As journeys go, Carl Austin Behan's is packed with notable moments. Thrown out of the Royal Air Force in 1997 because of his sexuality, the 44-year-old went on to be crowed Mr Gay UK just four yars later, before making making headlines and history back in May after becoming the first openly gay Lord Mayor of Manchester.
Attitude's Andrew Headspeath sat down with Carl to find out more, from his life growing up gay in north Manchester to the events that led to him being kicked out the military, to his experience of Mr Gay UK and hopes for the the future as one of the most prominent political figures of England's second city...
You were sworn in as Lord Mayor of Manchester in May. How's life been since then?
It’s been really busy, a bit of a whirlwind. I was deputy for 12 months so I knew that I was getting in that position, but now the response has been really positive. I’ve managed quite a few engagements working with Manchester’s LGBT community, so there’s been quite a lot already, whether that’s doing things with the local communities or with Greater Manchester Police.
Was there any negativity surrounding your sexuality before you came into the position?
If it had been a case of ‘Manchester’s new Lord Mayor Councillor Carl Austin-Behan is appointed’ and that was it, and we hadn’t mentioned the fact that of me being gay, I think that could have been a situation that could have ended up being blown up in a negative way via certain parts of the media.
They could have turned round and said, ‘Manchester’s new Lord Mayor is openly gay: shock horror’, and they could have made it out from my past as Mr Gay UK. They would dig up photographs from the past, the fact I was kicked out of the air force, they could have made a lot out of it. Because right from the start being open, upfront and saying it as it is, it’s been more well-received.
We went to the Queen’s public garden party last Tuesday and the response from a lot of the people who attended was how pleased they were to see Manchester being so dynamic. It sounds strange but for somewhere where the Lord Mayor is usually someone who is 65-70 plus, in a traditional black and grey trousers with a black jacket, white shirt, white tie, to have the youngest Lord Mayor who’s openly gay and is quite happy to talk openly and mix with all communities does make a difference.
Going into your tenure, how is being open about your sexuality going to inform your role?
It’s a one-year tenure and it is a more specific role, being out there to promote Manchester; you are Manchester’s first citizen and both myself and Simon, my husband, who is the Lord Mayor’s consort, we’ve been going to a lot of engagements together as a married couple.
I think it’s also about raising awareness. There are still people who are sort of bigoted, unsure of people’s sexuality. I think it’s not a case of throwing it in people’s faces, it’s just a case of being out there and being a part of society, which we all are.
Can you tell us a bit more about your journey to accepting your sexuality?
I grew up in north Manchester and I was probably about 7 when I realised I was a bit different. It took a little while to actually accept that I was gay. I tried to come out when I was 17 first of all, and then I did it again when I was about 19, and then again later on. When I came out to my mum she just kept saying it was a phase I was going through.
When I was 24 I was in the air force at an RAF camp. I had started seeing this girl. She became pregnant, had a miscarriage and I was like, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ I needed to live my life and not be living what society says is right. At the time it was still illegal to be in the air force as gay and that was one of the reasons why I was living a life that was a lie. It took a long time.
Then when we were having the AIDS epidemic at the end of the '80s, early '90s and we thought all gay people were going to die, I was petrified. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m passionate now to work on trying to get people tested, to know what their status is, to try and make sure we’re looking after our society. But it’s not just in our LGBT community, it’s also in our whole community throughout.
What was the story behind you getting kicked out of the RAF?
I’ve got the British Humane Society Bronze Award for Bravery for an aircraft crash, I was on the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for a commander-in-chief’s commendation. I was 24, just getting promoted to corporal and about to get posted near Belgium.
A lad that I was seeing in Manchester at the time didn’t want me to go and he then informed the air force that I was gay, and then when they asked me I just decided to tell the truth. If I had turned around and said no, nothing would’ve been done about it. But it got to the point where I needed to be true to myself and I needed to take control of my life a little bit rather than being in that air force bubble.
When they asked me I just broke down crying and said, ‘Yes it’s true’. They suspended me for six months because the case was being taken to the European Court of Human Rights at the time, then that got put on the back burner like these things do. It was another three years before it was accepted.
I got kicked out in 1997, so then I did a couple of different jobs. I joined the Manchester Fire Service and was the first openly gay firefighter to join. Even though there were some gay men in there, there was no-one 'out' who joined up at the time.
Their diversity and equality was pretty much non-existent. I did that for about 18 months and thought it wasn’t for me. I was very much about my discipline but I think this was a different kind. I joined the fire service to try and please other people rather than pleasing myself. Then in 1999, I left and started my own promotions company with my business partner.
In 1999 I also entered Mr Gay UK, [and] came second in that. Then I entered in 2001 and won it. I'm still passionate about what Mr Gay UK is about because I think it still represents quite a lot of people within the country. Obviously people in Birmingham, Manchester, London and Brighton, have got great representation, we’ve got people there and communities. However, in smaller areas we still don’t have that, there’s a still a lot of bigots and homophobic abuse that takes place.
Just the other week I was talking to a lady who runs an LGBT community workshop and she told me about a couple who who were in Costa Coffee, they were having a small drink, and then this mother with a small child arrived. The child started going up to them, and the mother grabbed the child and said, ‘Don’t you go near them paedophiles!’. I still think we’ve got a lot of challenges out there as a community that we still face on a day to day basis, and that’s why I’m so passionate about the whole Mr Gay UK period of my life. I still fully believe that it’s important.
Why did you try out for Mr Gay UK?
All I could see when I looked at the people who entered the competition was that they were dancers, hairdressers, from musical theatre or were muscle Mary's. And the only representation we really had on the TV at the time were these camp comics. I just thought, 'Well I’ve served in the air force, I’ve got a normal job, I’ve been in the fire service' - yes there’s a uniform associated there *laughs* - but I just felt it’s important to have proper representation from who, at the time, I would class as someone normal instead of these stereotypes. At the time we didn’t really have internet. We weren’t shown as everyday people who get up, go to work and go home.
Has the Mr Gay UK title affected the way people see you?
It was weird because there was still a number of people for quite a few months and years who expected me to be this sort of pretentious w*nker. But when most people meet me they say, ‘Oh, you’re nothing like I expected you to be like!’
And what do they mean by that? The perception of what people are is different, isn’t it? The perception of people who see that or expect you to be a certain way; they think you’re going to be up yourself instead of being yourself. Everything has been mostly positive, and I always support the role of Mr Gay UK. Now, I want to make sure the person that wins it isn’t just going to go off and do a porn film, you know I still believe in the values I think it should be.
So how did your experiences lead you into politics?
After I got kicked out of the air force I didn’t know what I was going to do. I’d never been negative about being kicked out because at the time I believed it was illegal, so at the time I believed it was my call, really. The ironic thing about being kicked out of the air force was that in 2002 we were having Europride come to Manchester in 2003 and because of an interview that I’d done, they actually contacted me to look into how they could get gays to join the RAF.
That’s when in 2003 they brought a big contingent down to promote the Pride parade. I’ve always been positive about things and how you can turn things around. Always turn the negative into a positive and look at it without being judgemental and against everything.
The reason I got into politics is when I lived in the Manchester city centre, I just felt I was always complaining about things. Things that affect people in day to day life. Like drains and cars passing the speed limit, it was just very little things that affect you on a day to day basis. I thought I can do better, I can represent people. I suppose that followed on from Mr Gay UK in a way because I felt that I could make a difference and I could challenge people’s perceptions.
Manchester’s got a very established gay scene and community. Now that it’s got an gay Lord Mayor, what does it mean for the city itself?
I think we just need to turn it into being a positive role, where we can highlight some of the issues we’ve still got within our own communities. We’ve still got problems with the trans community, we still have a massive issue with HIV and AIDS, we still have an issue with certain policies that need to be addressed. If we can try and work over the next 12 months to get our own community working together, that can only be a positive. It can only help in years to come to try and reduce various parts of stigma that’s still around.
I do want to target, help and raise more awareness for our trans community because I think even within the gay, bisexual and lesbian communities they still don’t understand the real impact or responses that we should be having. There’s still quite a lot of fighting. The way that gay men still are, we need to promote the fact that we’re a community rather than we’re all individuals.
And then with HIV and AIDS, Manchester and the North-West have got one of the highest populations of people living with HIV and most of them don’t know that they’ve got the disease. We need to try and look at ways of making HIV tests a lot easier, and for people to know what their status is rather than it being a case of them not knowing and then passing it on. If we make it easier for people to be tested, then it means we can help them and reduce the number of people that are actually living with HIV itself.
By the end of your tenure, what do you want to have achieved?
I want people’s awareness and perceptions to have changed, for people to be more understanding of our LGBT community and for people to remember the fact that we have had representation instead of your typical middle-aged, white man that is normally called as a Lord Mayor. To know that we’ve had representation of our community who’s tried to go out there and do what they can to raise awareness. Even if it’s just been a case of awareness so that you get the message across that we are normal human beings, that’s an achievement in itself.
Interview: Andrew Headspeath
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