Lesbians are Not Necessarily from Lesbos, Greek Court Rules

by Gopalan on Jul 24 2008 11:47 AM

An effort by some residents of the Aegean island of Lesbos to keep the word lesbian out of the reach of the same sex women has come unstuck. A court in Athens ruled the word did not define the identity of the residents of the island. Hence the word could be validly used by gay groups in Greece and abroad, the court said.

Lesbos is the birthplace of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho whose love poems inspired the term lesbian. Objecting precisely to such an understanding of the term, three residents of the island brought up a case last month. They the said use of the term in reference to gay women insulted their identity.

Actually poet Sappho, believed to have been born in born in the late 700s BCE on Lesbos, was venerated in her time almost as a literary goddess, one beyond mortal comprehension. She was often praised as the tenth Muse.

Her style was sensual and melodic; primarily songs of love, yearning, and reflection. Most commonly the target of her affections was female, often one of the many women sent to her for education in the arts. She nurtured these women, wrote poems of love and adoration to them, and when they eventually left the island to be married, she composed their wedding songs.

The narrators of many of her poems speak of infatuations and love (sometimes requited, sometimes not) for various females, but descriptions of physical acts between women are few and subject to debate.

Approximately two hundred fragments have been attributed to Sappho. Many of them contain only a few words. The earliest papyrus containing Sappho's poems is from the third century B.C.

Because of her intense feelings for her own sex, Sappho has often been described as a homosexual (lesbian) - originally the word "lesbian" meant "a person from the island of Lesbos". In one fragment she wrote: "At mere sight of you / my voice falters, my tongue / is broken." In the poem she depicts her jealous passion while watching a young woman.

Judith P. Hallet, a critic, has noted, "[Sappho] should be regarded primarily as a poet with an important social purpose and public function: that of instilling sensual awareness and sexual self-esteem and of facilitating role adjustment in young females coming of age in a sexually segregated society."

Whatever she might have been, the reputation the term lesbian has acquired is galling for the islanders. "Until 1924, according to the Oxford English dictionary, a Lesbian was a native of our isle. Now, because of its new connotations, our womenfolk are unable to call themselves such and that is wrong.”

So saying, three residents moved the court demanding a ban on using the word to describe women with “same sex” inclinations.

But in a July 18 decision, the Athens court turned down the pleas and also ordered the plaintiffs to pay court expenses of $366.2.

Lesbos, which lies just off the Turkish Coast, has become a gathering spot for gay women from around the world, especially at the village of Eressos which is regarded as the birthplace of the poet.

Several residents testified during the trial that the use of the word lesbian had brought recognition to the island and boosted its tourist trade.

But Greek-American Paul Thymou who spearheaded the case said the term caused daily problems to the social life of the island’s inhabitants.

"If you are not from Lesbos, you are not a Lesbian," read a banner he held up before the court in June.

Thymou also noted that according to new historical research, Sappho had a family and committed suicide for the love of a man.

But gays and lesbians were delighted over the court ruling. "This is a good decision for lesbians everywhere," Vassilis Chirdaris, lawyer for the Gay and Lesbian Union of Greece, told Reuters. "A court in Athens could not stop people around the world from using it. It was ridiculous."

The plaintiffs are free to appeal the decision in a higher court.