top of page

Cumbria’s Hidden Queer Icons

This pride month we thought we’d look back at some of our previous stories about queer people in Cumbria’s history.

Expect to hear about the King who built Carlisle castle, A Drag King who became a war hero and a trans lawyer who shaped queer history and theory.

Kris Kirk: The Openly Gay Influential Music Journalist from Carlisle

One of the only photographs to exist of Kris Kirk taken during his university years

Born in 1950 Carlisle, Christopher Pious Mary Kirk colloquially known as Kris Kirk grew up and went to school in the county’s capital.

In early adulthood Kris went down south to the University of Nottingham where he studied American Literature. Kirk came out as an openly gay man whilst attending the university and founded the university's first Gay Liberation Society.

This is when Kris first took part in radical street theatre and “radical drag” which was the use of drag in public as a form of protest.

Kirk appeared as Maid Marian in a gay street theatre performance of Robin Hood known as Robina Hood and her Gay Folk. This was in 1975, and The Campaign for Homosexual Equality was also involved as well as the Gay Liberation Front.

Some of the many performers in the street theatre group.

Photo credit: The Story of The Gay Liberation Front in Britain

The Gay Liberation Front thrived on spontaneity and zapping public events which would gain them notoriety.

Zaps was a term to describe what we would now call direct action, a form of protest. One former member described how they went up onstage to demonstrate for The Campaign for Homosexual Equality at the London Palladium.

Zaps involved wearing outrageous costumes and crossdressing as a confrontational radical tool.

The GLF once interrupted a Festival of Light Rally in 1971. Other GLF theatre goers went to Kings Cross tube station in highly decorated costumes and handed out leaflets with their campaign message.

GLF Youth Group. Photo credit: The Story of The Gay Liberation Front in Britain

Their protests, demonstrations and street theatre challenged public perceptions. Kris was the leader of the GLF in Nottingham and it really succeeded under him. However, when Kris became ill with AIDS and sadly died in 1993 much of the GLF disbanded.

Without Kris Kirk’s work as an activist much of the privileges and acceptance we have now wouldn’t have materialised.

In the 70s and 80s we needed figures like Kris Kirk to challenge the gender norms and conservative thinking of the time.

Kirk’s actions contributed to the wider acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community and that even meant putting himself in danger by dressing in drag and protesting in very public areas where he could well have been a target.

Not bad for a lad from Carlisle.

Hannah Snell: The 18th Century War Hero who was Tortured at

Carlisle Castle and Later Became a Drag King in London

A portrait of Hannah Snell decorated in their military clothing. Photo credit: British Tars

Born in Worcester in 1723 and orphaned at 17, Hannah Snell moved to Wapping in London to stay with her Sister Susanah and brother-in-law James Gray in 1740.

In that same year, she married a Dutch sailor, James Summs, and fell pregnant with her first child. Things took a tragic turn when Hannah’s husband left her and their infant daughter who sadly died a few months after birth.

Not long after losing both her daughter and husband, Snell borrowed a suit of clothes from her brother-in-law and assumed her new identity under his name.

Snell enlisted with General Guise’s regiment in Coventry under her new alias and marched with them to Carlisle.

Snell reports that her sergeant Davis wanted to seduce a local woman and enlisted the help of Snell’s new persona to get the woman for him.

Instead of assisting the sergeant, Snell warned the woman in question about his scheme. Sergeant Davis felt Snell became a close ally to the woman and viewed Snell as his rival.

A newspaper article about Hannah Snell being the first woman soldier. Photo credit: British Tars

In a fit of jealous malice, Davis had Snell sentenced to 600 lashes for neglect of duty. Snell reports that she was tied to Carlisle Castle gates and received 500/600 lashings and claimed no one knew she was a woman.

In 1745 Snell enlisted to the marines in Portsmouth and managed to preserve her identity whilst out in the East Indies where she became a war hero after being wounded by multiple gunshots in combat.

Snell received the public appraisal for her bravery and performed in London theatres dressed in male drag where she would sing and demonstrate military drills.

Hannah Snell performing as a drag king

During a time when it was frowned upon for women to break traditional gender roles set out by the patriarchal and heteronormative society, Hannah Snell was a trailblazer of her time.

Snell felt comfortable in men’s clothing and held ‘the real Soul of a Man in her Breast’. Snell broke boundaries as the first woman who passed as a male soldier.

Irene Clyde: The Trans, Gender Fluid Lawyer From Cumbria

Who Shaped Early Gender & Sexuality Theory

The only photograph that exists of Irene Clyde

Irene Clyde (1869-1954) was a gender radical from the Stanwix district in Carlisle.

Irene was a talented lawyer and achieved three law degrees and a doctorate in law but away from their academic career they led an alternative lifestyle.

In 1993 scholars revealed in a book, Rediscovering Forgotten Radicals: British Women Writers, 1889-1939 that *deadname* had been writing postgender books and articles under the identity Irene Clyde.

One of the many works they’d produced was Beatrice the Sixteenth which storyline concerned an imaginary utopia genderless society.

The tiled sleek new cover of Beatrice the Sixteenth due to be released this summer

The book was revolutionary at the time and acted as a vessel for other feminist utopias and modern radical feminist thinking on gender and sexuality.

These academic insights clearly demonstrate Irene’s gender fluidity and how their literature was wholly concerned with sexuality, gender identity and is inherently radically feminist - like the underground journal Urania that they wrote alongside two lesbian suffragists, Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth.

The 109th and 110th edition of Urania circulated around 1935

It was the first British magazine to produce a cultural and political discourse on gender issues and the demands of non-normative figures or to put it simply the queer community.

So what does this mean for queer people currently? Well, Clyde’s story informs us that not only does the gender binary not serve us but we must be inclusive of gender when debating feminist issues in the fourth wave of feminism we are now living in today.

William Rufus: Britain's First Gay King Who Built Carlisle Castle

William Rufus and his famous red locks that garnered his nickname Rufus instead of William II

William II, or more commonly known as William Rufus was born around 1056 and his reign as King of England lasted between 1087 until 1100. He succeeded the famous William the Conqueror, his father.

Rufus had a hostile relationship towards Malcolm III, the King of Scotland because of his constant invasions of England. In May 1092, Rufus travelled to Carlisle to expel a Scottish ruler Dolfin who worked with Malcom III from the area of Cumberland.

He entered the city through what is now known as Botchergate road and in Norman tradition he ordered the building of Carlisle castle on the previously Roman built fort.

The front of Carlisle castle. Photo credit: About Britain

Rufus had a difficult relationship with the Church of England. It is said that he banished the archbishop Anslem because he spread rumours about the King’s private life and it was exacerbated by Eadmer, a clergy who called him a sodomite because of his court’s lavish dresswear. Despite the relations between Rufus and the Church, one of his chief advisors and good friends Ranulf Flambard, the Bishop of Durham was regarded as his sexual partner. Reuters claims that during Rufuses rule the majority of Westminster hall was unlit allowing many people to come and go from the Kings quarters which were regularly attended to by an effeminate flock of male harlors according to Ralph Spencer, a UK parliament tour guide.

Ranulf Flambard the Archbishop of Durham helped construct the new Westminster Hall for William Rufus.

Photo credit: Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson 1808

In 1983, writer Frank Barlow produced a biography on William Rufus which revealed more about the men Rufus kept in his court suggesting that: “almost all the young men at court grew their hair like girls and freshly combed, with roving eyes and irreligious gestures, they minced around with girlish steps”.

Many Kings and Queens of England have had their sexuality brought to speculation such as Queen Anne and King Edward II but Rufus was the first British monarch to have been acknowledged by many historians as being homosexual or at least bisexual.

There’s even a Whetherspoons pub on Botchergate Road named after him.

The William Rufus pub on Botchergate in Carlisle, named after the King

Who’s story did you like the most? Let us know in the comments

32 views0 comments


bottom of page