Queer History

Transfeminine community building in 1980s Manchester

We started out to have a bit of fun. We were the first [transvestite] group that ever … met … in a bar … we combined … frocks with cocktails.

In 1987 Manchester, self-identified transvestite (or ‘tranny’ as she prefers) Bev helped to establish Northern Concord, a social group run by and for transfeminine people. The name Northern Concord was chosen because ‘it was bland’ and it meant that the group would not be immediately associated with gender nonconformity. It was hoped by its organisers that this nominative ambiguity would protect members of the group from some of the threats faced by trans people in society at the time. Bev felt that there was nowhere in the city where she and her friends could comfortably go out for ‘a meal in a frock’ and her memories examined here (taken from an oral history interview I recorded with her) highlight the role of nightlife in trans community building. For members of Northern Concord, it was the fun associated with the group which drew them together to revel in the collective expression of their gender identities. It allowed them to forge meaningful community ties and a sense of belonging over dinner and drinks, or on the shared space of the dance floor.

Bev’s initial dissatisfaction with the nightlife available to her in 1980s Manchester was echoed by other gender nonconforming people at the time. Across the UK, a network of transfeminine social spaces, catering in the main for transvestite and transsexual identified women, was beginning to emerge. This included the TV/TS [Transvestite/Transsexual] centre in Hoxton, London (known colloquially as French Place) and the Friendships group in Birmingham, which ran club nights at Grosvenor House, a venue that marketed itself as ‘Britain’s foremost residential club for TV/TS’s’. Like Northern Concord, these groups began offering an alternative to what Bev viewed as the ‘boring as hell’ tea and small talk that typically defined the church hall style meetings run by regional branches of other transfeminine support groups. The Beaumont Society (at the time, the UK’s largest self-help organisation for heterosexual transvestites) and local TV/TS [Transvestite/Transsexual] groups tended to focus on providing support and information and therefore, it was the opportunity to socialise in a fun, informal setting that people like Bev craved. By the end of the decade, and in part thanks to the events organised by Northern Concord, Manchester had, according to Bev, earned a reputation for being ‘the tranny capital of Europe’. Gender nonconforming people travelled from as far afield as London and Scotland to sample the trans inclusive nightlife in venues in and around the area of what would later become known as Manchester’s Gay Village.

Northern Concord aimed to provide an alternative to what was perceived as the unsavoury atmosphere associated with the night club Dickens, the only other place where gender nonconforming people were welcome in the city at night. Bev remembered Dickens as ‘one of the places you would never … want to go in …  in daylight … [there was] the old joke of wiping your feet on the way out.’ Bev was married with children and lived an otherwise conventional, middle-class suburban existence. It is unlikely that she associated with the punks and other outsider groups who frequented Dickens (who were perhaps more comfortable in that environment). She went there because it was the only place where she felt welcome in the city and although ‘it was pretty awful’ it was nonetheless ‘a place that … opened late at night, and accepted the likes of us because not many places would’.

Page from Issue 8 of Northern Concord’s magazine, Cross-Talk (image courtesy of Leila Sellers)

In response to the absence of suitable social spaces, Northern Concord began to meet every Wednesday in the Rembrandt Hotel on Canal Street, in the heart of what later became the Gay Village. Although it was eventually surrounded by other gay pubs, clubs and social spaces, including the council funded Gay Centre, Bev remembered the area as ‘a seedy part of the city with a few bars dotted among the derelict warehouses where gays, transvestites and prostitutes could hang out without anyone complaining we were lowering the tone’. Despite its ‘seedy’ location, the Rembrandt had recently been renovated by its landlord Peter Bessick, who offered Bev and her friends use of the new bistro above the pub. The group would also hire one of the hotel’s bedrooms to provide guests who were nervous about being seen in public with a safe place to change into their femme wear at the start of the night.

Like other transfeminine groups at the time, Concord had its own DIY magazine, Cross-Talk. In its second issue co-ordinator Jenny Baker outlined the club’s intentions, promising to be less serious and self-reflective than other support groups available at the time: ‘Enjoyment, a word not associated enough with the old group [Manchester TV/TS Group] but … a word for which we will all be working on in the future. It’s time to enjoy what you are doing, let other people do the analysing and let us get on with life.’ Concord became firmly embedded in a UK wide network of spaces predominantly for transvestite and transsexual women. Highlighting the close connections between these different social groups, coaches were organised from the capital to Manchester for members of the London TV/TS group and others, including Beaumont Society members, travelled from across the country to attend a famous Wednesday night out at ‘the Rem’. The popularity of these Wednesday nights, and the distances people would travel to attend them, shows how important these events were within this network of transfeminine people. The social space carved out by Northern Concord on a Wednesday night in Manchester was, according to one regular ‘an oasis … in the desert of humdrum reality’. The group offered those who visited an opportunity to explore their gender in a joyful, affirming way – far removed from the hostility and judgement they might encounter in the wider world.

Page from Issue 1 of Northern Concord’s magazine, Cross-Talk (image courtesy of Leila Sellers)

‘Over time’ Bev recalled, ‘Wednesday night in Manchester, became a bit of a sort of watch word … and people would … organise … their work or whatever, around Wednesday night’. A group would gather at the Rembrandt for dinner and drinks before heading out into the Gay Village to visit popular gay clubs including High Society and Napoleons. In Tartan Skirt – the newsletter of the Scottish TV/TS group – Jenny Baker recalled an evening where Northern Concord had entertained visitors from London with ‘a five course meal’ complete with ‘champagne toast’ (a far cry from what Bev saw as the sleazy environments of Dickens night club). On leaving the hotel ‘once the witching hour had struck’, the group had:

moved on to one of our local nightclubs, where the owner made us most welcome. What with the cabaret and the dancing 3.00am came quicker than everybody wanted, and so it was time for everybody to fade into the night to various Hotels and Guest Houses that we had arranged for them.

Previously, Bev had struggled to find gay bars in Manchester willing to admit her and her small group of friends. However, with the forty or so trans femmes who regularly went out on a Wednesday night after dinner at the Rembrandt, she discovered a collective consumer power which emphasised the sense of belonging created by these nights out. As Bev explained, ‘we had the equivalent of the pink pound … who’s going to turn you away? … and then it started to spread … you could basically go anywhere’. This group of transvestite and transsexual women were, like gay men, enthusiastic contributors to Manchester’s night life and leisure economy. This in turn gave them a degree of visibility and social recognition, albeit only within the area around the Rembrandt.

Members of Northern Concord would occasionally visit London, which had its own network of trans inclusive clubs and social spaces, to enjoy the novelty of a different city for a weekend. However, for people like Bev, it was her home city of Manchester, the people she met there, the places she visited and most importantly the fun she had while out on a Wednesday night, that fundamentally shaped her experience as a transvestite. According to Jenny Baker this sense of fun defined Northern Concord:

We don’t profess to be saviours of the cross-dressing world, we only know what works for us. The ability to have fun and to be able to laugh at yourself is vitally important, life’s too short to live under a cloud of depression and self pity. That’s why we are a social group, a very social group…

Places like the Rembrandt became sites of celebration, where transfeminine people came together to free themselves of their inhibitions and enjoy their gender identities. The celebratory atmosphere cultivated by Bev and her friends in Northern Concord was at the heart of the community they created in Manchester.

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