LGBT History Month

Stature flyer p2Each February LGBT history month honours the histories and achievements of people who happened to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

February – March 2014 we yarnstormed the marble man statues in Manchester Town Hall with crocheted masks representing some inspiring Mancunian women.

We put some ‘L’ into LGBT history month with our celebration of social justice campaigner Esther Roper (1868 – 1938).

 

no lgbtOver the years homophobic historians have tried to write gay people out of history: a decades-long, loving, same-sex relationship downgraded to ‘friendship’; while a walk in the park with someone of the opposite sex portrayed as a possible romance. This is exactly what happened to suffragist Esther Roper and her partner Irish poet Eva Gore Booth.

In the 1980s lesbophobic historian Gifford Lewis wrote a joint-biography of the couple. The author was intent on posthumously straightening out their relationship, denying they were romantically involved. She wrote to one of Eva’s relative exclaiming “you will be pleased to know that I could find not a trace of perverted sexuality.” Without a shred of evidence, the introduction to the biography states, “Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper never entered each other’s bedrooms except in illness”.

Esther Roper

Esther Roper

Esther Roper lived an extraordinary life. Born into a working class family, her father was a factory labourer turned missionary, and she was named after an aunt who had started work as a cotton weaver aged 12.  She was one of the first women to gain a degree from Manchester Uni (then known as Owens College). In 1886 she was admitted on a trial scheme to test whether females could study without harm to their mental or physical health.

In 1893 she was employed to co-ordinate a leading women’s rights organisation in Manchester. Her focus on working class women getting the vote shocked old school campaigners who reckoned that only middle class, property owning women should take part in elections. Esther thought if women paid taxes and contributed to the economy, the least men in parliament could do was give them a vote, and a say on laws affecting their working conditions. She was angered that employment laws put women on the same footing as young people, rather than treating them as adults capable of making informed decisions. She went out and about to textile districts around Manchester, visiting working class women in factories and at home, drumming up support for the cause.

In 1896, exhausted from tireless campaigning, Esther took a break in Italy. It was there she met the love of her life, Eva Gore-Booth. Esther later wrote about their encounter:

heart“For months illness kept us in the south, and we spent the days walking and talking on the hillside by the sea. Each was attracted to the work and thoughts of the other, and we soon became friends and companions for life.”

Eva then gave up a life of luxury in Ireland to move in with Ether in her terraced house in Rusholme. Over the following decade the couple worked together on campaigns to protect working class women against new laws threatening their livelihood, successfully defending the rights of female coal mine workers, acrobats, gymnasts, and florists.

They formed the Barmaids Defence League to campaign against a proposed ban on female bar staff. In 1908 a young Winston Churchill was re-standing for parliament arguing that barmaids should face the chop. In Manchester Esther and Eva organised a fantastically flamboyant barmaid support campaign. They gave speeches atop an ornate vintage carriage drawn by four white horses, driven by Gore-Booth’s sister Countess Constance Markievicz. Their protest was a success, Churchill didn’t get re-elected, and the ‘ban the barmaids’ bill didn’t get passed into law.

During the First World War Esther and Eva joined the Womens’ Peace crusade and travelled the country speaking in support of a negotiated peace to end the conflict.

In 1916, along with transwoman Irene Clyde, the couple co-founded a privately circulated journal promoting their pioneering views on gender and sexuality. Published six times a year, Urania (meaning homosexual or third gender) contained clippings of articles from national and international press about same sex relationships and cross-dressing. Other content included discussions of outrageous (for the time) themes such as why women shouldn’t marry – challenging convention that unmarried women were just not attractive enough to bag a man; why we should live in a genderless society; and how passionate lesbian relationships are a great alternative to marriage.

In 1929, three years after her partner’s death, Esther published a collection of Eva’s poetry with an introduction paying tribute to the woman she loved:

heart“To the hard work which she did together for thirty years she bought a spirit of adventure and gaiety which nothing daunted. Of a gallant courage and a gentle courtesy she made life together a gracious thing. Even simple everyday pleasures when shared with her became touched with magic.. At the end she looked up with that exquisite smile that always lightened up her face when she saw one she loved, then closed her eyes and was at peace.”

Esther died in April 1938 and was buried in the same grave as Eva, a quote from lesbian icon Sappho carved on their headstone.

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Our Stature project has a second link to LGBT history month via maths boffin and politician Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw.

Dame Kathleen worked with mathematician Alan Turing at Manchester University. She had enormous respect for the computer genius, who’d been a Second World War code breaking hero playing a pivotal part in helping Britain reach victory. Turing died in 1954, ending his life two years after being convicted of homosexuality.

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In the 1970s Dame Kathleen’s admiration of Turing inspired her to go against the grain while serving on Manchester City Council, and actively support setting up a lesbian and gay community centre in the city. In 2004, on the fiftieth anniversary of Alan Turing’s death, Dame Kathleen unveiled a Blue Plaque commemorating his life at the house in Wilmslow where he lived during the last four years of his life.

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For further info on Esther Roper and Eva Gore Booth, check out Sonja Tiernan’s excellent book: Eva Gore-Booth: An Image of Such Politics.

Quotes above from Esther Roper originally appear in her ‘Introduction to the Poems of Eva Gore-Booth’  Longmans, 1929, and are reprinted in The Lesbian History Sourcebook: Love and Sex Between Women in Britain from 1780 – 1970, by Alison Ora and Annmarie Turnbull.

For further discussion on homophobic historians writing lesbians out of history, see Britannia’s Glory, A History of Twentieth-Century Lesbians by Emily Hamer; and Sonja Tiernan’s paper ‘Challenging Presumptions of Heterosexuality Eva Gore Booth a biographical case study’ in Historical Reflections Reflexions Historiques, Vol 37 Issue 2 Summer 2011 pp. 58-71.

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