Lesser-known Figures of the LGBTQ+ Community: Part 1

While there are some names in LGBTQ+ history which are famous, there are many that are not. In this blog post, we introduce you to 2 LGBTQ+ figures whose lived experiences, sexuality, and gender have been largely left out of history and left out of the narratives that surround them. We’d like you to meet James Barry and Anne Lister.

James Barry

James Barry was born in Cork in 1789 and went on to become a talented surgeon and the first person to successfully carry out a caesarean section where both the mother and child survived. But James’ life was not what you would expect; in fact, James had been born Margaret Ann Bulky. Margaret was intelligent and wanted to pursue her education but as a woman these opportunities were unavailable to her. Margaret felt constrained by these societal norms, but her dreams would soon be realised.

In her later teens Margaret and her mother moved to London where they lived with James Barry, one of Margaret’s uncles. When James died in 1806 Margaret assumed his name and moved to Edinburgh where, disguised as a man, the new James Barry enrolled in medical school in 1809.

Those around James suspected something was different about him, believing him to be younger than he was due to her short height and high voice. Nevertheless, James gained his medical degree at 22 and went on to have an impressive medical career. James’ work as an army surgeon took him all over the world, including South Africa.

Image courtesy of the University of Edinburgh

James was also interested in public health and social reform. He looked at ways in which people could live healthier lives; for example, whilst working in Cape Town he improved the water system, and he also spoke out against how prisons and asylums were run.

When he died James wanted to be buried in the clothes he was wearing rather than being undressed and washed for his funeral. These wishes were ignored however, and it was at this point that James’ female biology was discovered. We do not know how James felt about his gender, but we do know that for 54 years he dressed and lived as a man, pursuing an education and career that would have been off limits as a woman.

James Barry’s story is retold in a folk song by Gilmore & Roberts

To read more about James Barry’s life check out the websites below:

Anne Lister

Our next historical figure is Anne Lister, someone who until recently was relatively unknown. Anne was born in Yorkshire in 1791 and over time became a wealthy, independent landowner. In 1826 she inherited Shibden Hall from her uncle and became a successful businesswoman. Anne was nicknamed ‘Gentleman Jack’ by her local community because she wore black and carried out roles on her estates that society expected to be taken care of by a man. This is where the name of the recent BBC TV series based on her life originated from. The TV show explores Anne’s romantic relationships with women, including Ann Walker.

Assigning modern terms to the sexual experiences of people in the past is often problematic. This is partially because terms such as homosexual and lesbian did not exist until the later 1800s and early 1900s. The other issue is we do not usually have textual sources written by the people we are exploring. In the case of Anne Lister, however, we have over 5 million of her own words recorded in twenty-six volumes of her own diaries which recount her life and relationships.

Anne’s sexuality is an important part of her diaries with one-sixth of them written in a code that she created herself, and which hid her relationships. In her writings Anne openly states that she is only romantically and sexually interested in women and records her romances with women including Mariana Lawton (née Belcombe) and Maria Barlow.

Image: Anne Lister, by Joshua Horner. ©Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council.

Anne’s last partner was Ann Walker who was mentioned above. The pair met when Ann came to live near Anne’s home and in 1834 the couple had a secret, unofficial wedding at Holy Trinity Church in York. Same-sex marriages were not legal or recognised at the time but both women exchanged rings and they moved in together at Shibden Hall. Although their relationship wasn’t perfect – what relationship is? – their dedication to one another can be seen in their wills. After their marriage they travelled widely throughout Europe in 1834 and 1838, and upon Anne’s death Shibden Hall was left to Ann Walker.

Anne’s life could not have been reconstructed without the work of Helena Whitbread. In 1983, Helena was studying Anne’s dairies and started to decode them; what she found inside opened up a whole new aspect of Anne’s life and challenged the traditional image of nineteenth-century women.

To find out more about Anne Lister check out the websites below:

We hope you enjoyed our first LGBTQ+ history blog post! If you would like to learn more about LGBTQ+ history head over to our YouTube channel where we have a short video explaining the origins and importance of LGBT+ History Month in the UK. Also look out for our second blog coming soon where we’ll explore more hidden LGBTQ+ figures from history and join us for Amy’s talk ‘The Life and Legacy of Christina of Sweden’.

By Amy Saunders, James Jefferies and Johanna Strong

Today’s blog post was co-written by Amy, James, and Johanna. Though they work on 3 different periods of history, each of them integrates aspects of gender into their research. While Johanna and Amy look at gender and sexuality in early modern English and British queenship (with Mary I and the Stuart kings and queen consorts, respectively), James’ work often delves into women and war and researches aspects of masculinity in the world wars. They’re very excited to be bringing LGBT+ History Month to History Indoors and cannot wait to share more LGBTQ+ history with you!