Sappho and being queer – Matilda L

“You may forget but let me tell you this: someone in some future time will think of us” – Sappho 

To the LGBTQ+ community, Sappho is viewed as the ‘original lesbian’ and the term Sappho is often linked to words like lesbian or sapphic. However, a history of homophobia and specifically lesbophobia has resulted in her identity and desires being debated for thousands of years and ended in plenty of erasure. As all historical figures, their sexuality and gender identity is not for us to force a label upon them as without explicit evidence, we can never know. But in a discussion of Sappho’s poetry being autobiographical, there is evidence that she experienced same-sex attraction. Sappho has always been an icon for her poetry and often times being referred to as the “Tenth Muse” or “The Poetess” and the love for women that was presented within her poetry could not be diminished or erased, in spite of generations of effort. Perhaps her explicit queerness has played a role in this or perhaps the LGBTQ+ community refused to let her be swallowed up and turned digestible to a heteronormative audience. All the while, she remains the lesbian icon. 

Lesbian refers to non-men who are attracted to non-men so this label includes non-binary and other gender non-conforming people, despite a rather nasty history of transphobic lesbians. It is derived from the name of the people who live upon the island of Lesbos in Greece – a parallel to Sappho as she is from Lesbos. The term Sapphic is inspired by Sappho herself and is used to describe anyone who is a non-man who experiences romantic love to women; sapphic is usually an umbrella term which includes lesbian, bisexual, pansexual people etc but can also be used as a label for those who feel it fits them the most. The Lesbians of the island of Lesbos have had a tense relationship with lesbians who are LGBTQ+. In 2008, a request was made by the residents of the Aegean island of Lesbos to ban the use of the word lesbian to describe a non-man loving non-man as they claimed the term ‘insulted’ their identity. However the request was denied as the court ruled that the term did not define the identity of the residents of the island, so therefore could be used validly by the LGBTQ+ community in Greece and abroad. 

Religious erasure has resulted in the majority of Sappho’s poetry being lost. In the year 391 B.C.E, an aggressive mass of Christian zealots partly destroyed and ruined the library of Alexandria, a library that contained nine volumes of Sappho’s poetry at the time, leaving us with a mere two complete poems. Now, the larger part of her work that we know of comes from quotes from her other works, mummy wrappings and the original papyrus’ fragments. 

19. Honestly, I wish I were dead. 

Weeping many tears, she left me and said

“Alas, how terribly we suffer, Sappho. 

I really leave you against my will.”

And I answered: “Farewell, go and remember me.

You know how we cared for you. 

If not, I would remind you

…of our wonderful times.

For you by my side you put on 

many wreaths of roses 

and garlands of flowers 

around your soft neck.”

Undoubtedly, Sappho has had such an influential role upon the LGBTQ+ community. With organisations being named after her, books written and whole groups of people using a term directly derived from her, it is impossible to cast her aside and write her out of the pages of history. Sappho is evidence that even through the carelessness of scholars, religious disapproval, and fear, queer people remain deeply routed within the history books and are not new, but are instead old as legends and myths themselves.  

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