»I love and only love the fairer sex«

 

Mostly, I lead a life quite independent of TV shows.

But since my youth, I’ve known that they can have a life changing impact. Back then, J.A.G. laid the foundation for an emotional exoskeleton which provided me with sufficient stability to get through difficult times. Later, I laughed along with The Big Bang Theory during some of my single years, seeking orientation in the fabulously portrayed intelligence. All of this dates back a couple of years now. Today, I do let myself get carried away by some productions, but, usually, they have only minor effects on my daily life. Ku’damm 56 was such a show. Charité wasn’t bad either, except for the painful stereotype it had scripted: an unhappily-dying lesbian supporting character – death by lesbian. I will circle back to that later.

Now, I feel fairly grown-up and settled and catch myself being absorbed by the fascination with a TV show. My sole consolation: I don’t seem to be the only one on this planet, a whole community feels alike. 

I will try to approach the nature of this fascination. But I fear my attempt to do so with words and logic is quite limited.

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To be upfront: This is not only about television.

This is about an impressive, historical woman who is given the opportunity to bring her message to literally the whole world after almost two hundred years: to be exactly the very person you are born as, regardless of anything social convention might dictate. It is about visibility and representation of women who love women – and who have ever loved so. It is about relatable queer identities and lesbian love; with everything they might entail.

This is about the life of Anne Lister, portrayed in the TV show Gentleman Jack.

Anne Lister lived in Halifax, England from 1791 to 1840. She was an extraordinary person who was brave enough to lead a life as landowner, entrepreneur, European traveler, and the “first modern lesbian” as she is called today. She recorded every detail of this life in her vast journals counting about five million words – one of the largest historic accounts of an individual life ever. About one sixth of her journal is written in crypt, a secret code she invented. In her “crypthand”, she record her personal feelings, deep emotions, people she gossiped about, and – most impressive and pretty much non-allusive – all details (and I mean all!) of her passionate love life. A love life she shared with women and women only. 

Gentleman Jack was created by Sally Wainwright. Anne Lister’s dairies had been on her mind for almost two decades before being able to put them on British TV. Ultimately, she wrote a brilliant script which she kept close to the original diaries (after she herself had scripted a death-by-lesbian in one of her earlier productions). Together with Suranne Jones as Anne Lister and Sophie Rundle as Ann Walker, they created something truly unique – as Pat Esgate puts it: They have reached right into the very souls of our community and wrapped their arms around our hearts as we have never had it  before.

Gentleman Jack Season 2 – Courtesy of HBO/Lookout

Gentleman Jack is a BBC/HBO co-Produktion that was aired on Sunday evening primetime in the UK. Considering the plot of a lesbian love story, the primetime slot alone is sort of a sensation. The smashing success of the first season in 2019 opened the doors for a second season being aired this spring. Meanwhile, Gentleman Jack has inspired people around the globe, many of which are part of the LGTBQI* community; it has fascinated them and encouraged them to embrace their identities, to come out or at least to get on the route to do so. Last year, a book titled ‘The Gentleman Jack Effect’ was published in which people tell their stories of how the show has changed their lives. A TV documentary followed in 2022. It didn’t take long until some of Anne Lister’s journal entries of the 1820s and 1830 were sold on bracelets and T-shirts. They speak out of the hearts of the LGBTQI* community. 

Burnt Mr Montagu’s farewell verses that no trace of any man’s admiration may remain. It is not meet for me.

I love & only love the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.

January 29, 1821
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Writing about Anne Lister is not so easy.

Because I want to write down everything. Everything I can remember after seeking for everything that is to know about her. But that would go beyond the scope of this post. On the other hand, going beyond is kind of symptomatic for Anne Lister herself. There seems to be no frame for this woman to fit in.

Anne Lister was impressive. She was phenomenally intelligent and had an extraordinary talent for people. She loved books, languages, and science. She absorbed every kind of knowledge available to her, even if she had to go unusual ways as she was excluded from academic education, being a woman. She had a refreshingly positive spirit – but there were also rather shadowy aspects of her: a little egomania, deep political conservatism, and in certain parts of her life she didn’t mind spending the night with multiple women in several bedrooms. She was a truly complex character – one who is capable of making a profound impression on us still today, with her energy to conquer the world each and every day, with the self-consciousness with which she walked through her extraordinary life. 

(C) Aimee Spinks, HBO/Lookout
Suranne Jones as Anne Lister – (C) HBO/Lookout by Aimee Spinks

Anne Lister constantly concealed her own vulnerability. And there was sufficient rejection she had to face. She was pretty gender non-conforming and went beyond the boundaries which were set for women at that time concerning their looks, their behavior, and their role in society. She dressed her wiry and athletic body in a quite masculine manner. This, and her masculine approach to things (or the fact that she engaged in masculine business at all) led her contemporaries to call her Gentleman Jack. She knew that she was some sort of different, proudly calling it her ‘oddity’. But since there was no definition to this ‘oddity’, she tried to understand herself with a scientific approach. Luckily, her high self-esteem thoroughly covered her sexuality which she did not question to be unnatural. She accepted the challenge of living in this society with a spirit and body like hers.

Nature played a challenging trick on me. Didn’t she? Putting a bold spirit like mine in this… vessel. In which I’m obliged to wear frills and petticoats. But I refuse to be cowed by it.

Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack

Anne Lister excluded men from any intimacy with her. She viewed her identity and her sexuality as God-given – a certainly remarkable attitude in her times. She was extremely conscious of her ‘oddity’ and thoroughly convinced that God had created her and accepted with this very nature. For her, it was rather unnatural to bond with men. She wasn’t out in the “modern” sense, but that didn’t prevent people from gossiping. However, she was always true to herself and found ways to live her sexuality beneath the social radar.

I urged in my own defence the strength of natural feeling & instinct, for so I might call it, as I had always had the same turn from infancy. That it had been known to me, as it were, by inclination. That I had never varied & no effort on my part had been able to counteract it. That the girls liked me & had always liked me.

November 13, 1816

What seems extremely modern to us is that Anne Lister bore the wish to marry, to share her life with someone she loved and who loved her. Not as the secret sidekick of a straight marriage, but in true martial exclusivity and commitment – ‘just’ with another woman. Back then, there haven’t really been words to describe homosexuality as an identity and a way of life. But still, Anne Lister managed to articulate her desire of same-sex marriage very clearly – and persuaded it.

Could not sleep last night. Dozing, hot, and disturbed… a violent longing for a female companion came over [me]. Never remember feeling it so painfully before.. it was absolute pain to me.

July 12, 1823

Her life as a young adult was rich in sexual adventures, many of which ended in Anne Lister being dumped for a straight marriage by the other women. By meeting Ann Walker in her early forties, she ultimately found a woman who would fully commit to her. Ann Walker was an unmarried, wealthy woman living a twenty-five-minutes-walk from Anne Lister. She, however, was not aware of her homosexuality, nor could she handle it with the same ease as Anne Lister. While meeting Anne Lister, she started exploring this part of herself and had to heavily defend it against a great portion of internalized homophobia that was commonly spread in her family – as it was in society. All of this makes the story of Ann Walker and her commitment to Anne Lister an astonishing and deeply impressing development. 

The evolving love story between Anne and Ann in 1832 sets the context for the first season of Gentleman Jack, leading to their wedding in 1834. A wedding that was secret and unofficial, but sincerely meant as such.

(C) Matt Squire, HBO/Lookout
»Miss Lister for Miss Walker« (Suranne Jones with Sophie Rundle) – (C) Lookout Point/HBO by Matt Squire

Anne Lister left us with an extremely detailed account of her life. Her diaries being transcribed and decoded over the last decades and being so beautifully brought on screen, has inspired countless members of the LGBTQI* community with the credo of Anne Lister: No one is entitled to tell us that certain parts of our identity are wrong.

And she leaves us with a certainty: There have always been lesbian women and queer identities – with all the passion, all the feelings of happiness, all the gay pain. And all the yearning for a world that would make it easier to bear this very identity. Anne Lister did not question herself, she dreamed of a world that would be able to keep up with her. 

The fact that this woman has lived her life the way she did two hundred years ago, in a world so much narrower than ours, should encourage us to explore and tenderly embrace our identity and sexuality. It should encourage us to let us be guided by love, not by fear. Not least, by love towards ourselves as truly unique creations. 

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Writing about the groundbreaking screen adaption of Gentleman Jack isn’t much easier.

There is an almost uncountable number of details that make this show admirable and captivating. Even the jaunty music makes me smile and cheer every time the beats and the melody sneak into my head. And not to forget the ingenious fourth wall breaks when Anne Lister tweaks into the camera and invites us – the audience – to accompany her on her journey – or shares a little secret with us.

(C) Matt Squire, HBO/Lookout
Anne Lister putting Mr Ainsworth in his place – (C) Lookout Point/HBO by Matt Squire

Trying to sort out my thoughts, I immediately dive into deep emotions. I let myself be carried away and absorbed by so many aspects of this portraying of queer life.

I am absorbed by the tender caressing of my soul that I feel when this marvelous love story between Anne Lister and Ann Walker is told. It is a story of complex and complicated emotions, and it is clearly romanticized on the show compared to their real-life experience. But it is this very romance with its authenticity, the complexity of their relationship, and the tenderness of the narrative in all its little details that touches my heart. The script is packed with all kinds of highs and lows, with sufficient dramatics and profound gay pain. But ultimately, it does not conclude with the impossibility or oddness of this relationship, but with its magic and charm. 

Amidst all impossibilities society throws at the Ann(e)s, we see their coming together that culminates in their wedding – which is to say the construct that came closest to a wedding of two women in 1832: exchanging of rings, taking the sacrament in church together, joining for a domestic relationship, changing their wills in each other’s favor. In secret, of course, but woven into their lives, testified, and put down to paper in Anne Lister’s journal. Not affirmed or secured by law or any other formalities, but intended by their hearts, in defiance of all social restrictions and sanctions.

I am carried away by the portrayal of a butch character who has defined a certain form of female masculinity equipped with a bold, vibrant, and touching combination of mental strength and vulnerability, of self-control and sensibility. Despite all of Anne Lister’s faux pas and human flaws, Gentleman Jack depicts an identity that is so complete and whole, so legitimate, and unquestionable as if it was just one of countless identities nature has to offer. I deeply relate to that. It thoroughly reconciles me with being female for Gentleman Jack widens the spectrum of what women can be like.

(C) Aimee Spinks, HBO/Lookout
Suranne Jones as Anne Lister (C) Lookout Point/HBO by Aimee Spinks

I am absorbed by the countless details of lesbian love and intimacy. It is an incredibly honest, gentle, and utterly respectful depiction of the love act between two women which is not meant to satisfy men, but to touch and to represent women. The scenes play with almost fully covered bodies and subtle details, some of which can maybe only be grasped by women who know what it feels like to touch another woman.

The intimacy between Anne and Ann is often taken behind locked doors and closed curtains, and the sanctioning of their ‘oddity’ is a continuous theme throughout the show – literally unpronounceable for some of the characters. But the portrayal of this intimacy between the two women is one of the most magnificent and alluring ones that I have seen in my life. It is an intimacy of profound legitimacy, normalcy, and universal validity – as if this love was a model for something that existed, exists, and is continually allowed to exist. A love, so perfect, flawless, and pure – and equivalent to all other models of straight love and intimacy that we usually see on screen. 

I am absorbed by the confusing and overwhelming emotional states through which we accompany the two women through their evolving relationship, and Ann Walker through her inner coming out. So many of them are so relatable even now, despite living in our allegedly free and progressive world. While their emotional journey adds to the authenticity of the narrative, it also validates many of the steps I had to take myself in order to find out who I am and whom I love. It fascinates me that this story is not written today and transferred back into the 1830s, but it is this very period that all of these experiences originate from, being still so relatable today.

              There is the moment of my first suspicion that I might have fallen in love with a woman. How my world was shaken and had turned upside down and I feared I might be the only person on this planet to have feelings like that – or at least in my tiny little universe. To explore being different from others in an aspect that seems unremarkable on one hand, but so fundamental on the other – and not yet being able to focus on the marvel of that. To endure the confusion and eventually explore it, cautiously but packed with curiosity. To fathom that this differentness might entail a gap in my life into which doubt, fear, or uncertainty will be able to sneak in whenever they like. And to ultimately have the courage to rise above all this doubt and fear because I feel that this way of loving and being will profoundly fulfill me.

              The advice of a close person to introduce my partner as a random friend to certain parts of my family, to conceal the truth of my happiness and my whole being for the sake of an alleged peace. 

              To be stricken by the absurdity of someone praying for my healing with great empathy and devotion or explaining how the devil is working through my soul when I feel love towards women. I cannot prevent an eye roll but still, these encounters leave traces on the way to my conviction of being create exactly in this manner. 

              The devasting feeling of not being able to be close to a person even though I maybe could if only I had a different sex. To come so close to another person’s soul, but still standing in front of a wall that makes me feel like being in the wrong world. The desperation to be wrong in a certain aspect because I love as I love.

              To feel the ambiguity when I am mistaken for a man and neither them nor I know how to handle the situation smoothly. To go through the pain when the mistakes become deliberate and insulting because people are too narrow-minded when confronted with creation’s diversity.

              The slap in the face, when my girlfriend seriously tries to teach me how to walk ‘correctly’ or wishes me to be more feminine – without having the slightest clue of how much energy it takes to constantly define my position between feminine and masculine, to subtract social expectations from my own identity. And on the opposite: the felicity of defining this position calmly and – if required – repeatedly, accompanied by my wife, without any possible ‘false’ outcome.

Gentleman Jack covers all of these emotional states and experiences. It manages to create a connection between centuries and people who might have had similar feelings in their lives.

Most of all, I am absorbed by the attraction between the two women.

The power, passion, and profoundness of this connection, the desire to be one and amalgamate with another woman’s soul – it is like a fire I feel burning inside me. There are scenes that grasp my innermost being and make me feel that deep down inside, with everything that I am, there is an undestroyable force, vividness, and love. And in all clarity, something I will never be able to share with a man. Gentleman Jack gives a hint that all of this is not just an oddity of my mind, but a real, veritable state of my existence – and of many other women throughout the ages. 

(C) Aimee Spinks, HBO/Lookout
Ann Walker with Anne Lister – (C) Lookout Point/HBO – Photographer: Aimee Spinks

Ultimately, there is the indescribable happiness that all my desires, my passion, and my love will not fail for they have found their fair counterpart and ultimate objective. That this deep attraction and connection is being alive in the love, to the woman of my life. 

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All of this might sound quite trivial.

But for me – and I know I am not alone on this – it has a very profound meaning to see such a story on television. For me, it is normal to only marginally relate to the love stories I see in the media, if I can relate at all. I don’t even notice anymore (which is not to say that they are not touching or worth watching). And then, all of a sudden, a lesbian Pride and Prejudice pops up and I can finally understand why all of my classmates fell for this Jane Austen movie. Because they see something they can relate to. Because for one evening, they can live through a manifold palette of emotions, they can get in contact with their dreams and desires or maybe just start to explore them. Even if they aren’t fulfilled at that point, it is an utterly vivid experience. For me, this experience has always been limited by the point when the female and male protagonist kissed, while I am totally carried away in great emotions when it comes to two women finding their happy end. Because they validate what I feel and assure me that this really exists.

Therefore, I consider this show so important and valuable. I am eternally grateful to be carried away and deeply touched by Gentleman Jack, Anne Lister, and Ann Walker in my late thirties. And I am surprised how much I was still in need for this sort of affirmation and identification. Gentleman Jack achieves something indescribable. Not only does it depict lesbian love as real and existent, but it also gives this love a profound legitimacy. A love that is complete, right, and just.

I feel a bit sorry for my eighteen-year-old self. I was insanely mesmerized and electrified when for the first time, I saw two women kiss on TV. The first time to see a kiss and clearly feel: this is what I want. But my Anne Lister was called ‘Walter’, a cliché butch scripted into the show ‘Women’s prison’. Not quite a jewel of TV history, but my only chance to have something like a lesbian storyline.

How much I would have loved the Ann(e)s to take my lesbian-TV-kiss-virginity! It would have been staggering. Maybe it would have helped me to draw the outline of my identity a couple of years earlier. Maybe I could have developed some inner strength that could have made me more independent of my J.A.G. exoskeleton.

But I believe there is a meaning in all the turns I had to take in order to arrive at writing this text on Gentleman Jack and Anne Lister today. And I can still comfort my eighteen-year-old self: Gentleman Jack will enlarge the LGBTQI* universe. And while I am absorbed by all the emotions of these women, while I shed tears during the wedding scene, my wife will sit next to me and affectionately hold my hand.

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