Carl Austin-Behan: proud to be Mancunian

The former Lord Mayor of Greater Manchester sits down with Vada to reflect on his varied career fighting for LGBTQ+ equality, working with Andy Burnham during the pandemic, and if he thinks Labour will win the next general election.

The wall behind Carl Austin-Behan is decorated with framed pictures of the Manchester bee. It has become a symbol of hard work and resilience for a northern city that has suffered its fair share of trying times. The bee has been around since the Industrial Revolution, yet it was the bombing of the Manchester Arena in 2017 that saw the it become the city’s reference point of memorial and reflection.

Since then, the city has lived through other challenges, most recently the pandemic. The region was unfairly treated by the government’s lockdown rules and furlough scheme. During that time, Austin-Behan worked alongside Andy Burnham, who would become one of a handful of politicians to make it through lockdown with praise for their leadership style. As Burnham’s LGBTQ+ advisor, Austin-Behan gave a voice to the region’s queer citizens, as part of his continuing desire to create positive change in his local community. And whilst the role might have come to an end in July of this year, Austin-Behan tells me there is still plenty to be done in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality.

“Have you got the rainbow one?” Austin-Behan asks me over a video call, as I comment on his impressive wall display. He briefly goes off screen, returning with a metal pin of the Manchester bee, decorated in rainbow colours. It feels like a “here’s one I made earlier” moment, and I suddenly picture him sitting amongst piles of Manchester-themed memorabilia. He even offers to send it to me in the post, once he comes back from the cruise he’s going on days after our interview. This man, I think to myself, is unapologetically proud to be Mancunian. And why wouldn’t he be?

Since August, Austin-Behan has been working with the LGBT Foundation as the Greater Manchester LGBT Community Ambassador. It’s a job that has taken him away from politics, yet he tells me that it is somewhat similar to the one he has just departed. “The role is pretty much the same, but instead of coming under Labour, I come under the LGBT Foundation umbrella now,” explains Austin-Behan. One of the positives of having a politically-neutral role, is that he is able to “engage with people from all political backgrounds” as well as other LGBTQ+ charities.

Something that Austin-Behan has remarked is the idea of the LGBTQ+ equality movement feeling “London-centric”, and in the north west of England this can feel solely focused on Manchester’s city centre. “For years, if you lived in Rochdale, Oldham, Bolton or Bury, you saw everything as being Manchester-centric,” he says. “But one of the good things about this role with the LGBT Foundation is that we’ve managed to make sure our focus is truly a Greater Manchester one.”

The vocation to make changes to his local area came to Austin-Behan at an early age. It was as a child, delivering the leaflets for the Labour Party, that got him into politics. His parents both went to the local Labour club. In the early noughties, he found himself living in Manchester’s city centre, complaining about the overflowing bins, the state of the canal, and people parking across cycle lanes. “You know, the usual things you see on a daily basis that really get on your nerves,” recalls Austin-Behan.

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He got in touch with the council to voice his concerns. “I remember always complaining, but nothing being done,” he tells me. Austin-Behan requested a walk around the city centre with a member of the council, yet was left disappointed when weeks later he followed up, only to be told they could not recall meeting with him.

It was the notion of wanting to do something about these problems himself that lead him to becoming involved in local politics. “Someone just sowed the seeds saying that maybe I should put myself forward, because I thought that if I want to do anything, I might as well do it myself, rather than moaning about it.”

Once he’d established himself in local politics, it was time for Austin-Behan to push for greater equality for LGBTQ+ people. Reflecting on Manchester’s legacy of activism, Austin-Behan argues that during the late-eighties and early-nineties, he felt the city lead the way with LGBTQ+ equality. “I think in the late-nineties, it sort of lost the weight a little bit. Manchester didn’t have that fight, nor did it have that drive.”

Determined to drive change, Austin-Behan joined the Greater Manchester Police Independent Advisory Group, and chaired the Gay Village’s businesses association. But he had his sights set on another important role. “When I was on the council, I also realised that we had a Lord Mayor who was there to represent the people of Greater Manchester,” says Austin-Behan. He tells me they were usually, “fat white men.” Granted, there had been a handful of women who had held the position over the years, but an openly gay man had not.

When he thought about putting himself forward for the role, he was met by naysayers. “People would say that I was too young, or hadn’t been on the council long enough,” he recalls of that time. “I challenged that, and in 2016 I was elected as not only the youngest Lord Mayor of Manchester, but also the first gay one.”

The emphasis on the later, he admits, wasn’t always easy. In 2001, he was named Mr Gay UK and Austin-Behan was concerned the tabloid press would sexualise his position as Lord Mayor by making reference to his previous achievements. “There is no porn out there,” he says. “But they would have turned it into that story, rather than a story about me being completely transparent about who I was.”

He continues, “That’s what I really liked about it, the fact that from day one, it was all about fighting for equality. It was all about having those difficult conversations with organisations who may not have wanted to have them.”

Austin-Behan is no stranger to said difficult conversations when it comes to discussing LGBTQ+ rights. He was kicked out of the Royal Air Force in 1997, at a time when it was illegal to be gay in the British Armed Forces, and says he could have faced up to six months in prison. “I wanted to fight for equality and for people’s rights,” he says of how he felt after being kicked out of the Royal Air Force. “But I didn’t want to let what happened to me mean that I was defined by my sexuality.”

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It resulted in him joining the fire brigade in 1998, but even here Austin-Behan faced challenges. He was told not to disclose his sexuality, whilst he and his colleagues received so-called training about how to “speak to a gay, and how to act in front of a gay.”

Austin-Behan’s career fighting fires lasted 18 months. “I hated it,” he says. It’s something that he would advice others to do today, should they find themselves in jobs or careers that don’t align with who they are. “Don’t be afraid to take a gable,” he adds. “Because life is too short.”

Next came Mr Gay UK, coming in second place in 1999, before wining the competition in 2001. His motives for competing, he explains, was because he wanted to stand by his convictions and make a change for LGBTQ+ equality. “I realised during that first process, that it wasn’t necessarily just a beauty pageant competition,” he recalls. “It was more to do with the fact that we didn’t have any, I would say, gay role models.”

Whilst he agrees that there were some openly gay people on TV, Austin-Behan felt passionate to dispel certain stereotypes that followed gay men around during that time. “I wanted to normalise being gay,” he explains. “I’d stacked shelves in Asda, I’d done other jobs before that. My sexuality had nothing to do with how I chose to live my life, other than the fact that I was gay.” These experiences, he believes, have allowed him to go beyond other people’s comfort zones when trying to fight for greater equality for LGBTQ+ people and other marginalised groups in society.

Did the person in 2001 think he would ever be Lord Mayor, I ask. Austin-Behan brings up the juxtaposition between being crowned Mr Gay UK and being named Lord Mayor of Greater Manchester. Having paraded down the streets of the city in a pair of hot pants and a sash for Manchester Pride, he reminisces, ten years later he would walk the same route as the Lord Mayor of Greater Manchester, wearing a pink Mayoral robe and chain. “That just proves how far we’ve come with equality, education and understanding,” he says.

His career in politics subsequently progressed, and in 2018 Austin-Behan found himself advising the current Mayor of Greater Manchester and Labour politician, Andy Burnham, on LGBTQ+ equality. It was a unique role, Austin-Behan tells me, in that nobody had ever held the position before. Having successfully established an advisory panel of LGBTQ+ people from across Greater Manchester to provide the queer community with a regional voice, he went on to set up groups for other characteristics, namely gender, religion and disability.

During this time, Austin-Behan’s commitment to LGBTQ+ rights didn’t go unnoticed. In fact, he was honoured with an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2020 New Year Honours list for services to charity, LGBTQ+ equality and the community in Greater Manchester. He was also appointed Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Greater Manchester.

And despite the progress that has been made when it comes to LGBTQ+ equality, Austin-Behan is still as passionate as he was when he started out in activism. “We’ve got about 215,000 people identifying as LGBTQ+ in Greater Manchester,” says Austin-Behan of the need for LGBTQ+ representation in the region. “Whether it’s going to various events, speaking at events, or just being able to be that voice for LGBTQ+ people, my role has been really, really crucial.”

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Speaking of Andy Burnham, I touch on the fact that a lot has been said of his leadership style. During the pandemic, for instance, Burnham was praised for being outspoken about the more stringent lockdown rules for those living in the north of England compared with other parts of the country.

Austin-Behan believes that the way people in Greater Manchester were treated by the government’s lockdown rules was unfair. “The fact that when we had the whole discussion about the furlough scheme and Andy was saying that we, in Greater Manchester, were being treated differently that those down in London, was bang on.”

“The only time that the government changed their mind about the lockdown rules was when we ended up with lockdown in London,” he argues. “In Greater Manchester, we were in lockdown a lot longer than most other places in the country, yet the support from the government just wasn’t there.”

Austin-Behan says that one of the things he respects the most about Burnham is his ability to stand by what he says. “And he stands by making sure that he always fights for it too,” he adds. “And if Andy is wrong, he’ll admit that as well. I think that’s one of the values that I have to give him credit for.”

And what about his critics, I venture. “I think one of Andy’s criticisms is that he says yes to too many things,” he smiles. “He wants to do too much to please people, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

We are speaking just days prior to the Conservative Party leadership election, when media outlets have been reporting on the lack of consistency amongst the two candidates, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. The latter has since been voted in as leader of the party and Prime Minster.

When I ask Austin-Behan to comment about the style of leadership from the two candidates, he says they should take a leaf out of Andy Burnham’s book. “I think a lot of MPs should look at Andy as an inspiration,” he tells me. “As in the fact that you’ve got to stick with what you’ve said, and you’ve got to follow that through. At the moment, if you look at this leadership campaign, nobody’s got a clue about what’s going on. They’re changing their minds left, right and centre.”

Looking at the Labour Party now, I ask Austin-Behan what he thinks Keir Starmer needs to do next. According to Austin-Behan, the focus should be more on the candidates, rather than the political party itself. As he puts it, he votes for the person. “Labour needs to have the right candidates that are going to be standing in the right seats,” he explains. “Not just because they’re career politicians, not just because they’re ticking the right boxes, but they have to be true to who they are, their values, and the Labour Party’s values.”

After over a decade of Conservative premiership, I suppose now the question is will Labour win the next general election? Austin-Behan tells me he hopes so. “I mean if they didn’t win, I don’t know what would become of the Labour Party.”

Carl Austin-Behan OBE DL is featured on Vada’s latest digital cover, photographed by Jake Edwards and Katie O’Neill. He is currently the Greater Manchester LGBTQ+ Community Ambassador at the LGBT Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter.

About Hadley Stewart

Features Editor