Lord Mayor of Manchester: “We need to get LGBT on the agenda in sex education within the schools, it’s got to happen”

Carl Austin-Behan, Manchester’s first openly gay Lord Mayor has remained committed and dedicated to fight for equal rights and has proven himself several times over to be a voice for not only Manchester’s LGBT+ community but is recognised nationally for his continuous efforts and undeniable, on-going support for the LGBT+ community.

Having served as a firefighter in 1997, Carl was kicked out of the RAF due to his sexuality (the discriminatory ban was lifted in 2000) during this time Carl received several awards including Good Show Award for Bravery and The Royal Humane Society Bronze Award for rescuing a pilot from a burning Hawk Aircraft.

Carl not only made history being sworn in as the first openly gay Lord Mayor of Manchester, but he also remains to be the youngest at only 44 years old in the 124-year history of the role. Carl told councillors whilst also quoting a certain legendary Swedish pop-group “You’re going to take me to the test and you’ll let me try. Take a chance on me.” Fabulous!

Carl is now married to Simon Austin-Behan after 12 years together and are said to be overjoyed to become the first same-sex married couple to be Manchester’s first citizens.

Both before and after Carl was sworn in as our Lord Mayor he has taken part in many charitable and voluntary projects including taking part in two charity treks in Malawi raising over £100,000 for Action Aid for children suffering with HIV. 

We here at DESTIGMATIZE launched our project on World AIDS Day 2016 in an attempt to reduce HIV stigma by bringing people up to speed about what it’s like to live with HIV in 2017 by educating people socially through storytelling. Whether you’re HIV positive, HIV negative, straight, cis or LGBT+, we interview and allow others to give themselves a platform to share their stories and opinions/experiences (if relevant) about HIV modern-day living. The only criteria we require, is that our #stigmawarriors have a will to help those currently living with HIV by educating others this is why we were overjoyed when the Lord Mayor of Manchester agreed to have an exclusive interview with us in hopes to raise awareness surrounding HIV stigma.

How are you finding your role as the Lord Mayor of Manchester and is there any other milestones you would like to hit? 

I think one thing that struck me was when I first took on the role as the first, and I know I say this quite strongly about the first openly gay Lord Mayor was the fact that I think we missed a trick in the 80’s when we sort of lead the way for LGBT equality and it’s taken 128 years of Lord Mayor’s to actually have someone out who’s willing to be quite outspoken. If we have had a Lord Mayor who was 60-65, who happened to be gay but wasn’t open about it and wasn’t going to sort of try and promote the LGBT community, I think it would have been a wasted opportunity for someone to fulfill that role so I get some people that turn round to me and say, why do you keep banging on about the gays and why do you keep banging on about LGBT rights? Well, I think it’s been a long time coming and it needed someone that was happy to take some of the criticisms along the way just to try and raise the awareness and  it would have been wrong of me to just have been a Lord Mayor who happened to be gay rather than standing up for our rights and trying to stand up for the amount of work we’ve done in the last 50 years. So I think one of the strong points I did do was say that all I’ve wanted to do was campaign for the LGBT community, try to raise awareness for HIV and AIDS and raise more profile for the trans community.

Something I really don’t understand with people against the trans community, I don’t get what they don’t get. At the end of day they’re human beings that just want respect and I don’t get why people have such an attitude or find it difficult cause they just say ‘oh I just don’t get them’ if that makes sense?

It makes perfect sense to me, unfortunately I don’t know if it would make sense to everyone else but I agree with that actually, more recently I’ve learnt to believe and come to the conclusion that LGB people may have left behind the trans community, would you agree? 

Yeah, oh yeah. I think unfortunately trans are probably 20 years behind the LGB community.

That really upsets me too because we are supposed to be sticking together and we often find a lot of internalised transphobia within our own community too so yes I agree with you on that.

And I’m surprised it took so long for the LGF to become LGBT in the LGBT foundation. But you know we’re there now, we just need to do a lot of work to try and build that up.

I’d like to ask what is the most fulfilling part of being the Lord Mayor of Manchester?

It’s an absolute privilege to have the position and I’ve really gone for it and I’ve really sort of tried to put myself out there to engage with people. The feedback has been brilliant, I think one of the things that I’ve found most overwhelming is there’s been no negativity. There’s been no sort of things in any newspapers and if people wanted to dig up the dirt on me they could have done and when I say that I mean things like if it had just been announced that Manchester’s got a new Lord Mayor and it’s councillor Carl-Austin and then on the Thursday you’d have had something like ‘The Mail’ turning around and saying something like ‘Shock horror! The new Lord Mayor of Manchester happens to be gay’

It’s about being completely transparent from day 1 really and I think it has been really rewarding to know that I think we’ve broken down a lot of barriers and when I’ve gone to schools, one of the nicest things I’ve done, is when I went to a Reddish Vale school and I gave a speech on my life and LGBT diversity, equality and inclusion. I told a story of when I got kicked out of the RAF in 1997 and the kids were more shocked about being kicked out of something for your sexuality and what I then realised without even thinking about it was all these kids grew up after the year 2000 when it was already then legal for gay men to serve in the armed forces. So they were born roughly in 2003 so it made me realise that wow! These people have grown up not knowing that it used to be illegal and one thing that I thought was really sweet about that was that it then made me realise that the children born today are going to grow up in ten or twelve years where it’s acceptably normal for same-sex couples to be treated with the same respect as Mum and Dad, as Dad and Dad and Mum and Mum. It was a strange heart-warming feeling but the kids were really shocked that happened then so in another ten years time when these kids are growing up and are having these conversations in secondary school, it will just be accepted that it’s just part of daily life and I think that’s a really nice way to think how far we’ve come in the last 20 years.

I’ve only been around LGBT+ people from 2004 but already from that point up to where we are now I can already see a significant change and it’s very good but going back to what we said earlier about the trans community, I can’t help but feel that they are stuck at the moment…

Yeah, I think we need to educate the schools and the kids need to educate their parents because I think it’s probably coming down from the top, from the parents, making comments about the trans community, for example ‘a man in a frock’, it’s that sort of image that needs to be addressed and I think schools need to take some responsibility and we need to get LGBT on the agenda in sex education within the schools, it’s got to happen because unless we do that we’re never going to move forward.

That was one of the questions I already had here for you but on top of that question do you think we should implement HIV education into sex education?

Yeah, I remember being gay since I was 7. I went through that whole stage of my Mum telling me that it was a phase that I was going through and there were also society saying that I wasn’t allowed to be gay and then when I was 15 or 16 in around 1987-1988 and we had the whole HIV epidemic and we had the tombstones. I was shitting myself because I thought I was going to die of this disease because the way the media made out the gays were dirty, it was something that y’know, it was your own fault. You had the chief constable of Greater Manchester turning around criticising and making you feel worthless so when you’ve got that and you’re going through – that really messes with people’s heads. No wonder the LGBT community have got probably most of their mental health problems than most communities.

Section 28, what you’ve got to remember was there was people living through that from 1988 up to 2003 where they weren’t even able to speak about being LGBT in schools. At these time of years where you’re trying to get an education and you’re going through your hormones and your sexuality, these were crucial years so the government at the time have a lot to answer for – for mental health when it comes to the way that they treated people living with HIV and AIDS, with the way that the media dealt with HIV and AIDS, with education or anything LGBT related – I think they’re the ones who should held accountable for that.

I wanted to ask you about PrEP – first and foremost have you heard of it and what is your overall opinion?

Yes I’ve heard of it, I’ve been down in London to take part in a campaign which is to try and get a lot more people tested for HIV and it was the day after it was said that PrEP would be available as and when needed and I’m also really trying to push on the fact that we need to have more rapid testing, we need to make it easier for people to get tested. 

I was going to Withington Hospital 2 years ago and it happened to be HIV testing week. I was going for some normal blood tests to be taken from my thyroids, whilst I was there I asked if I could be tested for HIV and they refused because it hadn’t been requested via my GP. This is a hospital that has a GUM clinic, this is a hospital that was supposed to be a community hospital, and they were taking my bloods taken yet they wouldn’t do it even though I had requested it during HIV testing week because it hadn’t been requested by my GP and for them I guess it was just a case of who was going to pay for this test. I spoke with the LGBT Foundation and I also spoke with the George House Trust because I was really disgusted with the fact that I couldn’t get tested during testing week. You should be able to go your own clinic and have your bloods taken for the most basic test and for me to have a HIV test should be basic.

We now have rapid testing with the LGBT Foundation which takes 20 minutes you can now send off for self-testing packs, I understand the counselling side of it all but what we also need to remember is that side of it is completely different now to what it was 15 years ago, even 10 years ago. Now, for me, it’s more about people knowing if they’re HIV positive, knowing what to do, getting the medication they need to take because it won’t kill them, it’s about testing to make sure they can live a healthier life without making a big issue out of it and also to prevent passing it on.

Would you recommend PrEP to any of your friends?

I think because chemsex has become such a big issue now, whatever happens I don’t think you’re going to stop people from doing that, you can educate and that’s a big word. Whatever education you talk about – it’s like people taking drugs in clubs, it’s not going to stop it, they’ll either double-drop before they go in or they’ll get it in there somehow so I think it’s the same with that and if people are going to have unprotected sex then I think

I would rather them take PrEP knowing that they are looking after themselves. In my head there’s nothing different to PrEP than female’s taking the morning-after pill

Yes, I have the exact same view as you on that. A new study has just been released as well to suggest that PrEP could potentially protect you from bacterial STIs such as gonorrhea and chlamydia which would be great because the backlash we had was focused around concern on an increase of other STIs. If we did more research into this and this turned out to be true how would you feel?

Well what you’ve just said there sounds logical – If we can have medication to protect you from contracting HIV if they’re having sex that way then I can’t understand why we can’t have a pill to stop the spread of any other disease – if we can have a pill to stop someone from getting pregnant then why can’t we have a pill to stop an infection like that? But more research needs to go into it.

Carl and myself – Manchester Town Hall

Yes, a lot more research. Going back to your example about the morning-after pill, I agree because I pay my national insurance and it’s not that I have to benefit for the national insurance that I pay but I don’t think minority groups should be excluded…

No and I pay just the same and without trying to make it sound like an argument, how many people do we treat for lung cancer who have spent their whole lives smoking even though they’ve been told not to? How many people do we support in road traffic accidents through drink-driving? The list could go on and if we were just to support people who were ill just through ill health then the NHS would be extremely wealthy.

Those are two amazing amazing examples that I’ve never thought of using! I’ve been challenged on this before…

And when they turn around and tell you it’s a lifestyle choice, drinking’s a lifestyle choice, smoking’s a lifestyle choice and men having sex with women is a lifestyle choice.

I saw you at the World AIDS Day vigil last year. Shortly after the vigil The Beacon of Hope was attacked and I think it was set alight by a group of individuals?

They smashed the tiles up and they it was a couple of people. They tried to pretend that they didn’t really know what it was about they were drunk and I wouldn’t like to think it was a homophobic attack or is an attack on the LGBT community. It was couple of people pissed up just not knowing what they were doing and I’d like to put it down to that rather than trying to read too much into it because otherwise it just becomes as though as it’s a vendetta against the community. Sometimes it’s best to just accept something and think fine I’ll be happy with that. If that’s what you’ve said what happened, If you’ve apologised and you’ve paid to sort it out then let’s not dwell on it too much.

Do you have any general advice for the newly diagnosed? Mainly those who may be feeling confused about what happenes next, feeling scared, or even depressed? Do you have any wise words for them?

I’ll probably say one of the things that’s really important is try and read the information

 that’s in a book form and that’s been verified rather than read about some of the stuff on Google or Wikipedia because that’s when it becomes scary. Get the correct advice acknowledge it, take it in and just remember that it’s not the disease it was and also the fact that the people out there you are willing to support and want to support you and also with your family and friends. Just be honest people and be upfront. Let’s just get talking about HIV and AIDS as if it’s a normal conversation. People are still unsure as to whether they should talk about it, we just need it to be a normal conversation whether you’re on the tram or on the bus talking about what your blood levels are or where you are with your medication that you’re taking. It just needs to be talked about because we all talk about that dreaded word, the stigma attached to HIV. Sometimes I think that as a community, we’ve created a bit of that ourselves by the fact of making out that it is a killer disease and it isn’t anymore. 

I know there was controversy this regarding the vigil at Manchester Pride because it was more of a vigil rather than a HIV vigil, we have World AIDS Day for World AIDS Day which is the purpose for the that vigil. My opinion for Manchester Pride is that it should be an open vigil because we’ve lost family and friends through many instances whether it be hate crimes, even with the Orlando attack and what we’ve got to remember is that at the Pride vigil who may not know anyone who’s died of AIDS and I’d like to think that the Pride vigil is more of a vigil that we remember anybody who we’ve lost who is LGBTQI in our communities and let’s keep World AIDS Day for World AIDS Day like we have TDoR for the Trans Day of Remembrance. So I think that’s another thing I would like to point out as an opinion just because I know there was a lot of controversy about it and that is my opinion.

What would you like to see going forward?

I would like to see… and this is more of a trans issue…

I would like to see gender neutral toilets. I don’t see the point in having to have a separate men’s and women’s toilet even if it was the case of having toilets and urinals or toilets with urinals we shouldn’t be or we shouldn’t have a certain sex toilet in this day and age and I think that would be a big step forward for people accepting the trans community and actually working with them and actually giving them the same respect as what we’re given.

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