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A colourised print of Mademoiselle Maupin de l'Opéra

The art and lives of 5 LGBT+ women

These are some of the most inspirational women in history, who broke barriers with their and the way that they lived their lives.

Image: Julie D’Aubign was the inspiration for Théophile Gautier’s novel Mademoiselle de Maupin | Public Domain

While lesbianism itself was not a criminal offence it doesn’t mean that women in same-sex relationships haven’t been persecuted and prosecuted. Let’s be honest, throughout much of history, being a woman with opinions was problematic enough, let alone one with sexual desires or that pushed normal gender boundaries.

But not everyone crossed their ankles and tolerated society’s bigotry quietly. Here are five women who used it to fuel their art and help pave the way for a more inclusive future.

1. Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall

Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall fell in love with the singer Mabel Batten, who was 24 years her senior, when Mabel’s husband died. It’s here that she got the nickname ‘John’ and was introduced to a host of artistic and intellectual women. Having already begun writing poetry in 1906, she went on to publish five books of poetry and eight novels.

Her father’s inheritance meant Marguerite was not forced into heterosexual marriage. The same was not true for Mabel’s cousin Una Troubridge, who was married to Vice Admiral Troubridge when she met Marguerite in 1915. When they separated in 1919, Una and Marguerite became lovers.

Una was a talented translator and sculptor creating busts of the likes of Ninjinsky, but it was Marguerite’s 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness that earned the most notoriety. It was her only work with openly lesbian themes, leading it to be subject to an obscenity trial in the UK with all copies being burned. Despite Marguerite’s many affairs, she and Una openly remained a couple until she died in 1943.

2. Cha-U-Kao

If that name sounds suspiciously like a boisterous dance similar to the Can-Can, that’s because it is. Cha-U-Kao started her career as an acrobat and gymnast, but beyond that, no one knows much about her early life or even her real name. However, she became widely known as ‘The Clownesse’.

Known for her distinctive black and yellow costume, Cha-U-Kao performed regularly at Nouveau Cirque and the Moulin Rouge in Paris during the 1890s. It was here that she caught the eye of the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, with her confidence and openness about her sexuality quickly making her one of his favoured subjects. Henri painted a variety of intimate scenes depicting Cha-U-Kao with her female lovers. He also had huge respect for her choice of profession, since clowning was considered to be men’s work. It was deemed socially unacceptable and too physically demanding for women at the time, stereotypes that Cha-U-Kao’s playful performances juggled with ease.

3. Gladys Bentley

Gladys Bentley’s mother desperately wanted a boy and refused to touch her for six months after she was born in 1907, leaving Gladys to be raised by her Grandmother. Her later preference for wearing her brother's clothes led her family to seek a doctor to ‘fix’ her.

But Gladys went on to become an inspiration for LGBTQ+ and African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance. She never tried to pass for a man but donned a top hat and tails to take the New York speakeasies by storm, singing her own raunchy lyrics to popular songs in a deep, earthy voice whilst flirting with women in the audience. Gladys’ comical and risque performances mocked high-class imagery with low-class humour and by the 1930s she was headlining clubs backed by chorus lines of drag queens.

Despite her fame, Gladys was frequently harassed for being black, openly lesbian, and wearing men’s clothing. She needed permits to perform in a suit and in 1933, when she took her performance to Broadway, police locked the venue doors. In 1952’s repressive climate, she announced in an interview that she was ‘cured’ and married in a believed attempt to save her career.

4. Anne Lister

Mockingly known as ‘Gentleman Jack’ or ‘Fred’ due to her masculine appearance and refusal to accept gender conformities, Anne Lister has been dubbed the ‘first modern lesbian’ for her writing. Anne’s diaries elegantly document her life as a businesswoman, her interests in maths, medicine, and railways, and of course, relationships taking place between the women of the gentry and 19th-century aristocracy.

Many of Anne’s entries were written in code to protect her and her lovers from persecution if found. They described multiple lesbian relationships from her school days onwards in such frank and graphic detail that they were originally believed to be a hoax. Anne notionally married Ann Walker in Goodramgate, York which is still celebrated as the birthplace of British lesbian marriage.

5. Julie D’Aubigny

Where to begin with Julie D’Aubigny? This sword-fighting, bisexual Parisian opera singer was the inspiration for Théophile Gautier’s novel Mademoiselle de Maupin. Although this is one time where real life was truly stranger than fiction.

Julie began fencing against men at the age of 12 and, later in life, could duel three men in one night. She was married to Sieur de Maupin at 14 but fled after he took part in an illegal duel. Once in Marseilles, she performed in the opera under her maiden name, had an affair with a merchant’s daughter, and then pulled a full Operation Mincemeat to free her from a convent. She faced charges as a man for kidnapping and arson as a result.

Julie then returned to Paris where she convinced the King’s household to let her join the Parisian opera. Her last performance was in 1705 following the death of her partner, Marie du Florensac. She died soon after in 1707, aged just 33.