In just a few short weeks, Carl Austin-Behan has raised the profile of Lord Mayor of Manchester beyond measure. It’s fair to say that many of the city’s inhabitants hadn’t even realised there was a Lord Mayor until the 44-year-old was sworn in.
Is it because Austin-Behan is the youngest person ever to hold this title? Or because he was a member of the Royal Air Force? These may be factors but the vast majority of media attention has focused on the fact that this new Lord Mayor is openly gay, not least that Austin-Behan is a former Mr Gay UK.
I meet Austin-Behan in the plush surroundings of Manchester Town Hall chambers. I had spent the day working in a baking air-condition-less office and arrived at the interview sweaty and dishevelled. By contrast, Austin-Behan was so immaculately turned out that I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d put paper down on the swish sofa before I sat down.
As many locals seem to be encountering the notion of a Lord Mayor for the first time, I begin by asking him what the new role involves.
“As a citizen of the city the role is mainly civic, so if there’s an event or award ceremony happening I’ll be there to represent the city,” he tells me. “If any dignitaries visit I welcome them on behalf of the city.
“The diary is pretty chock-a-block and diverse. The other weekend we had the under-20 World Cup rugby players here, the Victoria Wood celebration at Victoria Station, a 50th wedding anniversary and a 100th birthday in one of the care homes, and the first grass tennis championship of the season. If people make a request I try and fit it in as best I can.
“I was looking at the list and I’ve done 100 engagements already. Some 500 were undertaken over the whole of last year – it’s not a case of trying to score points or anything though – it’s just being able to do the events and then maintain a strong level of accessibility and visibility. My main focus is engaging with communities and Manchester citizens rather than it just be a PR exercise.”
Engagement and accessibility are key points in Austin-Behan’s civic manifesto, and the attention and publicity he has already brought to the role have helped these ambitions. But is it easy to connect with communities?
“When I turn up at events, a lot of people come up and tell me that they didn’t realise Manchester had a Lord Mayor so just being more visible helps,” Austin-Behan reflects. “Also, because I’m a little younger than my predecessors, this challenges some people’s perceptions and I hope makes it easier for younger people to chat to me. Building these levels of engagement is something I feel we are doing very well already. I’m still keeping the key values of the role but I’m possibly not as traditional in other ways such as adopting a more relaxed dress code. I have a wardrobe of different coloured shirts – several are pink which is obviously a relevant colour for me!”
Being a key figure in the city and openly gay are inseparable aspects to Austin-Behan’s profile. On the one hand, his sexuality has drawn a lot of attention to the post but, on the other, many dub him ‘the gay mayor’ (although not in a derogatory way) which may pigeon-hole perceptions. Does he worry that he will now be the ‘go-to’ person for all LGBT issues?
“Not at all. I think attention to my sexuality can only help engagement. I’ve been an advocate for gay rights and issues for many years. I’ve also been Mr Gay UK so have been part of the community for a long time. Being gay and open and happy and having a prominent role may well mean that I’ll be asked to be even more involved and it’s just a case of using this role in a considered way. I’m in a good position to raise issues such as ensuring that more people get tested for HIV. I also want to try and get more barriers broken down with our transsexual community. As a city we are good with lesbian, gay and bisexual citizens but we still struggle with the other parts of the spectrum.”
He says: “On the day before the vigil I’d noticed a lot of groups on social media trying to pull something together. It was fantastic to see this but it was a bit unformed and disparate so, being Lord Mayor, I was in a good position to set up a meeting with all of the different groups and organisations putting ideas together and orchestrate things into a schedule of events.”
While Austin-Behan comes across as unassuming and modest, this Crumpsall lad has enjoyed a varied and challenging career. The youngest of three brothers, he joined the Royal Air Force as a firefighter at the age of 19. After undertaking basic recruit training at RAF Swinderby, he was based at Manston to learn his trade, followed by postings in such places as Chivenor, Belize, and Ascension Island. During his time in the RAF, Austin-Behan was awarded the Good Show Award for Bravery and The Royal Humane Society Bronze Award for rescuing a pilot from a burning Hawk Aircraft. He also received a mention in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 1996 with a Commander in Chief’s Commendation.
Then things changed. Austin-Behan was dismissed from the RAF in 1997 after it was deemed that his sexuality was not ‘compatible with service life’. That’s a euphemism for ‘we’re kicking you out because you’re gay’. After a number of different roles, by 2010 Austin-Behan was running a company specialising in cleaning the Manchester’s apartment blocks.
For a guy who who left school at 16 with virtually no qualifications, Austin-Behan must have a soul of steel to be able to adapt and change, regardless of the challenges he has come up against.
“It was never a plan to be doing this but I think it just goes to show that anyone can do anything if they put their all into it,” he says. “I left school with only one GSCE [in drama]. I joined the Air Force and six years later had to re-plan when I was asked to leave because of my being gay [at a time when it was still illegal]. Then I went into the fire service and worked in a supermarket. Who could plan all that? The reason I got involved with the council was because I was fed up of complaining and nothing happening and I thought I could do a better job myself. I stood to represent Burnage in 2010 and missed it by 183 votes but won it the following year with a majority of 1,500 and last year got one of the highest turnouts with one of the highest majorities.
“Even though I’ve only been on the council for five and a half years it’s testament to my peers and other councillors that they were happy to put their trust in me to do the role of Lord Mayor.
“The only plan I ever really had was to be in the Air Force. It took me three years to get in and I absolutely loved it to bits. If I hadn’t been kicked out I would probably still be there now [the rules were changed in 2000]. I had just got promoted to corporal so things could have been very different but I’ve never been negative about the Air Force. In 2002, because of an interview I’d done with Attitude magazine, the Air Force contacted me to see if I had any ideas on how to recruit more LGBT people. They even ended up having a big procession in Pride.”
Perhaps the knocks and obstacles gave Austin-Behan the fire and determination to keep achieving and challenging the perceptions that people make based on another’s sexuality?
“Probably. I appreciate that it all makes for a good story and if it shows people that you can change direction at any stage and you don’t have to be categorised then that’s a bonus. I wouldn’t say I feel a pressure to be a spokesperson for the LGBT community though. If it comes to me in a natural way then great as that’s an easier way to deal with it.”
In his new civic role, I wonder if Austin-Behan feels a conflict of interest or has found it difficult to be impartial after representing Burnage and having strong political opinions. It seems that it’s a case of so far so good.
“I’ve been alright with it and haven’t come across any pitfalls or major issues yet. For me – even with my political views – everything is geared towards representing the best of the people as well as representing my ward in Burnage but I would never let someone’s political persuasion stop me from doing the job that I feel I should be doing for them.
“At the end of my time as Lord Mayor I hope that people in communities feel that we’ve had a great year together and been to and enjoyed lots of events. I hope people can also see that it’s a positive role and that they can get something out of it.”
By Drew Tosh
Photos by Chris Payne