In the mid-90s, Canal Street was the flamboyant heart of Manchester’s gay scene. Home to the city’s queer party lovers, Canal Street existed outside Manchester’s world-famous club scene, until, that is, 1999, when the characters of Russell T Davies’ Queer as Folk swaggered onto TV screens and kicked open the doors of queer nightlife to wide-eyed viewers across the nation.
This is the subject of director Stephen Isaac-Wilson’s latest documentary Fleshback: Queer Raving in Manchester’s Twilight Zone, released on independent music platform Boiler Room’s new video content platform 4:3 to mark the 30th anniversary since the enactment of Section 28. As the film’s title suggests, Fleshback tells the story of the collectives who spearheaded Manchester’s queer rave scenes, weaving archival footage together with interviews to take a nostalgic look back at a scene which has not received widespread recognition.
“There have been so many films, books, articles on the effect of the Hacienda, but far less when you intersect queerness,” Stephen explains. “It was an idea I went to Boiler Room with late last year. I came across an article about a night called Homoelectric, run by Luke Unabomber. The party had an ‘anything goes’ nature, and had been going for 20 years, so I was instantly drawn to the idea of exploring how this night, in his words, was helping instigate a queer rave renaissance and also using it as an opportunity to delve into the past social and political queer history of the city. With Boiler Room, we developed the idea to focus on a wider group of queer collectives, and a movement that saw raves moving to Salford and the edges of Manchester city centre.”
As Fleshback makes clear, the collectives may have trodden the same cobbled streets, but their opinions to what queer nightlife should be were as varied as the night’s dress codes. “In many ways [the collectives were] ideologically similar in ethos,” Stephen says. “With practically identical political backdrops, the collectives past and present both centre ideas of euphoria and escapism. They all run nights for music-loving misfits. However, door policies differ slightly. Due to the popularity of Flesh in the 90s, admission for straight ravers was much harder, and at times impossible, whilst current nights Meat Free and High Hoops run LGBT raves that they want to be accessible for everybody.”
Section 28 was instrumental in merging the queer community with the city’s mainstream nightlife. “When researching and talking to contributors, we learnt about the significance of the No1 Club and Flesh, queer nights in the early 90s that did not segregate men and women,” Stephen says. “After the enactment of Section 28 in 1988, our contributors talk about a sense of togetherness in club spaces, and I thought that was an important sentiment to highlight through archive footage.”
In recent years, grainy footage capturing pilled up ravers dancing in fields somewhere in the Home Counties has been referenced heavily by UK filmmakers, but queer rave culture has been left behind. “There would be a number of reasons I suppose; the most obvious one would be that queer history is so easily and often forgotten,” Stephen muses. “A lot of the basis of our research came from the amazing digital archive curated by Abigail Ward called Queer Noise. I learnt so much from it — everyone should check it out. It’s wonderful. I also feel the present day collectives featured in the film have never courted the press, which makes their parties feel a little more sacred. There’s a real sense of authenticity to their nights and what they’re trying to do.”