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The Unusual Beginning to Modern Lesbianism

Updated: Aug 12, 2019

By Jess Burgess

Anne Lister and Ann Walker. A 19th Century English lesbian couple that got married on Easter Sunday, 1834, in the small medieval church called Holy Trinity.

Anne Lister was a prolific diarist who wrote 23 journals and over 4 million words over the course of her life. These diaries provide us with a great source of what life would have been like in England during the 1800s, especially for queer people.

Memorial plaque at Holy Trinity Church in York to Anne Lister. After a petition, the sign was changed to say that she was a lesbian, instead of 'gender-nonconforming'.

Her diaries tell stories of her life, from what she ate to the intimate details of her personal affairs. Not only were women talking (or writing) about their sex lives very unusual, but Lister was a lesbian. Her diaries disprove the long thought theory that lesbians simply could not exist during this time. They were written in a secret code to conceal Lister’s sexuality from prying eyes. The code was a mixture of ancient Greek and algebra that she had devised in her teens.

Lister began a relationship with her future wife in 1832, but she had affairs with women in her teens when she was at boarding school, seducing her classmates. She grew to become the owner of a property called Shibden Hall, something unusual for women of her time period. Her diaries were later discovered there, hidden behind the panelling in the walls.

She also had an unusual fashion taste for the time, dressing primarily in dark masculine clothes, enjoying the freedom and mobility it gave her. It was because of this unusual taste that she earned the nickname Gentleman Jack from the town’s citizens. This nickname is now the name of the TV show based on her life and diaries.

Anne Lister played by Suranne Jones in the new HBO series Gentleman Jack

Queen Christina of Sweden painted by Sébastien Bourdon. Public Domain

Another early lesbian was Queen Christina of Sweden. Born in 1626, it was thought that she was born a boy. While the reason behind this confusion is unknown, there is speculation that the Queen could have been intersex to some degree. Christina’s education was extensive for anyone during that time period, especially for a woman. From an early age, she preferred things which were considered masculine, such as horse riding and fencing, and despised the idea of marriage. Just like Anne Lister, Christina too wore men's clothing.

One of the turning points in Christina’s sexuality was when she met Ebba Spare. Ebba was the daughter of a high ranking political family and she had become one of Christina’s


Christina became infatuated by the girl and often praised her beauty to foreign diplomats. Christina’s surviving letters show her clear love for Ebba, but whether these feelings were reciprocated is unclear. Christina interfered with Ebba’s marriage, making her marry someone that would keep her close to court, and therefore close to her.

These two successful and intelligent women show that there is a clear and undoubtedly queer side to history. Being queer is not a new thing, and has been documented throughout history. While we still have just begun fighting for equal rights, even if we have won important victories (legalizing gay marriage in Australia in 2017), it is clear that there were people who started this campaign hundreds of years ago. Not only do we see queer people, but we see queer people fighting for us, for the future, in our history. The true beginning of our fight cannot be determined, but it is ignorant to think that this is only a modern battle.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Woke magazine.


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