Written by Imogen Hamblin and Uthman El-Dharrat
Here at Thrive Law, we are celebrating LGBT+ history month. This year follows the theme “poetry, prose and plays”. The theme is an interesting one as it focuses on how prejudice can be defeated through the power of the arts.
Myself (a member of the LGBT+ community) and my colleague have written this blog to celebrate those figures in history who have been instrumental in raising the profile for LGBT+ rights.
Audre Lorde was an American writer, feminist and civil rights activist who was born in 1934, New York City. Her parents were immigrants from the West Indies. She was best described as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” and during her lifetime challenged many different prejudices through the performance of her political prose. Poetry was her vehicle to communicate her feelings and emotions, in order to best describe her lived experiences and the challenging politic climate she lived in. Audre Lorde was a powerful social commentator and a champion of lesbian and black rights. Thanks Audre!
Stephen Fry is a well-known British actor, TV presenter, columnist and novelist. Fry struggled to keep his homosexuality secret during his teenage years at public school. This is a common theme for young people growing up, who prefer to live in secret rather than expose themselves to criticism, bullying and social isolation as a result of “being different”. However, I have chosen to write about Fry because not only has he struggled with prejudices in relation to his sexual identity, but also in regard to his mental health, a well-known sufferer of bi-polar affective disorder. He is involved with the mental health charity Stand to Reason and has been the president of Mind, since 2011. Thrive Law is an active supporter of Mind, and therefore we want to say a big thank you to Stephen for all his hard work in raising the profile of LGBT+ rights and also for individuals with mental health challenges.
For this blog, I decided to research two figures in history who have been instrumental in raising the profile for LGBT+ rights; however, I wanted to opt for who I felt had the most compelling stories.
Oscar Wilde is considered a great playwright, novelist and poet from the late nineteenth century. Wilde, a homosexual, opposed the social norms of Victorian England, by braving the streets with his often flamboyant and eccentric dress. In 1891 he covertly began an affair with Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. In February 1895, Bosie’s father caught wind of the affair and furiously left a calling card at one of Wilde’s clubs, labelling him a sodomite in an attempt to sever the relationship. Going against the advice of his friends, Wilde sued Bosie’s father for criminal libel. However, little did Wilde know his accusation of libel would lead to his own trial! In 1895, Wilde was tried for gross indecency after the details of his affair with a British aristocrat were made public. Despite pleading not guilty, Wilde was convicted by a jury and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. The final three years of Oscar Wilde’s life were spent in exile in France and Italy, suffering abuse and humiliation, before he died impoverished in a Paris hotel in 1900, aged only 46. Despite Wilde’s heart-breaking story, his legacy transformed not only the literature sphere but gay rights and culture, earning him a vital place in history.
Anne Lister was an English landowner from Halifax, West Yorkshire. Throughout her life, she kept coded diaries that chronicled the details of her daily life. However, unlike Wilde, who left no physical written trace of his sexuality, Anne famously detailed her lesbian relationships in her diaries. In 1834, she married a wealthy heiress, Ann Walker, despite this being illegal, undoubtedly triggering an uproar within polite society. It must be noted, Anne was the first woman in England to openly marry another woman and was infamous for her masculinity and dressing entirely in black, which earned her the nickname ‘Gentleman Jack’. As Anne and Ann were both wealthy and of the ‘elite’, it seemed they were able to do as they pleased. Anne’s diaries were discovered many years after her death, namely as her descendants stealthily hid them until they were found, behind the dark wooden panelling of Shibden Hall, untouched for decades. Considering the era Anne lived in (to put it into perspective, she lived within the same era Jane Austen) Anne willingly and openly lived as a lesbian and not only a lesbian, but a married lesbian too! Anne lived within a society that was entrenched in rejecting anything that strayed from the norms and values of that era. Yet still, Anne defied that very society with bravery and courage. Anne Lister’s story was recently depicted in a new BBC period drama, Gentleman Jack, which tells the remarkable life story of one of history’s most courageous lesbians.