There are many things about the current kerfuffle over Anne Lister that make me reach for a facepalm gif, but it’s one particular comment that tipped me over into writing this blog post.
In case you’ve never heard of her (and if so, you are missing out), Anne Lister was a Yorkshirewoman, born in 1791. She inherited the late-medieval house at Shibden Hall, where her manner of dress and her habit of seducing women earned the nickname ‘gentleman Jack’. Lister kept a diary, in code, which tells us a lot about her sexual exploits, but she was also devoutly Christian and in 1834 she organised a wedding ceremony to her partner Ann Walker, in Holy Trinity church in Goodramgate, York. Delightfully, Holy Trinity recently agreed to put up a blue plaque in honour of Lister and her marriage, which is both charming and rather daringly polemical, given the Church of England’s current stance on gay marriage. Here it is:
Now, I have no issue with the term ‘gender-nonconforming’. In fact, I am wholeheartedly behind it, and I use it a lot. Patently, Lister had no truck with the idea she ought to choose how to dress, how to behave, and whom to marry, based on society’s prescriptions for ladies. Patently, too, she had enough money (and I do think it comes down to this) to get away with flagrantly disregarding such prescriptions, too. But, as a recent petition has pointed out, ‘gender-noncomforming’ doesn’t necessarily denote sexuality, and one can’t help wondering if the people who chose the wording thought the term sounded a bit, well, nicer, more acceptable, than a word like ‘lesbian’.
Lest you think these are the ravings of paranoia, take a look at the way the Guardian reports the issue. Referring to the controversy over terminology, it introduces its own preferred term, likewise no doubt more acceptable, and with a whisper of Canal Street, feather boas and Judy Garland whirled up into a rainbow-colour parcel, christens Lister a ‘gay icon’.
No. No, I do not think so.
Now, you can spend hours reading the fors-and-againsts of how you apply contemporary terminology to historical figures (and I have; in fact the debate is starting to seep out of my ears at the moment, because I’m writing a book introduction on the subject)*. In general, I tend towards caution when using labels we know people couldn’t have used for themselves. It’s a risky business: you never know whether that label would have struck the person in question as inappropriate, inadequate, or even offensive. Lister was pretty explicit about her sexual desires for women, but she was writing in a diary in code, which suggests a certain level of covert caution. She lived together with Walker at Shibden Hall, but this wasn’t remotely unusual for an unmarried woman and I doubt it would have raised the slightest surprise in and of itself.
So why should I think it important to use the term ‘lesbian’? One reason is rooted in Lister’s own actions. She could simply have enjoyed her relationship on her own terms, like thousands upon thousands of women in same-sex sexual and intimate relationships before her (cos, sorry to the woman quoted here describing Lister as ‘one of the early lesbians,’ but no). But she wanted that relationship to have some form of recognition before God. She wanted it named. In Christian theology (and I simplify; I acknowledge), names are important. Language calls creation into being. A thing unnamed is inconceivable: the whole order of the world was named by God. The ceremony between Lister and Walker in Holy Trinity church responds to this theology: it recognises the relationship as a named thing, a reality.
Fast forward nearly 200 years, and that naming of a relationship before God is still not something open to all of us. It is still very difficult to bring the word ‘lesbian’ into the Church of England. We have women priests, a revolution that broke down some of the most ingrained ideas about gender conformity in the Church, but we still balk, I would suggest, at the idea of a blue plaque that does not take refuge in nice euphemisms when it comes to sexuality. Anne Lister named her relationship; she referred to it as marriage. Legally, as the blue plaque points out, it was not; theologically, she was streets ahead of herself. In the same way, it may not be strictly ‘accurate’ (whatever that means, in whatever dry legalistic terminology you might choose) to call Lister a ‘lesbian’. But, in the same way that Lister felt it was right to call the relationship she recognised in church a ‘marriage,’ I think it would be right not to shy away from calling Lister a lesbian.
*Note: if you want to read more about this debate, I recommend the introduction to the excellent and groundbreaking The Lesbian Premodern, edited by Noreen Giffney, Michelle Sauer and Diane Watt, which brilliantly makes the case for using ‘lesbian’ in a polemical sense that is both academic and (for me, anyway) personally resonant.