'The gay community came out in the '90s': book of rediscovered photos celebrates Lancashire's historic gay clubbing scene

The emergence of the northern gay scene in the '90s ushered in an era of self-expression and pride in identity. An era of love and acceptance during a decade unfolding under the twin shadows of Thatcher's abhorrent Section 28, which prohibited governmental 'promotion of homosexuality', and the HIV/AIDS crisis. It was an era of revolution.

By Jack Marshall, Reporter
Monday, 13th December 2021, 4:55 am
Manchester Carnival in 1993/94
Manchester Carnival in 1993/94

Armed with his camera and a remit to document history, Stuart Linden Rhodes had a front-row seat. "I always liked tinkering around with cameras," says Stuart, who's speaking to me from Prague where he's visiting friends. "But I never had any formal training or anything."

A teacher at a college in Harrogate by day, Stuart led something of a double life. Tempted by the 'ludicrous' chance to win a trip on the Orient Express, in 1989 he entered a competition in the gay magazine Scene Out which asked readers to submit a photograph of where they lived along with a review. Stuart, then 32, didn't win but, as a runner-up, got his review published.

And that drew the attention of a certain Terry George, the founder of Mr Gay UK, who'd just launched a new queer magazine called All Points North in Leeds, documenting gay life across the north. He asked Stuart to take over as the mag's scene reviewer. "I thought 'free nights out? I'm up for that'," says Stuart. "I had a great time."

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Blackpool in the '90s

Journeying the length and breadth of the north, Stuart got to experience some of the country's most famous LGBTQ+ bars, pubs, and clubs like Flamingos in Blackpool, Garlands in Liverpool, and the Hacienda in Manchester. He was Stuart Rhodes the teacher by day, and Linden the photographer by night - the man behind the lens as the gay revolution unfurled.

"I'd go to places for the weekend and review as many venues as I could for a two-, three-, four-page spread on the scene in Liverpool, Manchester, Blackpool, Birmingham..." explains Stuart, 64. "It was the beginning of gay tourism - people would read the review, think 'that sounds fun', and come down.

"Blackpool was fantastic," he adds. "London had Brighton and Manchester had Blackpool. I've never known a town with as many gay B&Bs and hotels and stars like Basil Newby created this amazing scene. Flamingos was amazing and The Flying Handbag was a hoot. There was something for everyone. I'd always look forward to a night out in Blackpool."

Documenting a scene truly of its time and a hugely diverse and vibrant crowd populated by all shapes, sixes, colours, and creeds, Stuart had himself come of age in the late '70s and early '80s and so immediately recognised a culture shift as the '90s arrived. "Things in the '80s were very, very different," he says. "The gay community was still largely underground.

Linden's reviews of Preston and Blackpool from the '90s

"It was mid-AIDS epidemic, the age of consent [for homosexuals] was still 21, and gay bars were backstreet pubs left underfunded by breweries because 'it was only the gay community and they don't count'," he adds. "It was secretive. But, when things started to change, they changed rapidly. By '92, the Pet Shop Boys were doing charity events at the Hacienda.

"It sounds cheesy, but the '90s were when the gay community came out."

Breweries soon woke up to the 'pink pound' and, realising that gay was going mainstream, they invested in gay bars and started sponsoring pride events. "At one time, the entire gay community drank Red Stripe because they sponsored pride events," says Stuart. "An element of the revolution passed you by: it was just another gay bar, another club, anther one-nighter.

"But the noticeable revolution was with pride events," he adds. "They went from small intimate affairs in Sackville Gardens with people like Michelle Gayle, Hazell Dean, Nicki French, Boy George, and Julian Clary to something much bigger. It was Mardi Gras, gay carnival; it was integrated with the straight community. That happened so fast.

Paul O'Grady aka Lily Savage

"But people didn't know what was going on behind the scenes," Stuart continues. "People like Paul O'Grady aka Lily Savage would perform in the evenings and visit AIDS wards in the afternoons. We rose above adversity; we danced, pranced, and had a great time, but we were also aware that a huge section of the gay community was at peril and needed support.

"On a night out, there'd always be a poignant moment when the collection bucket came round. And you would put your money in to help people with AIDS."

As the '90s began drawing to a close, Stuart felt himself growing disillusioned. "Doing three or four nights a week was easy when I was young and foolish and full of energy," he says. "I saw the scene change, the music change, and drugs arrive. People no longer walked around with a can of Red Stripe, they had water and were dusting their noses.

"One night, I did a double header - one club in Liverpool and one in Manchester," Stuart adds. "The one in Manchester didn't even open until 2am and I remember being there and thinking 'I hate this'. It just wasn't me anymore, I was done. My days with the nightlife were finished. But, if I could go back and do it all again, I would."

Sir Ian McKellen with Stuart Linden Rhodes

In the Spring of 2020, Stuart was bored. Lockdown was in full effect and he had turned to clearing out the attic where he came across all his negatives from the '90s. He spent the best part of a year scanning them and, after wondering what to do with them, started an Instagram account to display them on a whim. Out & About with Linden proved to be very popular indeed.

"We've all got that job which we'll get around to 'one day'," says Stuart. "For some reason, I'd kept all these negatives and they'd sat on a shelf for 30 years but, when lockdown came and after I'd had enough of telly, books, and radio, I got them out. And it all came back to me.

"The feedback I got on Instagram was amazing, far beyond what I'd expected," he adds. "I got comments saying 'oh my god, what was I wearing?' and 'look at my hair, what was I thinking?', but I also got ones about loved ones people had lost thanking me for sharing a picture of a loved one which they'd not seen."

After a while, requests for a book started to pour in. During an interview, TV producer Joe Ingham offered to help Stuart bring the project to life and so the pair edited the archive and started to approach publishers but, dissatisfied with how they proposed to chop the project up, decided instead to take to Kickstarter to fund it themselves.

The book, named Out and About With Linden and set for release in February having reached its £8,000 fundraising target after just a few weeks, features never-before-seen images of celebrities who experienced the '90s northern gay scene first-hand such as pre-Spice Girls Mel B, Angie Brown, David Hoyle, Su Pollard, Heather Small, Denise Welch, and Kelly Wilde.

Keen to put the images into proper historical context, Stuart and Joe approached each of the celebrities who crop up in the pictures to ask them to write about their recollections of the time. All agreed, with their contributions joined by other memories of the time offered by performers, patrons, and punters keen to take a trip down memory lane to a truly unique time.

Out and About with Linden book cover (featuring dancer Louie Spence on the right)

"The book is a celebration of gay life in the '90s in the north," says Stuart, with the foreword having been written by Blackpool-born performance artist and writer Harry Clayton-Wright "I hope people see it as a photographic history of the scene which came before and on which today's gay community is built.

"Each generation takes things for granted, so this is an opportunity to see that 'before' which helped get us to where we are today," he adds. "It brings history to life."