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Dr Sonja Tiernan speaks at Liverpool Maritime Museum’s LGBT+ history month

It was the enduring Lesbian love story between a prominent poet and her suffragette partner which was “effectively erased from history”.

However, the 30-year relationship between Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper – at a time when most LGBT+ people had to hide their sexuality – was remembered through a Valentines talk at Liverpool Maritime Museum.

The talk by Dr Sonja Tiernan, who wrote the first dedicated biography of Gore-Booth, was based on the couple’s shared journal which provides a rare insight into lesbian life at the turn of the 20th Century.

Irish poet and dramatist Gore-Booth published volumes of verse, philosophical prose, and plays during the early part of last century, becoming a respected and prolific author and part of W.B. Yeats' literary circle.

Born in County Sligo to Sir Henry and Lady Georgina Gore-Booth in 1870, she rejected her aristocratic heritage and chose to live and work among the working classes in industrial Manchester.

She met Roper, a Mancunian social justice campaigner and suffragette, through a mutual friend in 1896 and they fell in love before living together in Manchester and London as a couple until Gore-Booth’s death aged 56 in 1926.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the pair helped support groups of female flower-sellers, circus performers, barmaids and coal pit-brow workers as their right to work was threatened by moral crusades and new legislation. 

They arranged public meetings, demonstrations and delegations to parliament.

Dr Tiernan, who is head of History and Politics at Liverpool Hope University, discussed their story at the museum on Friday (15th February) as part of its LGBT+ history month events.

“Eva left behind a treasure trove of fantastic writing about her life and relationship which gives a rich and vibrant insight into a part of LGBT+ history which is very rarely recorded,” said Dr Tiernan.

“The pair were very open about their relationship but later some historians described them only as friends. 

“They were both accomplished women but my argument is they were largely forgotten in history because of their relationship.

“In archives I found, one biographer wrote to their families in the 1980s to tell them not to worry because they had found “no trace of perverse sexuality” and that they had never shared a bedroom.

“Relationships like theirs were effectively erased from history. Unlike gay men, being a lesbian then wasn’t illegal and it meant that we have no accounts of things like criminal trials to understand more about their lives.”

Their journal contains accounts of their cross-dressing lesbian friends, and others who wanted gender reassignment from female to male.

Dr Tiernan added that the lack of equal rights for women in political, social and economic terms in the early part of the century meant “they were marginalised from the records of history” anyway, and lesbians who did not marry men or have children even more so.

The couple are buried together in a single plot in St John's churchyard, Hampstead, with a quote from lesbian icon Sappho carved on their gravestone.

Thanks to the efforts of people such as Dr Tiernan, Gore-Booth's work has won more contemporary admirers. 

Ireland's president Michael D. Higgins wrote the foreword for another of Dr Tiernan's books, an anthology of Gore-Booth's collected poems, and they discussed their mutual admiration for her work at a meeting in Liverpool on Wednesday.

Published on 18/02/2019