For Sexual Health Week 2017 we asked community members to share their experiences of exploring pleasurable sex and how sexual health provisions have supported them along the way. Adrian has been a part of Alert! Manchester's monthly fetish event, making gear and gags a comfortable experience for it's many attendees looking to explore kink and voyeurism in a safe space.
I’m Adrian, I’m 50, I live in Salford. If I am known at all it is probably because I am the short, dumpy, somewhat weathered face of Alert!, the monthly fetish event that takes place in The Village. I wish I could take all the credit; in fact, there is a whole team of us who make it happen every month, but I’m the only one what has been there from the start, which was some 14 years ago now.
I’m often asked whether a night like Alert! is still relevant, usually by some passing, pissed-up, partied-out pretty who has seen a couple of cheeky chaps in their cheeky chaps and wants a go on the guys in gear, as if we were fairground rides. I ask myself those questions too because if the event becomes irrelevant then there is no value in us running it. Each time I come back with a resounding YES.
Let me try to explain. I have a somewhat polemic view on the way equality is going. Don’t’ get me wrong, I am all for equal rights, laws that treat us equally, be we gay, bi, lesbian, trans, or any other colour of the rainbow. But we must be careful not to let it homogenise, kill individuality, force us to adopt traditionally straight models for life, sex and fun if they do not apply or have relevance to the way we want to live our lives. The rainbow is beautiful, brilliant and brave but mix all the colours together and you get dreary, dirty, dull. I want equality that allows for individuality, not that imposes conformity.
We have guys who come to Alert! from villages and towns where they do not feel comfortable expressing their sexuality in public. How many LGBTQ people feel comfortable holding their partner’s hand in the street, or kissing them, or showing any sign of affection’ let alone do that in rubber? We try to provide an oasis where for a few hours every month that is allowed, welcomed, wanted.
Manchester is probably one of the most gay-tolerant cities in the country but Alert! pulls in people from all over the UK and for some guys this is the only time they can dress in the gear that makes them feel good and be amongst other guys with no fear of judgement. You can’t have fun if you are living in fear, you can’t have fun if you think everyone around you is judging you harshly and you can’t have fun if you are unable to protect yourself when you want to. So, we try to provide somewhere, sometime, someway that people can have fun.
Access to gay sex has changed massively since I came out. I lived in Middlesbrough, with its one gay-friendly pub, where you arrived and left in groups for fear of being bottled, beaten, bullied and broken. It wasn’t fun but in an odd way, looking back, it was exciting. You felt like you were on the edge of what was legal, safe and sensible.
Just as attitudes started to soften and the internet meant dates could happen easier and quicker than the previous regime of replying to ads in the local free paper (SWGM seek similar for LTR), the tombstone adverts hit our screens and for a while every rash, every ache, bump, bruise, pain or headache left you in dreaded fear. Friends started to become ill and collectively (in Middlesbrough at least) we were ostracised, excluded, feared. For me, gay life went underground again and became ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, this time not because it was illegal but because it was deadly. HIV/AIDS had arrived, kicking us back to the dark ages. It took a while to recover from that and realise that safer sex was possible, infection was not a death sentence and that you could still have fun without fear.
And then I discovered Manchester, Legends, Canal Street and suddenly sex became exciting, simply because it was everywhere. Suddenly it was allowed, abundant and available. We flocked around the village from Company to The Rem to The Outpost, Legends Essential, Sub 101 and we were at it like rabbits. The Village exploded in a riot of pride, passion, perversion and promiscuity. It was fun again. For a while at least.
But we, the fetish community, started to feel less welcome on The Street and more at home in the outskirts, on the fringes. We didn’t really suit the glitter and gaiety of G-A-Y, Queer, Via Fossa or many of the other bars on the strip. It was not a coincidence that The Outpost was so named – it, and Legends/Chains/Rockies were on the very edge of the Village,the outskirts for the outcast. To all intents, we were pushed out to the margins, flotsam washed up in the gutter. I could write a book on the history of the Legends building, how it saw many of the significant moments in the fight to establish gay rights in the UK. It always had a feeling of being just outside the mainstream, catering for the groups who were washed out of the Village and washed up on its shore.
Alert! grew out of that need for freedom to be individual, whilst still having a need to congregate with others of the same ilk, interests, insecurities and anxieties. When it started there was no other regular fetish event in the city. Thankfully that situation improved when the Eagle opened, Manfest shone for a while, Kink too, the Rem Remains, but then seven years ago Legends was bulldozed and, determined to continue, we moved Alert! to Alter Ego.
Today I see the smartphone apps pull people out of the Village and into private parties. I worry that their access to safer sex paraphernalia is massively reduced. Chem sex parties are certainly not my thing but I wonder if they are not an attempt to regain that excitement of being on the edge of legality, safety and sanity. But I fear the reality differs from the dream. Where really is the fun in sitting dazed, and delirious on dirty drugs dished out by dodgy dealers, desperately seeking your next shag? We do what we can to encourage people to come out to events like Alert! where at least they can stock up on condoms and where the LGBT Foundation Outreach team are on hand to offer advice and support.
This is a turbulent time for Alert! as we are about to lose our venue yet again. Alter Ego has been our home on and off for several years and is being turned into a Northern Soul/live music club aimed at the straight community. The Gay Village has lost so many venues over the last two years, with more due to be turned into hotels, apartments, apart-hotels and ‘family owned’ town houses. I wonder whether we have not already passed the tipping point in the gentrification of Canal Street and its environs. I wonder where people will go to access safer sex support services. Its more than that even though. Alert! is a meeting place, a social environment for people who otherwise have nowhere to socialise. I can tell stories of couples who met at Alert! and are now married, people who tell me that coming to Alert! allowed them to explore their own sexuality and grow into a person they are proud to be, and people who only get to be themselves at fetish events. But I want the whole village, not just fetish nights, to be safe and fun.
Maybe fetish gear is just a funny form of fancy dress, but even now many don’t understand our love for leather, regard for rubber, or predilection to become a playful pup. Could we walk into a Weatherspoons wearing chaps? Would Yates’ welcome a rubber-suited, masked pup with nobody blinking an eye? I don’t think so. That tells me that we still need fetish venues that hold true to a strict door policy. We need the Eagle and Company Bar to stay gay. We still need our safe spaces. I am sure that Alert! will continue, somehow, somewhere. Especially if the community rallies and we stick together.
If I have two mantras for Alert! they would be ‘Together we are strong’ and ‘Fun without fear’.
Between The Sheets is part of LGBT Foundation's #SexWithoutShame campaign, empowering LGBT people to talk openly about their sex lives and the experiences they've had along the way.