Pat McCusker: Full Interview
Interview by Rachel Larman
27th September 2018
RL: Rachel Larman for West Yorkshire Queer Stories. It’s the 27th of September 2018 and I’m with Pat, who’s going to introduce himself.
PM: Hi, I’m Pat. I was born on the 25th September 1984. I think first I would identify as leather, and then as a man, and then as gay. I have been working for MESMAC since 2011 but have been interested in HIV prevention for many years. I now manage the Wakefield service, but have worked all across where MESMAC works, including North Yorkshire and Leeds.
RL: Okay, so can you tell me more about your work at MESMAC?
PM: Okay. So I began in the organisation as a community development worker in Leeds, and that work was really to focus on the needs of gay and bisexual men, and particularly their HIV prevention needs, rather than supporting gay and bisexual men who are living with HIV. So that involved lots of testing. Leeds is fairly singular in being the largest metropolitan area in which we work, and the place with the highest HIV incidence and prevalence, where we work. And the greatest burden of infection across Leeds has always been amongst gay and bisexual men. It’s actually quite a small contract for the amount of work that it involves. It involves lots of outreach and to scene venues, Leeds having the largest commercial gay scene in our areas, including, at the time, two saunas; lots of cruising grounds; lots of bars; lots of smaller queer venues, where men would seek to socialise and negotiate sex and relationships.
So, when I first began working in the organisation, it was after quite a turbulent time in my personal life, and the sort of breakdown beginning of a relationship, a kind of wider acceptance of certain parts of my own identity, and also the loss of a very dear daddy, who was diagnosed in 1986 but passed in about 2010 of complications due to drug resistance – he was put on very early treatments – and those kinds of experiences, both in terms of... becoming more comfortable in my identity, particularly as a leather person, losing Ian and settling into a relationship meant that I felt that I wanted to do something for gay and bisexual men.
So, yeah, I began working at MESMAC, and began training on how to do HIV tests. The person who trained me at the time was Tom Hunt, who sadly left the organisation a couple of years ago, and for many years it was Tom and myself doing all the work that is now done by quite a larger team of people, including all the postal condom packing, and I, y’know I will confess that I did leave Tom to do a lot of that because I find it too boring. And at the time as well, I think we were, we were lucky if we’d do maybe 300 or so HIV tests in a year.
We were always really good at finding people who had HIV, so the NICE guidelines around the cost effective HIV prevention service, or at least one that offers testing, is that in the UK, with a kind of background prevalence of around 1% you’d expect at least one in 1,000 tests to be positive, and we’d be averaging about one in 100 tests done I guess by gay and bisexual men, and men who have sex with men. So yeah, [?] blocks of HIV, learning an awful lot about… the way gay men in West Yorkshire negotiate their sex lives, and the sorts of problems that gay and bisexual men faced in terms of the pervasiveness of HIV stigma and fear. And the… and the ways in which that structured sex and intimacy and the ways in which it kind of can fuck people up. So, at the time, we weren’t living in a U=U era, and we weren’t living in a PrEP era. We were kind of living in a condoms-only era and y’know, probably working in a sexual health service you see a self-selecting sample of gay and bisexual men who don’t use condoms or use them infrequently, and y’know come in very nervous, very scared, very distrustful of their partners, and with this kind of… stigma hanging over them, yeah. And that’s slowly begun to change, I think, and I think that’s been one of the biggest changes I’ve seen in working in MESMAC.
So, times were, people would come in and they’d say something like, ‘oh well he told me he was positive’ or ‘her friend told me he was positive, but we had sex without a condom, and I’m so fucking angry with him’ and y’know, ‘I’m so… scared and fearful of him and of his HIV’, and that began to change just recently, and at the time, y’know, the sorts of advice that we could give changed as well. So, at the time, we would say things like, y’know, people have a right to nondisclosure, we’ve always been really consistent in affirming HIV, people living with HIV’s right to nondisclosure. But we’d say, anyone who is living with HIV and having sex without a condom is at risk of passing on the virus, whether or not they were on medication, because we simply didn’t know that the medication would make people effective in the way that we do now – would make people uninfectious in the way that we do now. So that sort of changed our working practice quite a lot, and it changed the sorts of messages we were able to give to people, and kind of calmed people down in the context of having sex with somebody living with HIV, which is a fairly significant change to the fear that gay men were living with in the late ‘90s, early 2000s. So, yeah, that was a big change.
So, after working in Leeds – oh one of the big things that happened in Leeds, actually, was we set up a clinic in Steam Sauna. Now, Steam at the time was one of the biggest saunas in the UK. I think, I remember talking to the owner and them saying that they get a footfall of a few hundred men every Saturday night, a few hundred different men every Saturday night. So it was always really busy. And we were in there quite often, finding tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of HIV. And, yeah, that setting up that clinic sort of changed the map of HIV and STI prevalence around the city, cos there was just this whole well of undiagnosed infection from men who were not using sexual health services as often as they perhaps should be, who suddenly found it more accessible, and we were reaching men who didn’t identify as gay but were having condomless receptive anal sex with other men and were therefore at risk, and that felt really, like, fulfilling work, like finding all those men, finding all that infection, making services more accessible and acceptable and, y’know, putting good, compassionate, trained clinical workers in the context of the highest risk environment was great.
So, yeah did that for a while, and then moved to manage the York and North Yorkshire prevention services in about 2014/15, and that’s very different work. So, there are – at the time there was one gay bar in York, no saunas; there was one gay bar in Harrogate, which sort of was a gay bar but wasn’t; and one gay night in Scarborough. And the majority of the sex that was happening between men was either negotiated on the apps or it was negotiated in laybys and stuff like that. So, whereas in Leeds you could like roll out of bed and fall on a gay or bisexual man, you really had to meet that community’s needs in York and North Yorkshire and do lots of travelling. And it felt like… like the difference between a rock song and a bit of drone music in terms of the busyness. So, like, North Yorkshire would kind of drone, and every once in a while you’d meet somebody who needed your help, and comparatively, the amount of tests we were doing and the amount of HIV we were identifying, the amount of infections in general, was so much lower. So, y’know, when I left the Leeds service we were doing something like 700 tests a year, and y’know seeing many thousands of people in the course of a year. Whereas in York and North Yorkshire we’d perhaps see 200 individual service users in a quarter, and y’know we were lucky if we did 100 tests, so it was very, very different. And the needs of people were very different as well, so I think whilst the community was smaller, the sorts of stigmas that men experienced were higher. So, I think the kind of homo-negativity gay and bisexual men would experience in rural settings was really different to settings like a large metropolitan city. So there was lots of kind of depressed and lonely gay men, which was different.
RL: How were you reaching out to them, how were you finding them?
PM: So – online, a lot of the time. Yeah, so lots of online promotion; through group work; also through like assertive outreach stuff to public sector environments. One of the things I kind of learnt in the context of that work was that the public sector environments in York and North Yorkshire weren’t just spaces for a quick fuck, they were more like social spaces. So you’d go and like people would make these sort of weird, oh god, what’s the name of that artist? Is it Goldsworthy? You know those big dens, yeah [laughs] and people would just like hang around and smoke in them, so there wouldn’t really be that much action, it’d just be these old farmer dudes like smoking in these strange dens and sitting around kind of like bitching, sitting around kind of bitching with one another and then kind of you got the sense that every once in a while someone fresh would come along and that’s when the sex would happen, and that’s how they’d kind of describe it, I think they were all a bit bored with one another. So yeah, it was strange to see that change, like, people would really engage with you, and want to get chatting and be pleased to see you, whereas if you go to like a cruising ground in Leeds you’d turn up and normally there would be a quick shuffle while someone was like getting their trousers up as you’d turn round the bend with the other worker kind of thing, and then people would run, and not want to talk to you.
RL: So where would the cruising grounds be in Leeds that you’d go to?
PM: So, the largest one… so there were one, two, three really big ones. What were their names now? Fleet Lane, Black Hill Lane, and… the… the Ridge in Armley, the one that’s kind of, y’know that sort of car park that is on your right as you head up to where that large pet shop is, yeah? It’s there. But that place actually has got a really strange history. If you get an opportunity, you should talk to Phil about that – so there was like um, it’s been a cruising ground for a very, very, very long time. So people would talk about cruising up there in the 80s and stuff, and it’d been the site of quite a bit of violence over the years, but it also was really characteristically gay. Like, there’d always be like strange bits of lacy underwear from the trans women that used the spot. There was a tree which had been like worn smooth from having people bent over it. And there was like lots of warnings and phone numbers and y’know little bitchy messages, either carved into the trees or written onto the railings and stuff, and the place was littered with condoms and used needles and bottles of poppers and empty cans of beer and stuff. But then it really changed. The ‘bumming tree’, as it was [laughs] as it was affectionately called, was unfortunately chopped down, and I think as part of a wider programme of renewal and gentrification the cruising got moved from there. But there are some really like sort of scary stories as well – Phil tells one about that cruising ground: his young, vulnerable mate used to go up there fairly regularly and was murdered up there and hung from a… a suitcase from a tree. Yeah, so it’s got this really strange kind of mix of pleasure and hanging out but also fear. So yeah, it was, it was odd place.
And the other one was Black Hill Lane and that’s a kinda like classier version of a cruising ground. Like, so that one’s like – people drive up there in their Audis, there are people there on their lunchbreak, it’s very like an older set of people, but people with money, y’know people who can get out of town. And then the other really big one was Fleet Lane, with is near Oulton, and that one, again, you had to travel to it, so it sort of changed – you couldn’t get there by bus, which is different to Armley cruising ground, and that changed the demographic. It was a lot of South Leeds people; it was… also quite dingy, there was always empty bottles of poppers, lots of condoms, lots of like, woodland porn and like lacy knickers and stuff like that, so it was quite, it was quite skanky, it’s skankier than Black Hill, but it was still a lot of people driving fairly posh cars. I think they went there because they liked a bit of rough. Yeah [laughs]
And then the ones in North Yorkshire were different again, none of those were accessible by bus, but y’know that really kind of speaks to the isolated condition of young LGBT people in North Yorkshire anyway, like it’s really difficult to get out of these sort of small conurbations and a lot of young LGBT people and older LGBT people suffer tremendously from isolation, so part of the deal of breaking that isolation for lots of people is car ownership. So there’s this really big intersection between people’s developing LGBT identity and driving. So, yeah. They were super nice, like there’s one in Selby called Black Wood, and it’s probably the most picturesque cruising ground, it’s like being in Twin Peaks or something, it’s really lovely. And there’s A19 and A59, they’re just on the outskirts of York, or the outskirts of Harrogate, and again as you’d imagine like York and Harrogate they’re a classier [laughs] a classier version of a cruising ground. And then there are other smaller ones, dotted throughout North Yorkshire.
But most of the gay and bisexual men that we’d meet would either come to Leeds to negotiate sex intimacy, or they would move – y’know, part of the supportive work that we’d do with them would often be: ‘if you’re single, you’re gonna struggle to find a boyfriend round here, you might consider moving’. So yeah it was very different, but it was also very different in as much as no Africans really at all, whereas in Leeds we also had a smattering of African work, despite not being commissioned to do it. And yeah, I didn’t like it, that much. Yeah, I didn’t like it that much. So, I left, and started working in Wakefield.
RL: When was that?
PM: That was last year, yeah. And it wasn’t – the team were wonderful, apart from one – the team were wonderful – so it wasn’t anything to do with them, it was more to do with the nature of the work. So moving to Wakefield was like moving back to Leeds, so there were people who needed a service much more. And also it meant beginning work supporting people living with HIV, instead of just seeking out HIV to diagnose or prevent, and that changed my perceptions of the role MESMAC and the things that we do considerably.
And it’s the first time that I’d ever, for example, worked with a mum living with HIV, and that was a really big eye-opener, y’know, helping a mum get her formula milk and negotiate cultural expectations around breast-feeding. Y’know helping a mum negotiate with maternity services as well, y’know one of the things that happened really early doors was that we had a mum who actually had biohazard signs put up on her private room in the hospital because people saw on her notes that she was living with HIV, so she got some like barrier nursing and stuff, despite being undetectable, and of course that had a really, massive impact on her sense of wellbeing and her bonding with her new baby, so it was really, y’know, an eye-opener to see how HIV, ignorant HIV stigma works in clinical settings still, even. So yeah, that was quite an eye-opener.
But moving back – moving too Wakefield, the kind of profile of service user change back to something like how it was in Leeds, but Wakefield does still have quite a large gay male population, y’know it has, manages to support two gay bars; has lots of young LGBT people; has lots of people coming in for tests who are disclosing condom-less sex and stuff. But it also meant doing much more asylum work, which has always been one of my favourite things to do at MESMAC. So part of the story that got omitted from the Leeds stuff was – so, throughout the course of MESMAC’s history, we have done some work with LGBT asylum seekers. The need seemed to ramp up in about 2012/13 and me and the person who was a volunteer at the time, called Jess, decided to start a group called Reach Out and we supported loads of LGBT asylum seekers. But one in particular was a huge bit of work, and y’know he reached the – he was in Pink News, and the Guardian, and we were on TV supporting him. He was a bisexual guy from Jamaica. And that work was incredible. Like, I loved it. It was really stressful, cos we were convinced that he would be deported. And, like, y’know, over the years there were a number of deportations of people we knew to be gay, including one to Cameroon, which, y’know, the experience of having that happen was really terrifying. That you knew proof-positive that someone was being gay but they were being denied their right to safety and freedom.
And, yeah, so doing that work really got me interested in doing asylum justice stuff in the context of MESMAC, and moving to Wakefield to start doing services here – one of the big things that we have is the Urban House, which is an asylum immigration centre, and we go in twice a week to do testing, find quite a substantial burden of infection, but other, y’know, needs like traumatised people, women who’ve survived FGM, depression, LGBT people seeking asylum, and y’know that ability to do even minimal sexual health interventions feels like good asylum justice work in that context. It’s been quite a wide-ranging conversation hasn’t it?
RL: Should I pause at that point?
So could you tell me a little bit about how your work has changed, in terms of changes with HIV prevention?
PM: So, in, I think it was 2013 the Proud study began recruiting men, unfortunately the Leeds clinic didn’t recruit onto the Proud study, but the York clinic did. And, at the time I remember having some real misgivings around PrEP on a kind of… almost Foucauldian like objection. So, I remember like… being concerned about the ways in which gay male sex was becoming a matter of like bio-power and I was resistant to this notion that gay male sex should be medicalised. And, like, looking back on that, those are real twatty ways of thinking. And, I think – I remember thinking, ‘why would I ever take a pill to have sex?’ Yeah… But then I started reading some of the PrEP studies that had, well had pre-dated Proud. There was some data emerging from Ipergay, there was also the iPrEX study, which were all demonstrating a really profound preventative effect, and that kind of shut me up, to be honest. And it was just about the time of Proud that I started playing with a guy who was living with HIV fairly regularly. And he’d always have an overstock of Truvada.
So I think I began taking PrEP as my primary means of HIV prevention in about… 2014/15, and I think the Proud study results came 15/16, which demonstrated this incredible preventative effect. So, around that sort of time, I was taking PrEP and not telling anyone in work about it even, because I was worried about the ways in which that would identify me as somebody who, one, like to play raw; two, was doing something medical without medical assistance, y’know without getting my kidneys checked and stuff like that; and three, whilst sort of… feelings around PrEP in the organisation were still a bit hot, they were like, how do we adjust to this? And y’know other people that worked here would be figuring out their own y’know feelings and concerns in the light of such a big change. And I remember, yeah, I think we were having clinical supervision, and I was sort of saying, lying at the time that I was speculating whether or not I would use PrEP and the sorts of contexts in which I would use it, y’know the reality was that I’d been taking it for about six months. When we’d had a clinical supervision and I sort of said, ‘well look, like, I know my condom use is generally pretty good’ – lie – ‘but I know that when I go to Berlin I’m probably at a higher standing risk of contracting HIV’ – truth – ‘so I imagine that I would just take PrEP if I was going on holiday’. And the person who was delivering the clinical supervision went, ‘mmm, yes, but would it not just be better for you to come home and get PEP?’, and I said, ‘well, would it not just be better for me not to have the awkward situation about the sex that I had in Berlin and get on with it?’ Which made everybody in the room sort of laugh, but it was a real test of, it felt to me like a real test of where people were at, y’know, in making that change in their heads, where people were adjusting to this new reality: we had a pill that could prevent HIV and we didn’t necessarily have to tell people about consistent condom use and testing, which was the only message we were able to use at the time and it wasn’t really working – I think it was fucking people up; I felt like it was fucking me up.
So, yeah, when the Proud study results came out, they were profound. Then people started coming to the organisation and asking for advice and asking for information about where to get hold of this, and, y’know, wanting to do activism and push for PrEP to become more widely available. And I remember, as well, this was before any of the big London clinics had said, ‘we will support people who are purchasing their own PrEP’. There was some significant push from clinicians around, ‘ well we can’t sanction or support somebody who’s buying medication online, how do we know that that medication’s safe?’ or ‘we’re not commissioned to be able to provide people with therapeutic drug monitoring, or with kidney checks, which people need if they’re gonna start taking PrEP, so how do we fit that within our service? We may very well have to turn people away’. And there were some really excellent clinicians at that time who were being really proactive with commissioners and such to say, ‘we must support these men; these men are, y’know, absolutely the highest risk and the people who’re most in need of sexual health services and stuff’, and there were people who were just trying to keep themselves well, in the context of an epidemic.
So, yeah, it felt better, easier, safer to start being more honest about my PrEP use, within the organisation, and not just amongst people that I was playing with, at that time. And… it has changed the ways in which I talk to gay men about sex. So, I remember this really profound HIV test, actually, that I had with a service user who’s really bright and really handsome as well, and we were talking about the risks that he’d been taking. And I was sort of having the PrEP chat with him and he smiled and went, ‘this is the new sensible, isn’t it?’ And I said, ‘yes, yeah, it’s the new sensible’. And that… yeah, that recognition of that paradigm shift, yes it felt paradigmatic, it felt like a paradigm shift. And, y’know, the PARTNER study was another paradigm shift as well, and those two things happened really close together and I think I’m just kind of getting my head around the ways in which the PARTNER study and PARTNER 2 have absolutely changed the landscape to what it is to be a gay man living with HIV.
So, y’know, I have a dear friend who has been living with HIV since – I think he was diagnosed in ’90, maybe ’89 – and just recently he, on reading the PARTNER 1, said to me, ‘I feel like the fear is gone. I feel like knowing I’m undetectable means the fear is gone, and the guilt is gone, and my husband and I can have sex’ and not [be] fearful about his next test result, which, y’know that was paradigmatic as well, it was a powerful anti-stigma and anti-shame moment. And it certainly helped the support of HIV positive people – helped me in the support of HIV positive people, cos it feels like there’s a carrot at the end of the things you’re saying about adherence to medication now, which is: ‘you can fuck raw now, if you want to’. So, yeah.
RL: So can you tell me about queer life in Leeds?
PM: Okay, so I moved to Leeds in about 2006/2007. I’d just finished my undergrad and I’d moved to do my first masters, and I did a masters in cultural studies and critical theory, and at the time there was some big identity things going on for me. There was the breakdown of one relationship and the beginning of another. And there was a sort of different sets of coming outs, going back ins. So, around 2007 I picked up a copy of the Research books – d’you know those books? So there was one in particular – two in particular actually; there was one on industrial music and another one called The Modern Primitives, and they kind of rewired my head. And I was reading those; I was also reading A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari, and I was reading Cruising Utopia and The History of Sexuality, On Hospitality and Forgiveness as well, that was a really big text for me at the time. Oh, and Bodies That Matter, yeah. Bodies That Matter was really significant, at that time for me.
And there was a kind of like recognition of something more than gayness, something – something political, something queer was going on at the time, and in that kind of context of recognition and experimentation I moved on to some of the queer squats and parties that were happening in Leeds at that point. There was like one in particular, which was the – oh, what was it called? The Manifester [?] squat at the nunnery, which was like a weekend squat. A good friend of mine, Rowan, who unfortunately has moved out of Leeds but recently started talking about coming back, he and I went, and Rowan was a filmmaker, and I think that they invited him because he had a camera, and they wanted him to film this like really appallingly tacky porn. And it – yeah, some of that stuff around performativity, identity, experimentation, play, that I had been reading, particularly in the research books, and in Cruising Utopia was kind of confirmed or y’know there was like suddenly a space for this non-theoretical exploration of identity in terms other than gay. It was my first exposure to like non-binary people and to… trans people who were less concerned with passing, y’know trans people whose account of their own gendered experience was not simply, ‘I was born in the wrong body’, but more, ‘my body is a playground’. And… at that point I began to like really seriously consider my own identity, and it was in the context of a few relationships and a few friendships where… leather became a thing. And, y’know, I would now think of y’know, when asked to talk personally about my identity, I think I would give a leather-first answer before I would necessarily even male or queer or gay. And that, that self-recognition happened in the context of those parties. And it also happened in the context of what became Recon.
So, before Recon there was like different leather and BDSM boards on the internet which were kinda subsumed into Recon in about 2011? Yeah. So the online environment for that changed as well as the physical environment. So, to talk about some of those parties. The squat in the nunnery was really significant. Some friends who later went on to open Wharf, who were also sort of involved in the Common Place, and were part of DIY communities and cultures from the Brudenell; and the big house on Ash Grove also had a squat, the Valley House squat, which was in Headingley opposite the Bear Pits. And, I’m trying to think what years they had that now. So it must’ve been, must’ve been – I’d finished my masters, I was working… 2009/10/11. They had it, that collective of people who later became very involved in Wharf had it, and then an older collective of people, Aspire, they had it for a short while as well before it was taken back. And there was lots of queer life there. Much like Wharf, it never called itself a queer space, but it was used by queer people for queer reasons.
RL: What does that mean?
PM: So, in Wharf’s constitution and in all of its kinds of rules and documentations, or even if you look at the stuff that Wharf writes about itself online, Wharf has never identified itself as queer, and neither did Valley House. Nonetheless, queer people use it, people use it to hook up, for club nights, for their parties, people use it for all sorts of different queer reasons, y’know – and oh, that was another thing…
It was around that time that people began to start talking about safety, which was a huge change to the way people partied, and y’know it remains so contentious to this day. So, y’know, one of the things we’ve done at Wharf is the Safer Spaces Agreement, which sets out standards of behaviour and expectations that y’know we have of people who use the space in terms of keeping it safe for one another. I think we were one of the first places in the country to do that. It was borrowed from a more Berlin kind of culture, certainly that was where I was first exposed to safer spaces policies and agreements. Y’know, I believe that’s a little older, and may even be a product of US queer stuff, but it was definitely in Berlin where I first became aware of them. And I remember it was around that transitional period between Valley House and Wharf where queer life became suffused with this discourse around safety. And it became part of the ways in which queer marked itself out.
So, in the transitional period between the Common Place and Wharf, there was a queer night that used to be put on called… Suck My Left One, which helped me figure a lot of stuff out. And then there was Sapphic Traffic. And I remember there being a safer spaces policy for Sapphic Traffic – there wasn’t a safer spaces policy for the Common Place, if I remember correctly, but there was for Sapphic Traffic. And I remember these kids – I say kids, some of them are dear friends now, actually – like these sashes which said: ‘Safer Space Cadet’, and y’know they were meant to be the… bouncers? I dunno, somebody you would talk to if you were worried about your safety. Party monitors, maybe. And that was a real shift, that was a real shift from… yeah, and it changed the things that happened at parties as well. It changed what went on, like some of my first experiences of queer parties in London, around that time, particularly the more play-y, industrial-y parties, were that they felt – there was an edge to them, they felt edgy. The drugs people were taking weren’t lovey drugs, they were edgy drugs. The play that was happening there was edgy. People were dressed in edgy ways and it felt tough and grimy and very different to this kind of y’know – and the music was hard, it was like techno and gabba, electro, y’know it was tough. But that changed. It became more like… ‘yippee look at my little sash’ and, ‘I’m gonna listen to Katy Perry and sort of giggle with my buds about unicorns’ and stuff like that. And that change in queer nightlife, that felt paradigmatic. And I remember it happening around the same time as this discourse around safety.
Though I wonder, as much as that discourse around safety is valuable and y’know it’s important for queers to have safer spaces, particularly spaces which are free from harassment and abuse, I wonder if we have changed… I wonder if one of the things that we’ve lost in that moment was some of the edge. Which, y’know, is also very valuable and significant in the ways in which some people negotiate their identity. Nonetheless, I think it’s absolutely valuable that places like Wharf have a safer spaces policy. I would – I would never say that they wouldn’t, I sometimes want to shift the onus and expectation of safer spaces agreements more onto the individuals within the space, rather than the space. One of the suggested things that I kind of brought to the table recently was that we do away with the name ‘Safer Spaces Agreement’ and call it ‘Mutual Risk Regulation Protocol’ [laughs].
PM: [Laughs] Cos it kind of puts the emphasis, puts the responsibility where it is, really, which is, y’know: ‘come here and behave in a way which is conducive to safety’. Rather than: ‘come here and expect that there will be somebody who will look out for you’. Both can be true, but y’know really it’s my belief that the emphasis should be on the ways, y’know people examining their own behaviours and taking care of one another rather than a body who has responsibility to look after you, kind of thing. So yeah, okay. So there’s some stuff about identity in there, maybe we could talk about specific things that happened?
RL: Kind of the squatting days and the parties?
PM: Yeah, so, the big parties that happened for me, winter Cornerstone parties – they were a big deal for me.
RL: Can you say what Cornerstone is?
PM: Cornerstone is a… housing co-op in North Leeds, in Chapeltown and they have a winter party and a summer party and the winter party’s always the best one. And, it was a weird mix of old eco-activists, (some dear friends who are eco-activists are gonna laugh that I pegged them in that way, but nonetheless), queers, hippies, and ravers, people from the left. And they have a summer – the winter party’s the good one. There used to be like a queer room in some of the ones that I went to years ago where you’d get like… young butch or trans guys wearing little harnesses with shaved heads, smoking furiously, looking pretty high and super menacing, with like a red lightbulb in, playing really hard techno. And they were great, y’know they were really, really fun, and then sort of downstairs you’d have people playing like drum ‘n bass and really rubbish music, and then they had bands in the basement. And they were always really wild. There was always lots of people there that I knew well, but also people that I really didn’t like, and they always had a weird edge to them as well, y’know, they were really fun, they were mainly really fun parties. And queer, yeah. I think queer would be the right word.
So, Valley House, Manifesters’ [?] squats, all of those. The squat on… oh god what’s it called? That big – Blenheim Square; there was a squat on Blenheim Square. I remember a friend of mine made a cage, welded a cage together so there was play and stuff that happened in there. There was a squat on Spencer Place, it wasn’t really a party squat, it was more of a hang-out-y one. And yeah, house parties as well, lots and lots of house parties around queer people’s houses, in North Leeds, around Hyde Park and Headingley. A lot of those people have gone. Yeah, there’s a few hanging around, a few old, a few old queer faces, which are still part of Wharf. But yeah, a lot of those people moved on.
And that kind of party scene still happens but it’s a sort of newer set of younger, usually trans queers. The presence of gay men in those scenes, or cis men in those scenes, has sort of diminished over the years. They’re less present.
RL: So why is that?
PM: Oh, that’s a really good question [Long thoughtful pause]. So, do you remember… at Leeds Queer Film Festival there was two films in a row, and one was about long-term survivors of HIV and the other was a documentary about Marsha P. Johnson, yeah. And I remember thinking about that loads in the context of those films, like, who’s here and who’s not? What does it mean that these gay men are here and these young trans kids are here? What does solidarity look like in the context of this? Y’know, so here is gay men’s trauma – and I remember thinking like, I was kind of angry at Leeds Queer Film Festival for showing that film. I was glad that they did as well, but like I thought like, I got these waves in the middle of it, like, ‘you bastards, you’re just gonna make all these gay men go to the toilet and cry’ like. Y’know, you’d not necessarily figured how deep some of those cuts were amongst people who were in the audience. And… yeah. So it felt like, edgy, like it felt sad and uncomfortable to be there, but then after the film had ended I kinda let that go, I was like, ‘phew, okay’ and was seeing this recognition amongst some of my friends who are younger trans people about how deep some of those waters flow in the psychic life of gay men.
So, it made me think about the ways in which that solidarity doesn’t happen in a considered way that, y’know, the space needs to be made for that solidarity to happen, and the ways in which marginal LGBT identities function at the moment you don’t necessarily have the space for that solidarity to happen in a considered way. There isn’t necessarily a reflection on the material conditions that make that solidarity possible…. Unless you’re sat in the quiet contemplation of a film, maybe. So, to break that down: the… there isn’t the space within queer nightlife outside of some very specific instances in Leeds for that solidarity to happen.
I think you see the tensions within LGBT communities, in particular around events like Love Muscle, so like Love Muscle’s brought tonnes of gay men back in to Wharf, and it y’know that’s obviously fantastic, but it’s also not been without its tensions. So, I think, for example I sometimes get frustrated with the ways in which gay men who use Love Muscle think that they have made Wharf queer, whereas it’s the young trans people, lezzers, who have done tonnes of the material work to set Wharf up who have been using that space for organisation, for the negotiation of intimacy, for social life and pleasure, since it’s inception, and who have always been queer and have always been there, who’ve made Wharf queer. Yeah, that tension between, y’know, individuals identifying with Wharf, individuals identifying their queerness in Wharf and individuals taking ownership of that queerness and ownership of Wharf, which sometimes results in better organisational solidarity, but sometimes results in conflict. So… yeah. But it feels like that only really happens in Wharf. It doesn’t happen in the Viaduct, and it doesn’t happen at queer house parties, it happens because there is a space which offers an open invitation for people to organise, which is said something like want to be a safer space for LGBT people.
RL: Can you talk about the setting up of Wharf, how it came about?
PM: Yeah. So, what happened. So I was, I was doing stuff in the Common Place. In particular I was working in No Borders, like the first iteration of Leeds No Borders. And it was me and Kath and John, we were doing really brass-tacks solidarity work with asylum seekers and it was campaigning work, so we were outside Waterhouse Courts, and using the Common Place to do a lot of our meetings, a lot of our organising. I was also going to events there, like Sapphic Traffic, like Suck My Left One, lots of gigs – Thunderstrikes! Oh my god, those were the best parties, actually. Yeah, they were absolutely wild, and very queer. I met some of my very dearest, dearest people at those parties, so people like Anna and Claire and Lottie and Rayno [interruption] and they were always really queer and really fun. And a bunch of those people who involved with Valley House, a bunch of those people were also involved in the Common Place. So, I remember helping doing some of the renovation works for the Common Place at Wharf, must’ve been about 2011. I remember it sort of being set up and… there being like a real core of people who were dear friends who did that bit of the work. I moved in to my role as secretary shortly after it opened, so it must’ve been in the first year.
RL: So why did the Common Place close down, what happened with that? How come Wharf…?
PM: They ran into some financial difficulty, and I think there had been a complaint about bottles at the bank, like an environmental health complaint. Also, like, I think it ran out of steam. So, a bunch of the people who were really involved in it moved or stopped being so political. I think there was a bit of a recognition that places like that don’t really work unless you pay people, and that was always a really big ideological tension. Oh god, I remember having like a planning meeting for the Common Place and, at the time I was reading Pragmatism, Solidarity and Irony, y’know Richard Rorty, and I was being a really young knob. But I remember going in and having a pitched argument with someone about payment for labour and y’know why, how under capitalism it was necessary to pay people for their work and this idealistic notion that people would volunteer their time was just, y’know, idealism. Y’know, will if it were that we were in some kind of syndicalist co-op then perhaps the material circumstances of people’s lives would be that they could offer up their labour for nothing but we’re not. And it was those kind of twatty discussions really that I think let the Common Place down [titters].
And y’know, Wharf opened. It was less political. It was more y’know sort of a co-op and a club collective were instituted, so rather than it being a workers’ co-op and the workers were being paid and they had rights, it was more like people saying, ‘let’s run this as a small business’ than it was, ‘let’s run this as a anarcho-syndicalist collective’. So, that worked better [inaudible].
RL: So what had been the politics of the Common Place? In general?
PM: Anarchist, I guess. So yeah, lots of anarchists. Not party political. So a lot of people who were involved in some of the big protest camps like Camp Climate Action, No Borders Camps, like Rossport, Nazad, oh god what’s that really big one up north? Yeah, lots of those sorts of people were involved, and also a few of the more radical academics. People like Simon Lewis, Paul Chatterton, y’know people who worked in human geography, in life sciences who were concerned around climate justice were fairly involved at that time. So that’s the kind of politics, the political milieu. Some queers. As you’d imagine, some queers. Some of the more leathery queers that were in Leeds at the time were also involved as well, which was really nice. So yeah, a bit of a mix. So yeah that’s the kind of the politics. And, y’know, I think if I were gonna describe my politics I’d say, anarchist maybe, so that tradition of anarchist ways of thinking is still part of the ways in which we consider political questions at Wharf. I think a huge change in the ways in which we address the question of politics, which has happened in the cultural life of Wharf, is to address questions of racial inequality and to do work on things like decolonisation, and y’know do work on safety of people of colour who use this space.
RL: So in practical terms, what does that mean?
PM: Well it means saying, it means for example having meetings where we ask for people of colour’s feedback on how we’re doing; it means responding to complaints; it means doing trainings; it means doing surveys; it means having questions of accessibility around racism being standing agenda items in our meetings; it means, y’know, proactively trying to recruit people of colour onto the club collective and into the co-op; it means helping promoters of people of colour or if promoters who have got acts who are people of colour it means supporting them as best we can to ensure that they’re okay, and safe and happy and able to promote for. Yeah.
RL: What are the differences between the two collectives?
PM: So, the co-op runs the day-to-day business of Wharf, and the club collective, like the governance. So, Wharf Chambers club, much like a working men’s club and the membership elect a body to ensure the good running of Wharf, and they are the club collective. And the club collective delegate the responsibility for the day-to-day running of Wharf to the co-op. And they look after Wharf in terms of like making sure there’s enough stock and manning the bar and making sure the space is okay, but the governance responsibility falls to the club collective, so they take a view on things like membership disputes, responding to complaints; have oversight of things like finances; hold the licence as well, yeah.
RL: So, what kind of things happen at Wharf and who goes?
PM: Errrrrrr… So Wharf is an open platform. The make-up of things at Wharf happen changes from month to month, year to year. There are some regular bookings, so regular club nights, y’know perhaps the most significant which, of which in recent years is Love Muscle. Then there’s… gigs; so lots of like noise and avant garde gigs, which tend to be the ones that I go to, happen. Lots of DIY gigs, so lots of the bands from the DIY scene, like for example Beards, Cow Town, Brown Owl, Bilge Pump have been involved in Wharf, Etai Keshiki very significantly, have been a – Guttersnipe – have been involved in Wharf y’know, not just playing at Wharf but involved in the life of the club.
Lots of young trans kids drink there. Amongst the gay men who come, they tend to come either for the club nights or they go for dates. But it feels like the young trans kids hang out together and drink out the back. Yeah.
RL: Any stand out memories from Wharf?
RL: Positive or negative!
PM: So, yeah, okay. Positive ones… oh god there’s so many gigs over the years. Cow Town, Cow Town gigs: totally mind-blowing. Halloween parties. Karaoke. I spend so much time in there though, so like it’s like saying do you have any positive memories of your living room. Like, yeah, I definitely do, I have loads of positive memories that have happened in my living room but they’re so innumerable.
And, y’know, sad stuff, like break-ups, people dying, Archie’s death and the impact that that had on the club… Yeah. Really hard, hard, hard meetings, really, really personal. Y’know having to make decisions around firing people. And losing friendships because of that, like so yeah some negative, some really – is that negative, is it more life stuff? Like the more difficult aspects of life. All of that gets, has been played out for me. But so has, like, pleasure and identity formation and intimacy and friendship and sex.
So one of the things that I’ve planned to be next year – there used to be club nights and stuff, stopped doing it and I kind of swore off DJing but I’m gonna start a quarterly space in Wharf for body play and ritual. So, queers used to do ritual all the time when I first moved to Leeds, we’d do rituals all the time, and y’know some of the older, freakier leather queers were really great at helping, introducing people to safer BDSM or the weird, more esoteric aspects of queer identity. So, I kind of thought it’s time to bring some of that back, really. So I’m quite looking forward to that, I imagine that’ll feel quite positive. Yeah.
RL: Can I take you back to something? Queer Mutiny – what did Queer Mutiny involve?
PM: Oh… so, I think that there are people who are really better placed to answer that question than I am, who were like, super, super involved with it. Queer Mutiny involved a bunch of parties. It was a kind of international thing as well, like Barcelona Queer Mutinies and I think there was a Glasgow one, it was… and I think they happened throughout the late 90s, mid-2000s. The Queer Mutiny in Leeds did some really fun activism, they also had some really wild parties, they did some big squats and stuff; they published zines. It was a place for some of the queers who were cooler than I was at the time to kinda hang out. And I remember feeling jealous and kind of a bit like, young queer at the window, kind of thing. Yeah. But I love – yeah, I mean. So a really good person to talk to about that would probably by Danny, yeah.
RL: D’you wanna stop there?