throwback to the time my classics professor asked “does anyone know who sappho is?” and i immediately replied “she’s the OG lesbian” and my professor yelled “EXACTLY” and wrote the OG lesbian on the whiteboard
May you sleep on the breast of a tender companion.— Fragment 126
Born on the island of Lesbos off the coast of Greece in the year 630 BCE, Sappho was a poet of critical fame and acclaim. Known widely across the Greek and Roman empires, Sappho became notorious for her writings and was held in the same esteem as Homer, Socrates and Plato. By the time of her death in 570 BCE she had composed over ten thousand lines of poetry which had been spread across the Mediterranean.
Plato wrote of the scribe:
“Some say the muses are nine, but how carelessly! Look at the tenth, Sapphos from Lesbos.”
Christian priests in the 3rd and 2nd century (CE), deeming her reputation to be scandalous and heretical, sought to wipe out all record of Sappho from history. Because of this, much of her verse has been lost; large portions were destroyed when Christian zealots set fire to the Library of Alexandria in 391 BCE, and others purged copies of her works from private libraries all across Europe. Only 650 lines remain preserved to this day, a mere 6%, and most are fragmented. Many were found by way of Egypt, as old scrolls and papyrus were used in the production of mummy cases.
One of the few poems to survive largely intact is also one of the most famous pieces of woman loving woman poetry in history, and is cataloged as the first fragment: Ode to Aphrodite, in which Sappho confesses the burden of her desire for an unnamed woman to the goddess of love. This established Sappho as a symbol of homosexual love between women by the end of the 19th century (CE) when poets began to invoke her name for that purpose.
Noted lesbian scholars Renée Vivien and Natalie Clifford Barney began to use the term “sapphic” to describe attraction to women by women in their own poetry, which was formed in the sapphic style. Vivien used Sappho’s writings all throughout her works, to the point that people began to confuse where Sappho’s writing ended and hers began.
What is not firmly established, however, is if Sappho was exclusively attracted to women. Works from the fifth and fourth century, BCEE., describe her as a heterosexual woman “driven by her love for a younger man”, the ferryman Phaon who conducted passage between the island of Leucadia and the Greek mainland, whose rejection drove her to take her own life by leaping from the cliffs of Leucadia and plunging into the sea. It is also recorded that she had a daughter named Cleïs, who is referenced explicitly in fragment 132:
I have a beautiful child, her form— Fragment 132
like golden flowers, beloved Kleïs,
whom I would not trade for all of Lydia
or lovely ...
In the 98th fragment, Sappho writes about how her mother spoke of wrapping her hair in a purple band, but Sappho regrets that she has no such band to give to Cleïs.
Most debated is the 31st fragment of her poetry:
To me it seems that man has the fortune
of gods, whoever sits beside you
and close, who listens to you
and laughing temptingly. My heart— Fragment 31
flutters in my breast whenever
I quickly glance at you –
I can say nothing,
Different scholars argue about if Sappho wrote here about a man or a woman, and indeed many early translations changed the verse to make it seem as if it was about a man. Others argue that, if it was a woman, she was merely expressing friendship (you know, just gals being pals). In English translations, the poem reads as unrequited love for a straight woman, and thus since the 1970s has been used as a definitive example of Sappho’s homosexuality. Yet there are other passages which speak of desire for men.
A handsome man is good to look at,— Fragment 50
but a good man will be handsome as well.
One of the major issues conflating the matter is that because Sappho was of such high esteem, scholars who proceeded her decided they did not wish to besmirch her by making mention of her gay nature. A biography written in the late third century (BCE), as well as the Suda of the tenth century (CE) say that Sappho was “slanderously accused” of having sex with women, implying that it was believed at the time that she didn’t. The poet Ovid wrote a fictional letter from Sappho to Phaon where she is portrayed as being disturbed by these allegations.
Poetry scholar Judith Hallett notes that none of the other noted homosexual authors of the time were shown such doubt as to their sexuality. She goes on to suggest that the context of the poetry Sappho was writing indicates she was intending to provide self confidence for other women, the fifth century equivalent of “Work it, girl!”
Do you smell that? It’s bisexual erasure. By many accounts, Sappho was not exclusively attracted to women.
Regardless, by the 1920s “Lesbian”, originally meaning a person from the island of Lesbos, was in use as a noun to medically refer to women who have sex with other women. The term was intended as the female equivalent to “sodomite”, which at the time was only used for men. Neither term, however, was used as a descriptor of sexuality, merely to describe a person who engaged in those acts.
A burgeoning lesbian culture began to form in urban communities, claiming the term for themselves, and lesbian relationships were practiced openly and freely. The great depression, however, broke up many of these communities, and the social conservatism that followed in the wake of the second world war forced many homosexual people into hiding. Straight passing marriages became a necessity for safety. Anti-crossdressing laws made it illegal for women to present masculine, forcing many butch women into feminine presentation.
Then Stonewall happened. A police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, New York, sought to arrest crossdressers and sodomists. It turned into a full blown riot when butch lesbian Stormé DeLarverie punched a policeman who hit her over the head with a club, and shouted out to the crowd to “do something!” The stonewall riots lasted five days and were the initiating trigger point of the gay rights movement. We celebrate Pride in memory of those riots.
The gay rights movement threw fire on to the already raging civil rights movement and the burgeoning second wave feminist movement. Women were fed up with being forced into femininity by patriarchy, and lesbian feminism became a force of power. Second wave feminism centered a principle that femininity was far too influenced by the male gaze. Womens fashion, behavior, roles and economic power were all rooted in their worth to heterosexual relationships, and women’s freedom could only be found in actively defying those influences.
From this came the rise of Political Lesbianism, an ideology that women should choose not to have relationships with men, regardless of their sexuality, even if it meant celibacy. Closely tied to political lesbian is Lesbian Separatism.
Central to lesbian separatism is the belief of sex and gender essentialism, the belief that human behavior is hardwired according to the genitals you are born with, and that people assigned female will always be nurturing and pacifistic (ironic that a radical womens group would view women as pacifists), and that all men are “aggressive, competitive and destructive”. From their perspective, every single male assigned individual is going to seek to enforce patriarchy and spread misogyny, and thus the only way to break free from these forces is to root men out of their lives.
The separatist movement birthed the “gold star” lesbian, a woman who has never had sex with a man, a sort of purity test of sapphicness. It was also fundamentally opposed to the acceptance of bisexual women who still sought relationships with men, as they were seen as consorting with the enemy. Bisexual women could not be trusted to adhere to the mission, and would persistently be under the influence of the patriarchy. These were the nicer attitudes!
Sheila Jeffreys, one of the mothers of the separatist movement, and a founding member of Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, labeled bisexuality as an “addon” to heterosexuality. She saw bisexual women as straight women who just enjoyed other women on the side. Curiously, Jeffreys also frequently described lesbianism as a “choice” not to have sex with men, as if all women had the option about who they are attracted to and straight women are opting for men out of some kind of indoctrination. This occurs frequently in her essay titled “Bisexual Politics: A superior form of feminism?” (spoilers, her answer was “no”).
It should be no surprise that the separatist movement was firmly opposed to transgender rights, Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism found its roots within the ideology. From their perspective, trans women are men and would always be men, and all men are the same, so trans women are inherently agents of the patriarchy, and any trans woman who comes across as nurturing or demure is actually pretending. Transgender men are seen as traitors to their sex, women so indoctrinated to patriarchy that they chose to change sides to enforce it.
Sheila Jeffreys claimed that trans people are a violation of human rights. She labeled bottom surgery as “genital mutilation” and campaigned to have trans women removed from society. She frequently spoke about how trans women are caricatures of gender stereotypes, “constructing a conservative fantasy of what women should be.” These attitudes persist today in TERF and Gender Critical talking points, to the point that “gender stereotypes” has become a dog whistle for transphobic rhetoric.
Jeffreys became a mentor to feminist author Julie Bindel, radicalizing her into the TERF cult. Bindel has written numerous transphobic articles for The Guardian newspaper and put much of her life’s work into attacking trans rights, but is equally hostile to bisexuality. In 2012 she labeled bisexuality as a “fashionable trend” caused by “sexual hedonism,” and proceeded to erase bisexuals entirely, labeling bisexual women as “temporary lesbians”.
For a straight woman, having a girlfriend on the side is almost like having the latest Prada handbag.
As separatists gained footholds in lesbian communities, WLW spaces became increasingly unwelcoming for both trans women and cis women who were not gold star gays. Bisexual women began to receive hostility, and were denied entry into spaces they had previously been accepted. Straight women who swore off men became more welcomed in these spaces than actual queer women, all from of a rhetoric of hatred for men.
In 1977, Beth Elliott, Vice President of the San Francisco chapter of The Daughters of Bilitis, was ousted from her post when separatist TERF Bev Jo Von Dohre accused her of sexual assault. Beth was then again harassed out of the West Coast Lesbian Conference when the separatist group The Gutter Dykes protested her involvement in the event and attempted to prevent her stage performance. The following day the conference’s keynote speaker Robin Morgan said this in her speech:
I will not call a male “she”; thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title “woman”; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares, he dares to think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister.
“I charge [Beth Elliott] as an opportunist, an infiltrator, and a destroyer—with the mentality of a rapist. And you women at this Conference know who he is. Now. You can let him into your workshops—or you can deal with him.”
This label, “the mentality of a rapist” would go on to become a frequently puppeted TERF talking point that continues to be used today.
Beth was blacklisted from most lesbian publications, but found a new home among the bisexual community. In 1991 she published her essay “Bisexuality: The best thing that ever happened to lesbian-feminism?” (the title of which was undoubtedly being mocked by the title of Jeffreys piece mentioned above).
One would think lesbian-feminists would have a vested interest in encouraging as many women as possible to explore loving women and in making it easier for women to identify as lesbians and to become romantically and sexually involved with other women. How ironic, then, that lesbian-feminists are putting so much energy into narrowing the qualifications for acceptance as a lesbian, and in making it more difficult for women to join the ranks of woman-loving women.
Beth then goes on to describe how these people have changed the meaning of “lesbian”. The book Lesbian/Woman, published in 1972 by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, became the definitive book on lesbianism in the 70s. Within, it defined lesbian as any woman whose “primary erotic, psychological, emotional and social interest is in a member of her own sex, even though that interest may not be overtly expressed.” In other words, Martin and Lyon were explicitly including bisexual women who were in monogamous heterosexual relationships.
However, by the end of the 1970s lesbian separatists had successfully changed that definition. Liz Diamond’s “A Lesbian Primer”, published in 1979, defines lesbian as “a woman-identified woman who does not sleep with men.” How strange that a feminist movement so focused on breaking the male influence over women would define itself by those very men. This book would go on to become the primary reference book in university gender studies courses across the United States, influencing the way Gen X and Millennial women viewed lesbianism.
Curiously, I can find no information on who Liz Diamond was, there is no mention of her online outside of this book, suggesting that the name may be a pseudonym. It is quite astonishing how, in just seven years, the separatist movement had managed to redefine the entire meaning of the word lesbian across the whole United States and most of Europe, largely through aggressive, competitive and destructive propaganda and harassment campaigns.
The exclusion of bisexual women from lesbianism is rooted in TERF ideologies, and anyone, trans or cis, who engage in this exclusion, in this separatism of bisexuality from lesbianism, are complicit in those ideologies.
To say that a lesbian identifying individual cannot be attracted to or love a male or non-woman identifying person is as strong an erasure as those who say women who love trans women cannot be lesbians. It is as toxic as cis men who reject trans women because they “aren’t gay.”
Anyone who identifies as non-male and experiences sapphic desire has the right to claim the lesbian identity, in conjunction with any other identity. No one has the right to deny them that.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Fragment translations taken from Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works by Diane J. Rayor.
- Renee Vivien’s Sapphic Legacy (PDF Download)
- Sappho’s New Poems: The Tangled Tale of Their Discovery
- Sappho, Everyone’s Favorite Lesbian
- Making Queer History: Sappho the Poetess
- Sappho and Her Social Context: Sense and Sensuality
- Sappho’s Queer Female History
- LiveAbout: What is the origin of the word lesbian?
- Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures
- English Language Stack Exchange: When did “lesbian” become well-known as a noun, not an adjective?
- Slate: Do I Have to Give Up Lesbian History to Participate in Queer Culture?
- Advocate: Woman Enough
- Historic Transphobia in the gay & lesbian communities
- Cheryl Morgan: Origins of Feminist Transphobia
- Beth Elliott, Singer, Activist, Writer
- That Time TERFs Beat RadFems For Protecting A Trans Woman From Their Assault
- How TERF Violence Inspired Camp Trans
- New Yorker: What Is A Woman?
- Wikipedia: Sappho
- Wikipedia: Lesbian
- Wikipedia: History of Lesbianism
- Wikipedia: History of Lesbianism in the United States
- Wikipedia: Political Lesbianism
- Wikipedia: Feminist Sex Wars
- Wikipedia: Feminist Separatism
- Wikipedia: Lesbian Feminism
- Wikipedia: Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group
- Wikipedia: Second-wave Feminism
- Wikipedia: Third-wave Feminism
- Wikipedia: Beth Elliott
- Books by Julia Serano: Whipping Girl (2007), Excluded (2013), Outspoken (2016)
- Radical Inclusion: Recounting the Trans Inclusive History of Radical Feminism
- Los Angeles Free Press: The Split Between Hetero Feminists and Lesbians