Anne Lister, Britain’s ‘first modern lesbian,’ honoured with rainbow plaque

Britain’s “first modern lesbian,” who challenged society’s convention with regards to sexuality, was honoured with a rainbow plaque in York on Tuesday.

Born in Halifax in 1791, Anne Lister was a landowner with an entrepreneurial flair. She turned the ailing estate she inherited into a profitable venture and used her wealth to live as she pleased, eventually marrying—without legal recognition—heiress Ann Walker to acquire the social standing she craved.

The permanent rainbow plaque is the first of its kind in York—but likely, not the last—and is the product of a partnership between the York Civic Trust, York LGBT History Month, York LGBT Forum, and The Churches Conservation Trust.


The rainbow plaque honouring Anne Lister was unveiled on July 24, 2018 (York Pride/Twitter)

It was unveiled on the wall of the Holy Trinity Church where the unofficial union took place on March 30, 1834. It describes Lister as a “gender-nonconforming entrepreneur,” a wording that has puzzled some social media users who wondered why it didn’t feature the word “lesbian.”

In a press statement, the York Civic Trust both described Lister as “one of Yorkshire’s earliest LGBT representatives,” noting her reputation as “the first modern lesbian,” while also pointing out how she lived an “unconventionally masculine lifestyle.”

York Civic Trust told PinkNews the decision of the plaque wording was the result of a “long-thought-out process” at the request of the LGBT+ partner groups who “had argued it among themselves.”

“The wording that we chose was supposed to be—I don’t know whether it’s going to be successful—but it was supposed to be factual and ‘future-proofed’ so it’s understandable into the future without changes in social connotation,” York Civic Trust chief executive Dr David Fraser told PinkNews. “We are conscious that we may have gotten it wrong,” he added.

Lister was a landowner and entrepreneur, a traveller, a prolific diarist—filling around 6,600 pages with 4 million words documenting her life from when she was a teenager until her death in 1840. The diaries were recognised by the United Nations in 2011 as a “national treasure” and a “comprehensive and painfully honest account of lesbian life and reflections on her nature,” the BBC reported at the time.

Parts of the diaries related to her sexuality were written in a code Lister had devised and thought would be unbreakable—until it wasn’t. According to a website dedicated to Lister, the relative who found the diary and broke the code decades ago was gay himself and did not want to draw attention to his own sexuality through the discovery.

Suranne Jones (L) will star as Anne Lister and Sophie Rundle (R) as Ann Walker in upcoming BBC Drama “Gentleman Jack” (Matt Squire/BBC)

The diaries formed the basis for an upcoming BBC/HBO drama about Lister’s life, titled “Gentleman Jack,” written by acclaimed Yorkshire television writer, producer, and director Sally Wainwright and starring BAFTA-winning actor Suranne Jones as the title character.

A release date for the eight-part series has yet to be set but it’s expected to air on the BBC in early 2019.

This is story was updated with comments from the York Civic Trust received after publication.