How a Lesbian from Another Century Brought Me Home
It would have been nice to write this during Pride Month. That was my intent when I set finger to keyboard over 30 days ago.
Then I froze.
Utterly moved by something I’d seen on TV, I felt compelled to offer thanks. Would seem a simple thing, right? Just say thank you. But, no. The feelings, too monumental. The things underlying them, just a bit too weighty.
Perhaps the keyboard wasn’t the right place, I thought. Perhaps instead I should be setting pen to paper, allowing the more meandering pace of that format to meter my mind, guide me more thoughtfully. After all, that’s what real writers do, right? One after another, the writers I love best talk of their notebooks, pen (or pencil) to paper and how that is the way to compose. So, I try. Really, I try. Pen, pencil, even once a felt tip pen (way too messy), thoughts come and ideas percolate but it’s disjointed, for me more a way to let all the thoughts out and then find the threads for stitching together.
But I digress. Point being, tried writing by hand and that didn’t work either.
Turns out that when one, when I, am setting forth on a path to transparency, the medium becomes irrelevant. Turns out that this is one of the more vulnerable things I’ve attempted to get out and the very act of doing so freezes my hands as my brain shoves out the words and pushes my fingers forward. Also turns out that, as my pal Vogue Robinson noted gently the other day, being vulnerable in open spaces is definitely not my normal.
How to say that the words of a woman cast across hundreds of years reached into my heart and pulled broken pieces together? How to properly express gratitude to the researchers who decoded the hidden diaries of a 19th Century lesbian, and the writer who unearthed this woman’s story and brought it to life, and the stunningly talented actress who embodied the words and gave them form? How to say that these women have given me something that nothing thus far has been able to do.
Where to begin? I think, perhaps, it’s best to set some context with a brief traipse through my coming out. It’s not as though I had any guidance in that process. I’d grown up fully expecting that the thoughts I had about women were just that … thoughts. Things that would come and go, but nothing to carry much weight. The unspoken mandate for me as an upper-middle-class, Jewish girl from the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia was to graduate high school, go to college, get a job, perhaps work a few years, then meet and marry a nice Jewish boy and settle down to continue the pattern on to another generation. There was no judgement or feeling about it. It’s just how it was.
Except it felt wrong. It always felt wrong.
My earliest memories are ones that inclined me more to fascination with women than men. Nothing sexual, mind you. It was just that I have these clear childhood memories of meeting women by whom I felt dazzled. Just about the time when I would have begun exploring my sexuality, perhaps having a chance to suss out where these feelings might fit, my life changed.
At the time when my peers were exploring dating, sexuality and all that, instead I was wrestling a dragon, an illness that tore at me from the inside out. Priorities changed. I wasn’t worried about dating. I was worried about whether I’d live to graduate high school. It was not until the disease subsided and I was well into my 20s when I began to even entertain the idea that maybe, just maybe, I was interested more in women than men.
My first affair with a woman was brief and tectonic. The first kiss is one I remember still — rattling me to the marrow of my bones.
“Ah ha!” I thought to myself. “So THAT is what everyone’s been making a fuss about all this time.” You see, even though my time of sexual activity had been delayed and brief, courtesy of my illness, the few interludes I’d had had been lackluster at best. I just couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about. I found men attractive, empirically speaking, but I just didn’t have any desire for any physical contact with them. When I did it was … well … meh. Why was the whole thing about sex so overblown? I didn’t get it. Not until that kiss on a foggy San Francisco evening.
Surrounded by the City’s trademark mantle of damp gray, the echo of foghorns cascading through air scented by eucalyptus and pine, that kiss changed everything. Suddenly physical desire made sense to me. I’d like to say that the power of that kiss and the wonderful first connection I had with a woman set me forth on a certain course to my sexuality.
No matter how safe and right the relationship felt, there was a voice in my head telling me that it was wrong … that I was wrong. Another member of my extended family had come out not long before, and watching the way the family dealt with the situation — disdain, judgement — drove me further into the closet. My connections to women became something to hide, something shameful.
This discomfort drove me to run. Breaking up with this woman I tried dating a man again, telling myself that I couldn’t be gay … that I wouldn’t be gay.
That didn’t last long.
Over the following years as I slowly became a bit more comfortable with identifying myself as a lesbian, there always was something that felt unsettled. It was never a question about whether or not I was actually a lesbian. That part was sorted. The problem was that I knew I was gay and I hated myself for it.
It didn’t help that over and over again, the women with whom I’d find myself involved were women who were on some level questioning their own sexuality. There’d be an initial connection, followed by a tempestuous romance, followed then by a Mercurial break up. I’d pick women who were perfectly unavailable — either uncertain about exploring their sexuality or not actually even gay, just perhaps seeking an emotionally intimate connection and unable to go beyond that emotional intimacy to something physical. Each time I’d find myself stranded, feeling alone, rejected and in that rejection feeling that there just had to be something utterly wrong with me.
Having come out somewhat later in life this idea of sexuality as being part of who I was felt foreign, it felt like something tagged on, an accessory rather than what it actually is … an integral aspect of the human experience. Though living in San Francisco, surrounded by people who “got me”, the problem was that I struggled with getting myself.
Why couldn’t I just be straight? Why couldn’t I be less intense? Why couldn’t I be less … me?
On the one hand I was so utterly comfortable in my presence — a presence that, from all accounts, had been powerful and energetic from almost the get go. I’d never faltered with my intelligence, powering forward in classes and never fearing to step up, speak out or take charge when the need arose. This very sense of strength seemed to attract so many, and yet when the time came to step forward into something more intimate, to reveal that underneath the strength lay a tender heart, I found myself coming up empty time and time again.
Fast forward to May of this year. A client of mine, with whom I regularly speak about books and films, said something that would end up shifting my world. She noted that she and her husband had just started watching a new TV series on HBO and that from the moment they began watching, the title character was familiar. The character reminded them of me.
I’d heard of it and had heard a bit about Anne Lister, but not yet started watching and so, curious, began that evening. The first episode sets much of the context and gives a rather broad view of this amazing woman — who’s noted as the first “modern lesbian”. She’s bold. She’s clever. She’s articulate and she doesn’t take crap from anyone. That the character was being portrayed with masterful strokes by the deeply talented Suranne Jones didn’t hurt. (I mean who on earth could ever take it as anything but a compliment to be compared to such a stunning woman?) What I didn’t expect was I’d be looking into a mirror, experiences from the 19th century reflecting my own.
The series is based on a meticulously kept set of Lister’s diaries — 27 volumes, much of it written in code to mask the salacious bits regarding her dalliances with women. The script, written by Sally Wainwright, pulls in part directly from Lister’s own words. While I’m guessing ample creative license was taken in the narrative, what I saw playing out in front of me was a woman who is utterly comfortable in her skin and wholly confident in her sense of self. A woman who, despite being confronted over and over by women who are unable to match her strength, picks herself up and moves forward.
She’s a woman driven by an internal force, a sense of certainty and such an absolute acceptance of herself. Seeing the way in which she carried herself through life, and during a time when her “lifestyle” was certainly far from anything even remotely looking like accepted, gave me pause from my privileged perch, 50 years hence from Stonewall.
She pulled me in, this Lister, someone who lived hundreds of years before I and who, it would seem, traveled the same (if not at least deeply similar) path and did so with what appeared to be far more finesse and power than I was able to muster.
In episode 2 there’s an exchange with her aunt in which she tells of her new “friendship” with a neighbor, Ann Walker, and proposes the idea that they might be “companions … for life.” In this exchange the aunt notes that Walker’s family and the rest of the people in Halifax won’t take lightly to such a thing … that “people … won’t mince words.”
Lister’s response, “They can’t touch me.” She states this with such certainty. Such conviction. Such a deep sense that she can withstand their criticism.
A stab in my heart.
I put up a good front, but the truth is that despite all appearances, there have been plenty of occasions where turning the other cheek left my soul and spirit more than a little black and blue. Even as recently as 2016 when my appearance on a local NPR affiliate broadcast led to a week-long assault from homophobes (scroll down in that link to hear what a hate-filled bigot sounds like as I embedded the audio from one of his voicemails), there’ve been times when my resolve cracks and I wonder. Perhaps I should just forget about being myself, just forget about embracing my authentic identity and just find some nice guy and get married.
Then, episode 6 … and this.
There had been one other time in one other film when a character’s line hit me this way. It was the character of Cay Rivvers from Donna Deitch’s 1985 Desert Hearts. She’s confronted by her lover about the way in which she boldly lives her life, her lover asking if she’s trying to change the world.
“I’m not doing this to change the world,” Cay said. “I’m doing this so the world doesn’t change me.”
Perhaps it’s because I wasn’t fully ready. I heard the line and it landed, but I don’t think I realized what it meant.
It was not until this series, for some reason, that all of these things have come home. Anne Lister reminded my client of me, because she is. At least she is the version of me whom the last years have finally given me the ability to become.
So, thank you. Thank you Sally Wainwright for persevering over the course of 20 years to bring this story to life on the screen. Thank you HBO and the BBC for providing the platform on which the story could be told. Thank you Suranne Jones for stepping forward into this woman’s shoes and portraying her with such grace, power and truth. Most of all, thank you Anne Lister, may you be looking down on today’s world knowing that your words live on and that at least for this 21st century lesbian I will do my part to carry the torch.