Church Tourism Week 2018: Celebrating Anne Lister and LGBT History in York
Dr Kit Heyam is an academic researcher and a trans awareness trainer. Here he shares with us the importance of the instatement of the first rainbow plaque in York to celebrate Anne Lister.
The city of York has seen its fair share of historic occasions – but on Tuesday 24th July 2018, it will play host to another momentous event when a plaque is unveiled on the wall outside Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate. There are over 70 other plaques in York, all commemorating famous people, places or events. None, however, are quite like this one.
With its distinctive rainbow border, and the years of community activism that lie behind it, it is York’s – and possibly the UK’s, even the world’s – first ever permanent rainbow plaque. Echoing the iconic blue plaques which mark places associated with famous people or events all over the UK – but with a rainbow border – the plaque will make the place of LGBT+ people in York’s history more visible than ever before. It reads:
Gender non-conforming entrepreneur
Celebrated marital commitment, without legal recognition, to Ann Walker in this church.
Who was Anne Lister?
It’s no exaggeration to call Anne Lister an icon of Yorkshire’s LGBT+ history. Born in Halifax in 1791, she spent most of her life at nearby Shibden Hall, where she grew up to manage the estate and antagonise many local male landowners with her independent business endeavours. She established mining on her land and built up a portfolio of shares in canals and railways. Alongside this, she kept a diary, parts of which were famously written in code. When eventually decoded they revealed Anne’s series of relationships with women.
The last of Anne’s partners was Ann Walker, a local heiress. On Easter Sunday 1834 – two years into their relationship – Anne and Ann decided to solemnise their commitment. After exchanging rings privately at home, the couple attended a service at Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, where they shared Holy Communion: a ceremony that was, in their eyes, a marriage. They stayed together until Anne Lister’s death eight years later.
The Importance of Marking LGBT History
When the charity York LGBT History Month (working with Helen Graham and the York’s Alternative History group) started inviting the local community to make DIY cardboard rainbow plaques in 2015, Anne Lister’s name was one of the first to come up. So, when York Civic Trust and York LGBT Forum proposed that we make the first permanent rainbow plaque a reality, it was no surprise that the local community voted for Anne as their first choice. The plaque is intersectionally important - as well as marking what could be called the first lesbian marriage in the UK, it also marks a pioneering independent businesswoman; a lesbian Christian, who saw no conflict between her faith and her love for women; and a gender-nonconforming person. I use she/her pronouns for Anne because, as far as we know, that’s what she used in life – but Anne was well-known for her masculine gender presentation and was called Gentleman Jack by many of her neighbours, and Fred by some of her partners. Whether the right word is butch, non-binary, or something else, Anne’s gender nonconformity is an important part of the story, and an important reminder that sexuality and gender can rarely be neatly disentangled.
Seeing Anne’s plaque unveiled will be an emotional moment for me, and not just because of how hard everyone has worked to get to this point. Growing up queer, I clung fiercely to stories of people “like me” from history, even before I was sure exactly what “like me” meant. They made me feel connected: like I had a community, throughout time, with whom I shared something fundamental and important. LGBT+ people are woven into the fabric of York’s history, just as they are everywhere – but until now, we’ve been invisible. Hopefully Anne’s plaque is just the first step on the road to changing that.