How women and non-binary people are continuing to shape the face of Manchester’s club culture 

Provocative performances, pink balaclavas and a close knit community. There’s no place like home.

By Emma Davidson | Last updated 11 May 2023

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Image: Studio Honey / Not Bad For a Girl

Black and yellow tape, flailing limbs, some form of Reebok apparel and pupils as big Jupiter. This was 1990s Manchester, where acid house poured out of purpose built sound systems and across luscious green fields as ravers dedicated Friday to Sunday to the imported sounds of Chicago house on three hours of sleep. 

Manchester’s club scene of the early 90s is constantly cited as being one of the most influential cultural movements the UK has ever seen. It put the city on the map as the party capital, and, 30 years later, it’s an accolade that Manchester still rightly clings to.

At the epicentre of it all was the Haçienda. Owned and operated by Factory Records, the animated god of Manchester, Tony Wilson and New Order, the club hosted parties dedicated to the squelching sounds of acid house, imported by Chicago’s roster of predominantly black DJs. The space not only welcomed but championed underrepresented groups. Female-led nights like Flesh were groundbreaking and paved the way for the city’s underground queer club scene as we know it.  

Roisin Murray, founder of What She Said. Image: Roisin Murray

Flesh attracted ravers from all corners of Europe and latter venues like the surreal Paradise Factory and, more recently, FREAK, Bollox, Your Dad Sells Avon and Homoelectric have all taken influence. Homoelectric has gone on to become one of Manchester’s biggest sell-out queer parties of modern day, and now also hosts its own annual festival, Homobloc. But alongside Homoelectric’s legendary status are a number of smaller female and non-binary led collectives who deserve a shout out. 

Roisin Murray is the founder of What She Said, a DJ collective organising gigs and club nights designed specifically for LGBTQ+ women and non-binary people. Struggling to find a space of her own in some of the city’s most popular queer clubbing districts, including Canal Street, she took matters into her own hands.

“What She Said started as an idea in a Canal Street pub. I was on a night out with my best friends, who are predominantly gay men, and I realised that I was surrounded by men in the bar, too,” said Murray. “I’m 41 and have been going out on Canal Street since I was 20. It’s always been the same narrative, so I decided to start my own night and threw my very first What She Said party at my house, advertising it on Twitter to gay women and non-binary people. Since then, we’ve grown massively and have hosted sell-out events at various venues across the city. Some of our headliners have been Manchester’s Gina Breeze, lau.ra and Laura Jackson. There are always people attending who are grateful we exist.”

Studio Honey’s first ever packed out party in Leeds. Image: Studio Honey

Across the years Canal Street has been accused of losing its original identity. In the late 90s the street shot to mainstream fame after Channel 4 TV series Queer As Folk, written by Russel T Davies, was filmed in the area. In 2022, bars along the street were accused of racial discrimination by House of Spice, an LGBTQ+ South Asian and Middle Eastern performance group. This sparked an outcry on social media from other Manchester-based queer people and communities who felt disconnected from the district. 

“Canal Street is an incredible place, especially when you’re young and just coming out. I came to Manchester from a small town in Cambridge and it wasn’t until I started going out here that I felt accepted and able to be myself,” said Murray. “The main issue is that it caters mainly for gay men and you’re left wondering ‘where are my people?’, it’s just not very welcoming anymore. Many of us have taken matters into our own hands, and I think what’s happening with Manchester’s female and non-binary led collectives at the moment is really exciting.”

Another club night that has found its tribe in Manchester is Studio Honey. Established by Edie, the DJ brought the Leeds-based club night to the rainy city during COVID-19. Moving here after being made redundant from her job, she too sensed a buzz about Manchester that she hadn’t come across anywhere else. “Manchester is such a special party city because it’s so welcoming,” said Edie, “Whenever I go out I see so many familiar faces and there’s no pretentiousness, people are just there to dance and have a good time.”

The Not Bad For a Girl crew. Image: Not Bad For a Girl

“Everyone feels completely comfortable expressing themselves here. The city has always been the epicentre of fashion music, both my mum and dad went to the Haçienda when they were younger, so I was brought up around music. My mum actually went to the club when she was pregnant with me and didn’t know. When you walk around Manchester, people have freedom to be their authentic selves, which is brilliant, and, in turn, it sparks creativity within the scene.”

It’s often what’s bubbling below the surface that becomes the most exciting. Not Bad For a Girl is another female and non-binary led organisation floating around Manchester’s ether. A homegrown collective of women and non-binary people looking to make Manchester’s club scene more inclusive, Not Bad For a Girl began back in 2019 with the aim to put on inclusive and accessible parties in the city that welcomed people from any background. 

Four years later, the collective has grown from student house party to becoming award-winning promoters, throwing events at venues including YES, Band On The Wall and SOUP. “We were compelled to set up Not Bad For a Girl when we realised that the majority of people working in the music industry were men,” began Martha Bolton, one of the Not Bad For a Girl squad, “I was looking around my friendship groups at the time and knew this was wrong because so many of the people I knew who were looking to get a foot in the door were female or non-binary.

Not Bad For a Girl are known for their signature pink balaclavas. Image: Not Bad For a Girl

“We really wanted to right this wrong, so I reached out to some people when I was working at The University of Manchester’s Fuse FM and it all kind of naturally followed from there. We always say we unionised and that’s what made us stronger, but we just wanted to create a safe space that allowed us to encourage and support each other, whilst we also worked on building our careers.”

It’s not just the pink balaclava clad DJs behind Not Bad For a Girl that the collective are looking to uplift. Alongside nurturing its own, homegrown talent, the team also want to create accessible spaces for women and non-binary people to learn how to DJ. Most recently, Not Bad For a Girl celebrated its fourth birthday party at Manchester’s Band On The Wall by championing underrepresented groups with little to no experience DJing in a club setting through an open deck session. Joined by 11 selectors from across Manchester, the collective are opening the industry up to groups that have found it notoriously difficult to get their foot in the door. 

Club Clam, a provocative performance collective from Manchester are another incredible group championing the industry’s underground performers. Often found in front of the decks instead of behind, the collective bare all on-stage, dancing at the likes of Manchester Pride, Homobloc and Manchester International Festival. They’re bringing female and non-binary led queer joy to mainstream spaces and stages in the city through fishnet and cowboy hat clad performances. Soundtracked by camp party hits, house and techno, their events are an ode to the ever changing soundtrack of the city’s queer parties that are completely impossible to pigeon hole. 

Cloé of Club Clam in just one of their incredible outfits. Image: Club Clam

“Manchester is such a close knit community,” began Cloé Gregson, one of the founders of Club Clam. “Everyone is super supportive of each other in the city, and we’re a bunch of activists, too. Alongside our huge events like Warehouse Project, we have an amazing DIY music scene that has taken over spaces like Islington Mill and The White Hotel. It’s incredible that we’ve got both of those. The city’s focus on up and coming artists and alternative performers I think is very, very special.”

The Sunday Times recently named Manchester as the Nighttime Capital of the UK yet again. It’s a title we’re not unfamiliar with, and the article stated that “Manchester is a city that has its priorities straight” when it comes to clubbing. It’s true, even post-COVID when many cities are losing their beloved party spaces, Manchester seems to house a hidden rave from Monday – Sunday every single week.

Although we’re famous for our world-class events like Warehouse Project, another Manchester institution that’s just been voted one of the world’s best clubs, it’s what happens in the 100 capacity basements and former garages on the outskirts of the city that are becoming the most memorable. These events and the people behind them are continuing to fly the flag for the city’s legendary off the cuff approach to nightlife.

Since the beginning, women and non-binary people have led the movement. From the Haçienda’s DJ Paulette, Lucy Scher, and Kath McDermott to modern collectives such as Not Bad For a Girl, Club Clam, Studio Honey and more, women’s influence, although often unwritten, has been imperative to the popularity of Manchester as a party city. It’s a community of individuals who love going out in Manchester, a place that’s opened its arms to all forms of self expression on and off the dance floor. 

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