 when he got ‘fed up of complaining’: “It was things that were just getting on my nerves like bins overflowing, people parking in cycle lanes, the state of the canal, the niff-naff and trivia that gets on your nerves on a day-to-day basis basically. I just thought, rather than keep moaning about it, I’ll do something about it.”

Life in local government

Carl first stood as a councillor in 2010 and managed to impressively narrow the incumbent councillor’s 1,500 lead to 183. The following year, he tried his luck again, and this time he flipped the results entirely and landed a 1,600 majority. Carl took an active role in local government life: “I wanted to make sure people’s voices were heard. I sat on licensing, I sat on various panels of scrutiny and I became the lead member for cycling. Then a couple of years later I became the lead member for LGBT men.”

When it comes to encouraging LGBTQ+ people to get involved in local government, Carl believes it comes down to making people feel comfortable and at ease with who they are. He suggests that better inclusivity in local government starts with better listening and communicating internally: “Although as a councillor, you are the figurehead, it should be about working together. Meet with officers to discuss the projects they have been working on. Also, don’t just liaise constantly with your portfolio holders, speak with everybody, and at scrutiny meetings, get to know people.”

Carl highlights internal networks as a way to improve communication between local government staff and members: “If you’re going to have a staff network within a local authority such as a BAME network, an LGBT network or a disability network, then invite members to attend as well. It shouldn’t be a ‘them and us situation.’”

Carl advocates for having lead members within local government that visibly support and champion LGBTQ+ rights both internally and across the community. These members should ideally be part of the LGBTQ+ community or a strong ally. The Lord Mayor of Manchester role caught Carl’s eye in 2016 due to the lack of visible diversity across those who had held it previously – despite being a role dedicated to representing the community. Carl says others were initially sceptical: “At first people were like, ‘why would you want to go for it,’ ‘you’ve not been on the council that long,’ ‘you’re very young,’ but I managed to persuade them and the council voted me in.” Carl exceeded expectations by taking on almost four times the amount of the normal engagements to ensure that every part of Manchester was included. Carl adds, “I made sure that equality, diversity and inclusion was at the heart of everything I did that year.”

At this point, Carl went from strength to strength as both his professional and personal life aligned. In 2018, Bolton University granted him an honorary doctorate for services to LGBTQ+ communities across Greater Manchester. In the same year, Carl was identified as the best candidate for the role of LGBTQ+ Adviser to Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, and given the task of spearheading the first Greater Manchester LGBT Action Plan (pdf link).

LGBTQ+ Adviser to the Greater Manchester Mayor

When asked about the initiatives he has championed so far and how they have resulted in tangible change for the LGBTQ+ community, Carl shares that a core part of his strategy was looking at Greater Manchester as a whole to make sure there are services in all ten boroughs that are easily available to everyone. He says: “There are roughly 215,000 people who identify as LGBTQ+ across those areas, so that’s more than the population of one of the boroughs.” Carl has worked hard to build a database of networks, organisations and groups across Greater Manchester – an ongoing “work-in-progress as things constantly change.”

To improve representation, Carl led the establishment of Greater Manchester’s first LGBTQ+ Advisory Panel in 2018, which includes LGBTQ+ people from across the diverse spectrum of the boroughs. As a result, all ten Manchester boroughs hosted their own Pride events for the first time the following year, substantially boosting visibility.

Carl is also the co-chair of the Pro-Manchester Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity network, where he endeavours to bring together public, private and third sector efforts and resources to create one seamless, collaborative approach led by best practice. He also works with the Proud Trust, the LGBT Foundation and educational charities, helping to advocate for inclusive policies such as school uniform and changing room policies that support trans students.

Carl describes his efforts as a work-in-progress and stresses the value of reaching out and involving allies: “People must recognise and feel that this isn’t just something to get on board with because you feel like you have to, it’s something that should be within your DNA anyway.”

Advice on how to organise Pride events

When it comes to launching and organising Pride events, Carl thinks the key is community engagement, especially for smaller, newer events: “Work with the friends’ groups, local charities, schools, churches in the area and community leaders – who are quite the force and have their ears on the ground. Let them take the lead. Facilitate but don’t dictate how it should work.” Carl argues it’s crucial to ask the community what they want, need and desire the event’s outcome to be: “It certainly has to be a collaboration between all the organisations and all the people within your community to feel that it is their Pride.”

There is no one-size-fits-all for Pride events, which should be varied and diverse to best meet community needs. Carl says it all depends on the scale and type of event: “Do you want it to be all-singing, all-dancing? Do you want it to be a quite small community event? If you’re a small farming town, do you want it to be more culture-driven? For example, one of the places I’ve worked with in Trafford, it’s about the arts with elements of bringing families together.”

Pride is also an opportunity to bring in tourism to an area, although engaging with businesses and sponsorship can pose challenges. Carl warns: “When you’re flying the flag, make sure it’s not just people rainbow washing – it’s about the fact that they believe what they are signing up to and what they are involved in.” Carl recommends asking commercial companies to pay to be involved in a Pride parade and then using their contributions to cover costs like road closures. This approach can ensure that local community groups and charities still have free entry, to keep the event focused on them.

Carl identifies cost as the biggest challenge for local authorities looking to hold a Pride event, but stresses the importance of keeping events free when possible: “We all know that grants are disappearing year after year and they’re getting smaller and smaller, but as much as possible, try and keep it free so everyone feels included. As soon as you put any sort of charge on there, it can stop people from getting in.” However, Carl does suggest that you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for donations – just be totally transparent about where the money is going and how it helps keep the event free for future years.

On that note, Carl flags that another major challenge is facing people who will question every penny that is spent: “There are comments like: ‘If you’re putting on a gay pride, why are you not putting on a straight pride?’ Which are ridiculous – when was the last time that you know two straight people got attacked for being who they are?” As a result, Pride event security and safety is vital to consider: “You never know who is going to turn up at these events. You could end up with some people who are very homophobic, so you’ve got to always take that on board and make sure that people feel safe in these spaces. You need to make sure there is security, insurance, welfare – everything you’d expect it to be at any event, whether you’ve got 20 people or 2,000 people coming.”

Most important of all, when organising any Pride event, local government should focus on making sure the event aligns with the true origins of Pride – inclusivity. Carl advises: “Make sure everyone feels included right from the start. Work with all the communities within the LGBTQ+ community, people who are queer of colour, and disability groups. I’ve seen so many times where ‘accessible friendly’ means just a small raised platform in front of the stage but they’ve not thought about access through the whole site, toilets, the curb stones or that it’s on a muddy field.” He adds,

“Think about who is going to be there. For example, make sure you’ve got someone doing sign language, even if that person is only there for one person. If there are people who might feel vulnerable then make women-only spaces. Think about people who are autistic and may need a sensory room or a quiet area to express themselves. If it’s a family event, make sure you’re catering for the families with things like face painters, kids games and balloon art.”

Although organising and pulling off a successful Pride event can be a huge task of its own, it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the work that local government needs to be doing all year round to improve LGBTQ+ safety and inclusivity within their communities. Carl closes on this crucial point: “It’s about making sure the community groups feel like they are a part of their local authority all year round. If you’re going to fly the flag on Pride Month, make sure you fly it for International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, fly it for trans visibility, fly it for bi visibility and transgender remembrance. Make sure you’re doing it all year round and not just to bring money into the area. I think one thing for me is permanent visibility is permanent acceptance.”



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