Self-proclaimed “Lister Sister” Rachael Biggs on validation, courage and lessons in love
BY RACHAEL BIGGS, IMAGES FROM GENTLEMAN JACK, BBC
It has been one month now since the last episode of Gentleman Jack was shown on the BBC. Since the finale on 7 July 2019, I have been through the most magnificent (and scary) journey. Even as I write this, my brain can’t keep up with the words I feel utterly compelled to write down. The initial stages that I felt were similar to that of grief (not a term to be used lightly I am sure you will agree) and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why. The days following the finale, I was struggling to concentrate at work. I was replaying certain scenes (the hilltop scene, the wedding scene in the church) over and over in my mind and I felt such utter sadness, it was knocking me sideways. I vividly remember looking at my wife with tears welling in my eyes, so desperate to understand why I felt so much pain deep in my heart, it literally made my heart ache. I couldn’t make sense of my emotions whatsoever. “What is happening to me?” I remember asking myself. I was trying to get my three-year-old to finish off her sandwich at lunchtime and tears were flowing down my cheeks – I didn’t want her to see me like this.
Over the course of the following two nights once the kids were in bed, I decided to binge-watch the series again to see if this would help to give me some clarity over the situation. It didn’t. So then I decided to do two very important things: one – I wrote down my innermost thoughts and feelings in true Anne Lister style and two – I joined a Gentleman Jack fan group on Facebook. It helped. Writing my thoughts and feelings down helped me to understand where the desperate sadness was coming from and joining the group reassured me that I certainly was not alone in this. I soon discovered that what I was feeling was indeed a profound sense of grief (that word again). Grief for all the feelings, all the emotions, the simple validation of who I am and what my heart, body and soul is capable of, that me as a little girl and me as teenager and me as a young woman missed out on. Never before on prime time TV (and BBC at that!) had I seen a lesbian love story with no showcasing, no gimmicks, no ulterior motive, just love, in all its rawness. For me and a lot of other people, this was and is groundbreaking. Finally, there is something very real for lesbians and bi women to relate to, not just the dramatised love story portrayed in Gentleman Jack, but also the real life Anne Lister and Ann Walker and the hurdles that they overcame to be together. It is a running joke that all lesbians in films and TV are killed off. Not this time. (Well, not quite yet anyway!)
I was feeling validated, right to the core of my very being and it was overwhelming me. I became quickly obsessed as I tried to work it out. I got the accompanying BBC book written by Anne Choma, I booked a trip to Halifax to see all the Lister sights, I watched clips of the series on social media (P.S. Don’t tell my wife, but I also checked out both Suranne Jones’ and Sophie Rundle’s instagram accounts – yes, I created my own account for the sole purpose of doing this.) Heck, I even posted on the Facebook fan group – something I have never done before. I wasn’t myself. But at the same time I was. I was allowing myself to be exactly who I am, with nothing holding me back. My first ever public post – this programme just seemed to transform me, my confidence to express my innermost thoughts and my ability to just simply be me. If that isn’t empowering, I don’t know what is. (By the way my post received 231 likes and 60 comments… not bad considering I had never done it before! All comments were positive – how refreshing!)
This is where I have ended up. I am a woman married to another woman, living in a rural part of England. I am a teacher, my wife is a doctor. Together we have three small children (three-year-old twins and a one-year-old, all girls). This is me. Prior to Gentleman Jack, I was just doing my best – surrounding myself with very accepting family and friends, trying to remain positive and optimistic, but… at the back of mind, I was worried for my children. I would watch or read the news and feel scared – protests outside school gates, countries declaring homosexuality a sin, homophobic hate crimes. I would worry that my children might be bullied for having two mums, I would worry that they themselves would wish that they had a dad. Since Gentleman Jack, I have allowed myself to listen only to what I know is the truth – that all my children need is love. Plain and simple. Of course, I already knew this before but not with the same air of confidence behind me.
I struggled myself with my own self-acceptance as a young teenager growing up in a rural area. But I made a choice to live my life as me and off to uni in London I went and I didn’t look back. During my twenties, I loved and lost, I suffered intense heartbreak, I made terrible mistakes, I treated former lovers badly and in turn got treated badly. I am human too. I had no TV programmes or films or even music (although music did come the closest to helping) to relate it all to and it hurts me to know that. I feel sad for my younger self. Gentleman Jack has allowed me to accept all of this. It has reassured me of who I am and the best thing that will come out of this is that it will project directly onto my children’s lives. Yes, of course I will still worry about the impact of things on my children, but at least I now have a tether point at which to go back to. “Women fell in love almost 200 years ago, you know?” I can hear my future self say…. “Have some courage, Rachael”. It has allowed me to revisit my painful past. I can now look back on all my life experiences without the need to promptly shut the door on each one, as they gently surface from my memory box. It has opened up scars that I didn’t even know were still there, but simultaneously healed them. No wonder I have been feeling overcome by emotion over the last few weeks!
I will endeavour to teach my children better than I had. They will learn that love is love, no matter the set up. Most importantly I will teach them self-acceptance. Accept who you are and work with it – take the good with the bad. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Surround yourself with decent and loving people and you won’t stray too far from the right path. Be kind; we are all human. These are lessons that I think the world as a whole could really do with in this very moment.
So the journey Gentleman Jack has taken me on has quite literally been life-changing. It has changed my outlook completely, it has offered me a chance for true self-acceptance and ultimately it has made me feel very happy to be alive. I know it has been life-changing for a great many other people too, whether gay, bi or straight, who doesn’t like a good old fashioned (literally) love story?
On the Facebook group, I have read stories of people coming out to their friends and family having watched the programme. Another that sticks in my mind was about a parent, who having watched episode six, which shows Ann Walker really struggling with her self-acceptance to the point of a mental breakdown, rung up their lesbian daughter to say, “I love you. I accept you”. Talk about life-changing. It really is. People in this group are obsessively watching episodes over and over again – why? The answer is because every time they watch it, it validates them further. It is making them feel alive, accepted, it is real, it’s a “comfort blanket”, as one person put it. It is something lesbians have waited for their whole life and it really hit home, because it is not all make-believe. It’s based on a real life story, a story dating back almost 200 years. For a lot of people, it is the tether point I referred to earlier. It is also mind-blowing that this show has created so many knock-ons, for example, a local Halifax jewellers who has designed replica Onyx rings as worn by Suranne Jones (playing Anne Lister) in the show has been inundated and unable to keep up with orders. Hotels have been sold out, Shibden Hall has had to extend its opening times… this is to name but a few. There is a whole world out there that has been set on fire by this.
As a mother of three girls under three, I haven’t had a child-free day out since they were born. It had to be something special to get me to stay away from home and special it certainly was. Travelling from the South West of England, Google maps told me it would take four hours 30 mins to travel to Halifax. “Do it,” said the voice in my head. “Do it,” said my wonderful wife sitting next to me. So I did it. I woke up at 4.30am one Saturday morning and was in Halifax by 9am. The next 48 hours provided me with memories that will last a lifetime. The second I arrived in Halifax, I felt completely at home. I honestly felt something special touch my soul. It wasn’t just that every single person I met was incredibly helpful, from the guides in Halifax Minster to the staff at Shibden Hall; no, it ran deeper than that. Visiting Ann Walker’s burial site was one of the most profound moments of my life. I paid my respects and thanked her for all she has done for us. As I stood alone in the churchyard surrounded by gravestones with the sunlight shining through the trees that were gently swaying in the wind, it suddenly dawned on me the depths of what I was feeling. It felt as though she was a relative of mine, almost as if I was discovering part of my long lost family tree. Anne Walker to me at that moment was as a grandmother, or rather a great, great, great one. I felt the same too for Anne Lister, as I stood in Halifax Minster and thanked her for her courageous and brave character that led me to stand where I stood that sunny Saturday in Halifax. These two women are a part of all lesbians and I think it explains why discovering their very existence has blown the minds of women across the globe. To be perfectly honest, so strong and interesting are their characters, they have managed to captivate audiences regardless of sexual orientation and indeed gender. As we refer to each other in the fan group, we are either “Lister Sisters” or “Lister Misters” and we are welcome and open to either and anyone in between.
The reason, I believe, for the groundbreaking nature of this TV programme is two fold. The first is quite simple: the BBC, a cornerstone of British television, made the important decision to show us a love story of two somewhat troubled but resilient women on primetime Sunday evening TV. Just wow. The second is more complex and has more layers to it, of which I am yet to unravel, as my very existence just can’t quite handle it all in one go. It is the weight of carrying around the knowledge that a historic figure, who almost 200 years ago, stayed true to herself and married another woman. Even more wow. Every person on this planet likes to know where they come from, their roots, who has paved the way for them and what experiences they had – good and bad. Now lesbians have had a piece of the jigsaw puzzle that has always been missing, be found. It is instilling a quiet confidence that quite simply just wasn’t there before (no matter how many reruns of the L Word we watched!) It has rocked the lesbian world. The goal posts have been moved and there is no going back now and I am in awe of it. If Anne Lister was here to see it now, she would certainly have a smile on her face.
I finish by showing upmost gratitude to Sally Wainwright for such beautiful mastery of screenwriting and to Helena Whitbread, Jill Liddington and Anne Choma for being so talented and dedicated in order that any of this could happen in the first place. I feel indebted to Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle, who portrayed the love so authentically that at times I actually believed it was real. (I secretly still do!) I also say to the person or people who green-lit it for prime time BBC viewing, well done. The same to HBO for our friends across the pond. You have no idea, absolutely no idea, the impact you have had, not only on this generation, but also the next. I am so proud to tell my three little girls, who have two mums who love them more than life itself, about my all-time favourite love story, which just so happens to involve two women who dared to be different and stayed true to themselves.
Opinions expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors of DIVA magazine or its publishers.
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