From Audre Lorde to Vita Sackville-West and Marsha P Johnson, these women owned their identities in the face of discrimination.
Born in New York City to Caribbean immigrant parents, Audre Lorde – who died in 1992 at the age of 58 – was one of the most significant feminist thinkers of the 20th century. As a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”, she approached the women’s liberation movement with a different history and perspective to that of her white, straight, middle-class peers, and her writings were hugely influential in shaping ideas about intersectional feminism.
Lorde said that while others suspected she was “queer” in her teens, she wasn’t sure of her sexuality until she was 20. Despite this, she married a man, lawyer Edwin Rollins, with whom she had two children before they divorced. She would go on to have relationships with several women, notably the author and activist Dr Gloria Joseph.
“There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself – whether it’s black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc. – because that’s the piece that they need to key in to,” she said in 1981. “They want to dismiss everything else. But once you do that, then you’ve lost… Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat.”
Several TV period dramas have been made about the life of Anne Lister, with another – starring Suranne Jones and written by Sally Wainwright – currently in the works at the BBC and HBO. It’s not surprising, because her story is a cracking yarn. Born into a wealthy military family in Yorkshire in 1791, Lister defied the norms of her class and time: a fierce and often snobbish intellectual, she also owned her own land, renovated the family seat of Shibden Hall, ran a colliery and became the first woman to climb several mountains in the Pyrenees.
Lister’s meticulously-kept diaries, written in a secret code that wasn’t cracked until the late 19th century, reveal that she was a lesbian, but her sexuality is unlikely to have come as a shock to those who knew her. She walked like a man, dressed entirely in black and famously went by the names of “Fred” and “Gentleman Jack”, while her affairs with local women were common knowledge in Shibden and the nearby town of Halifax.
She eventually ‘married’ a rich woman named Ann Walker, giving her a wedding ring and even having their union blessed in church. Walker moved into Shibden Hall, and the couple lived together until Lister’s death in 1840.
From James Baldwin to Langston Hughes, many prominent male writers and poets of the Harlem Renaissance – an African-American literary and cultural movement that took place in the Twenties – were gay or bisexual. Less attention has historically been paid to the queer women of the Harlem Renaissance, and that’s to all of our detriment.
Alice Dunbar-Nelson – a mixed-race, bisexual woman born in 1875 in New Orleans – is believed to be the first African-American woman ever to publish a collection of short stories (Violets and Other Tales, published in 1895). She was also a proud activist on a number of social issues, including women’s suffrage, anti-lynching and peace advocacy.
Married to three different men over the course of her life, Dunbar-Nelson had many affairs with women, including Edwina B Kruse (a head teacher 27 years her senior), journalist Fay Jackson Robinson and artist Helene Ricks London. Historian Lillian Faderman has described her journals as revealing “the existence of an active black bisexual network among prominent ‘club women’ who had husbands but managed to enjoy lesbian liaisons as well as a camaraderie with one another over their shared secrets.”
If you’ve seen The Danish Girl, you’ll already be familiar with Lili Elbe’s story. Born Einar Wegener in Vejle, Denmark in 1882, the landscape painter became one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery in 1930.
Before her surgeries, Elbe had spent almost two decades living partially as a woman. From around 1912, she would often accompany her wife Gerda to balls and parties wearing gowns and make-up, disguised as “Einar’s sister” or “Gerda’s sister”. Indeed, she credited Gerda – an artist with whom she shared a loving and supportive marriage for many years – with helping her discover her true gender identity, after Gerda asked her to stand in for a female life model who hadn’t turned up.
Over the years, Elbe – presenting as Wegener – went to various doctors to seek help. Many dismissed her as gay or hysterical until she met Magnus Hirschfeld, a German physician who also founded the world’s first gay rights organisation. He put her in touch with a clinic in Dresden where she underwent several surgeries, including a womb transplant that would prove fatal.
Elbe died in 1931 of cardiac arrest, after developing an infection as a result of the botched transplant. Today, the LBGT film festival MIX Copenhagen gives out Lili awards in honour of Elbe.
Today, the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West is arguably most remembered for her relationship with Virginia Woolf, who she met at a dinner party in 1922. In the first half of the 20th century, however, she was a famous author and poet in her own right, writing bestsellers such as The Edwardians and All Passion Spent.
When Sackville-West met Woolf, she was almost a decade into an open marriage with diplomat Harold Wilson, and was well-known for having affairs with high-society women. The two women hit it off at once – Sackville-West was impressed by Woolf’s literary skill, while Woolf admired Sackville-West’s free spirit and sexual liberation – but didn’t begin a romantic relationship until three years later.
They went on to be lovers for a decade, during which time Sackville-West served as the inspiration for the androgynous gender-swapping hero of Woolf’s novel Orlando, a book now celebrated as a pioneering example of queer literature. Their relationship will soon be immortalised in a film starring Elizabeth Debicki and Gemma Arterton.
One of Sackville-West’s own books, Portrait of a Marriage (published by her son in 1973), tackled the subject of her bisexuality. She wrote of her hope that in the future, people wouldn’t have to hide their true sexualities: “It will be recognised that many more people of my type do exist than under the present-day system of hypocrisy is currently admitted.”
Marsha P Johnson
Trans pioneer Marsha P Johnson was one of the most courageous and influential LGBTQ+ rights activists of the 20th century. She started working as a drag queen in New York in the early Sixties, adopting “Marsha P Johnson” as her stage name: the P, she famously said, stood for “pay it no mind”, her response when people asked her about her gender or sexuality.
In the early hours of 28 June, 1969, Johnson was celebrating her 25th birthday at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village when it was raided by police. They began arresting, harassing and assaulting the gay bar’s patrons – frisking lesbians, dragging women to the bathroom to check their genitals and arresting any ‘crossdressers’. Two nights of riots and marches ensued, forming the genesis of the original gay pride marches.
There is some debate about whether Johnson was among the first to fight back against the police at Stonewall. Although many of her biographers say she led the resistance, she herself claimed that the riots had already started when she arrived at the bar. What is certain is that she was a leading light in the gay and trans rights movement that followed, co-founding the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organisation, defiantly leading the gay pride parade in 1973 despite drag queens being banned from the event, and getting involved in AIDS activism in the Eighties and Nineties.
Johnson’s life wasn’t easy. She suffered from mental health issues, and died tragically at the age of 46, her body having been found floating in the Hudson River. She is the subject of an extraordinary Netflix documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson: if you haven’t watched already, do so at once.
Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of inspiring women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.
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