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 your tender woman companion.— Sappho, circa 600b.c.
Saphho was a greek poet, born in 640 BC, known to have written approximately 10,000 lines of poetry, tho only about 650 survive today. Unfortunately, most of her poetry has been lost to time, but in her day she was extremely well known throughout the greek and roman empires. Her writings were among many of the great works lost in the fire of Alexandria.
Plato wrote “Some say the muses are nine, but how carelessly! Look at the tenth, Sapphos from Lesbos.”
The reason she became notorious, was due to her pension for writing erotic poetry about her love and desires for women, a reputation that was considered quite slanderous in her day. Sappho was not, however, exclusively attracted to women, and had written poetry about her love for men as well as women. Some legends state that she had in fact been married to a man, Kerkylas of Andros, but scholars have dismissed this as punnery (Kerkylas means penis, and Andros is another word for man).
In the 1870s, scholars of classical poetry (specifically Renée Vivien and Natalie Clifford Barney) began to use the term “sapphic” to describe attraction to women by women. By 1925 the word “lesbian” was in use as a noun to medically refer to women who have sex with other women, so named for the island of Lesbo that Sappho hailed from. The term was intended as an exclusively female equivalent to “sodomite”, which at the time was intended only for men. Neither term, however, was meant to mean an exclusive attraction to women, just a descriptor for how those women experienced sexuality.
It was not until the 1970s, when second wave radical feminism gave rise to the lesbian separatism movement, that a cultural war developed within gay rights organizations over whether the word lesbian included bisexual women. Lesbian separatists took strong stances against male influence in society and began to label lesbians who experienced male attraction as traitors to lesbian feminism, and many lesbian communities started to oust bisexual women from their spaces. Thus began bisexual erasure, and gave rise to the term “gold star lesbian”, which toxically others many sapphic women to this day.
Some of these radical feminists are well known in trans history, names such as Janice Raymond (the mother of all TERFs and author of The Transsexual Empire), Jean O’Leary (who repeatedly tried to have Sylvia Rivera ousted from gay rights events), Sheila Jeffreys (member of LRFG, labeled bottom surgery as genital mutilation, claims trans people are a violation of human rights, known for radicalizing Julie Bindel), Robin Morgan (“No, I will not call a male ‘she’”), and Germaine Greer (oh god, where to even start?).
The exclusion of bisexual women from lesbianism is rooted in TERF ideologies, and trans people who engage in this separatism are complicit in those ideologies. To say that a lesbian identifying individual cannot be attracted to or love a trans man is as strong an erasure as those who say women who love trans women cannot be lesbians. Anyone who identifies as non-male and experiences sapphic desire has the right to claim the lesbian identity.
And no one has the right to deny them that.
- Sappho, Everyone’s Favorite Lesbian
- Making Queer History: Sappho the Poetess
- 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
- 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: Sandy Stone
- 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
Note: This article was updated on December 28th, 2019 to include citations