The march towards equality may be long and slow with a way to go, but sometimes it’s wise to look back to see how far we have come, and inspire us to continue. In developed countries there can be a perception that differences in sexuality are now accepted, and that the awareness-raising actions, protests and celebrations are no longer necessary.
Examples of abhorrent behaviours prove this to be false, and there remains much more to do to fill unequal gaps. However, travel back in time, and one immediately appreciates the progression made, and those making it. Starting in 1834 and the story of Anne Lister.
Anne was a Yorkshire landowner, born in the late 18th century, who inherited Shibden Hall and went on to buy more property in and around her Halifax home. It is, however, not this acquired wealth that makes Anne Lister extraordinary, but a private life that holds vital importance to this day.
Anne’s love of literature led to an obsessive diarising of her thoughts, communications and actions for over thirty years and four million words, which now allow an insight into this undoubted LGBTQ+ pioneer ahead of her time.
Within these extensive works are both an outward insistence to be herself, regardless of society’s expectations, and coded secrets to allow her to do this in a world unaccepting of homosexuality.
These codes were cracked in the early 21st century as a combination of Ancient Greek and algebra, and used as a way of communicating about her lovers, firstly Eliza Raine and finally Ann Walker. After having lesbian relationships since a teenager, and continuing on her frequent travels, Anne met in Ann in the 1820s, and despite not being legalised until 180 years later, in 1834 the couple married.
Whilst her West Yorkshire birthplace rightly celebrates the achievements of Anne Lister, including a blue plaque at Shibden Hall itself, York also played a major part in her life, yet she has been a relatively unsung hero here. But look closely, and another commemorative blue plaque can be found in the city.
The declaration of Anne and Ann’s marriage took place at Holy Trinity Church on Goodramgate, and here this significant event is marked with York’s first LGBTQ+ plaque, decorated with a rainbow border, and whose wording was recently updated from: ‘Anne Lister – 1791-1840 – Gender-nonconforming entrepreneur. Celebrated marital commitment, without legal recognition, to Ann Walker in this church. Easter, 1834’ to now read: ‘Anne Lister – 1791-1840 – of Shibden Hall, Halifax – Lesbian and Diarist; took sacrament here to seal her union with Ann Walker – Easter 1834’.
Interest in and awareness of Anne Lister and her role in changing public perceptions as a gender non-conformist has greatly increased due to a recent tv series on her.
Gentleman Jack was so called after the name that townsfolk made up for her masculine appearance, and the show depicts the battle, bravery and beauty of this extraordinary character that holds great importance in the journey to equality.
Long after the tv recognition has ended, her impact must remain remembered.