LGBT+ History Month 2022 – Art and History – Amy Zielonka on ‘Gentleman Jack’

The theme for LGBT+ History Month 2022 is Art and Politics focussing on how art and expression have helped to bring about change and justice for the rights of LGBT+ people.

For this at Together we asked staff and service users who identify as LGBT+ to share examples of art (including any form of creative expression such as music, film, literature or art) that was inspiring and important to them. We wanted to hear how that art was used to tell stories of LGBT+ people to bring about change and how that in turn benefited their own mental health.

Amy Zielonka is a Recovery Worker in our Norfolk Integrated Housing and Community Support Service specifically at the Vanguard Court Accommodation Service and also does outreach in the community around Norfolk. Amy came forward to share with us the positive influence she felt from the BBC show ‘Gentleman Jack’ and has written a blog to explain the impact the show had on her and ways that it helped with her own mental wellbeing:

Anne Lister was the unusual and unapologetic 19th Century ‘first modern lesbian’, who recorded her extraordinary experiences of loving women and embracing traditionally male roles in the face of societal judgement in her secret cryptic diary. Little did she know when she did, that her words would be resonating with other queer women, almost 200 years later.

Since my teenage years I’ve always consumed books, music, films and TV series created by and/or about queer women and I still frequent the ‘Loud & Proud’ section of my local library. So you won’t be surprised to hear that LGBTQ+ art is important to me. Through the years it has provided a huge amount of validation and sense of belonging in an otherwise largely heteronormative society. Yet, it wasn’t until I watched the historical drama TV series, Gentleman Jack, in 2019 that I became fully committed to embracing and loving myself the way I am. The TV series came out during a time when I was struggling with my mental health. I had lost a sense of purpose in my life and was struggling with my sense of self. I was also wrestling with deeply held negative beliefs about myself and was feeling profound shame, some of which surrounded my sexuality as a gay woman.

Gentleman Jack is based on the real life of Anne Lister. It is set in 1832 and after being left broken-hearted, Anne returns to her estate at Shibden Hall in Halifax, with the task of restoring it. This untraditional female landlord and estate owner enters into a romance with fellow female landowner Ann Walker, leaving them at great risk of danger but also with the prospect of blossoming love. As I watched the story unfold I felt as if the two main characters embodied my struggles at the time, and encapsulated how I was feeling.

Shibden Hall picture by Amy Zielonka

As they navigate a romantic relationship in a time when same sex relationships were barely understood and acknowledged, let alone accepted in society, Anne Lister faces an endless stream of judgement and rejection for wearing androgynous clothes, taking on traditionally male roles and not marrying a man. Despite bounds of social change separating us, not only did her experiences of feeling judged resonate with me, but so did her feelings of isolation as a queer woman, which she immortalises in her diary, her only true friend and listener. Meanwhile, Ann Walker, her lover, is in turmoil trying to come to terms with the fact that she is in love with a woman and terrified of the dangers and ‘unholiness’ of life as a queer woman herself. She is also living with grief, depression and anxiety. Though I feel fortunate not to have been born in the 1800s, in her, I saw my shame around my sexuality and my continual struggle of trying not to hate myself that contributed to the overall problems in my mental health.

Beyond being able to relate to Anne and Ann, as the series went on I became inspired by their resilience and determination to overcome their battles. Despite the constant barrage of judgement and distain thrown at Anne, she stubbornly and unabashedly lives her life the way she wants to without fitting into the box of what was acceptable in society at the time. This is perfectly captured in regular occurrences of her striding around confidently (almost arrogantly) in her androgynous clothes to jaunty music on the way to some mission or another. Those missions are usually to protect her estate and loved ones or to take far more effort and flack in asserting her powerful status than her male peers would have found necessary. This self-confidence and resilience definitely rubbed off on me. In contrast, Ann is easily mistaken as a ‘weak’ character due to her low self-confidence, but I greatly admired and was inspired by her. She shows a huge amount of bravery in standing up for herself and her decisions and eventually takes the plunge into a terrifying decision to fully embrace her love for Anne, and arguably for herself.

Series 1 of the show ends in a very heart-warming, not-legal-yet but special wedding ceremony between the women. To see these two wonderful characters overcome such huge issues felt very inspiring and empowering for me, especially knowing that their story is true. Even acknowledging that these women were privileged as far as societal background is concerned, I was left thinking that if they could do these things in the 1800s, then I can do anything.

Anne Lister (right) played by Suranne Jones and Ann Walker (left) played by Sophie Rundle. Photo: BBC One and HBO

Alongside the therapy I engaged in, Gentleman Jack played a big part in me being able to finally fully accept and embrace myself and my sexuality. It gave me inspiration and courage to socialise more in the LGBT+ community and show my fiancée affection in public. I became more comfortable in friendships with women and no longer saw my wardrobe choices as a dichotomous decision of trying to fit into looking either ‘gay’ or ‘acceptable’. Today I am confident being just ‘Amy’ and if anyone judges or questions me I think “so what?” The second series of Gentleman Jack comes out this Spring. You can watch Series 1 on BBC iPlayer.

Thank you to Amy for sharing this blog and for taking the time to write it.