What is a Lesbian?

Just so there's no misunderstandings...

The word lesbian, when used in modern day vernacular, refers to a woman who has a sexual preference for other women. While these women may be referred to as gay, or as homosexuals, the word lesbian refers only to homosexual women. While it might seem like it's always been the term for women with these preferences, that actually isn't the case. In fact the word lesbian has only been used as a noun since the year 1925, and the word itself only started referring to homosexual women in the late 1800s, or thereabouts.

Back When It All Began

The use of the word lesbian, that is.

During the 1800s, probably before 1870, the term lesbian began being used to describe women who had desires for other women and all of the activities that came with those desires. The term Sapphic was also used, referring directly to the poet Sappho, but it was eventually pushed aside in favor of lesbian.

Why? Perhaps because it rolled off the tongue better, or because there was still too much respect in the halls of academia for Sappho. Regardless of the reason though the use of a word that began as a mere euphamism eventually became the word for a homosexual woman, even if people don't remember what the original context of the word was.

The real irony of course is that the word comes from a time and a culture when debate over gay rights would have been ludicrous at best. Athens was renowned for homosexuality, and even the Spartans, the greatest soldiers in the world, were encouraged to support and love thy brother as a way to ensure that there was a unified fighting force that focused on defeating the enemy rather than who was having what sex with whom.

Who Was Sappho?

Credit: Wikimedia Commons image

The Long Journey of The Word "Lesbian"

The term lesbian (before its modern context) referred to someone who was from the Isle of Lesbos. This island was located in the northern part of the Aegean Sea, and the name probably meant "wooded," or something similar.

Aside from being covered in trees though, Lesbos was also the home of the poet Sappho. Sappho was born to an aristocratic family (because there's never been a lot of money in being a poet, it seems), sometime around the year 600 B.C. She was married, and she ran an academy for younger, unmarried women where she lectured and composed poems. It says something about her skill that in a society obsessed with art and poetry Sappho was famed far and wide for her lyric verses.

That's not all, though. Sappho's verses were often very sexual, sometimes bordering on the lewd, and she wrote them about both men and women. Praised in her day she was essentially what writers in the 21st century erotica revolution aspire to be. Also, if there was any doubt that celebrity gossip and obsession with the sex lives of the rich and famous is something else we inherited from the ancient Greeks, the primary thing most people remember about Sappho is she had sex with women. It seems like an odd fact given her fame, fortune, praise from other great writers of the time, and the fact that her face appeared on goddamn currency, but then again she's still a famous poet over a thousand years after her death.

So there's that.

To sum up, calling someone a lesbian was originally meant to intimate their behavior was like those from the Isle of Lesbos; lewd, forward, and possibly homosexual or bisexual. Unfortunately the distinction between the subtle reference and the thing it was hinting at was eventually wiped out entirely.

The Aegean Sea
Credit: Wikimedia Commons image

Where Are We Now?

Nowadays almost no one remembers the Greek poet, or a little island in the Aegean Sea. It also seems that a lot of people forget homosexuality is older than Christianity, and it might be as old as the human race. Mostly people just know "the L word" means that a girl is never going to like boys.

While accurate, it's sort of missing Lesbos for all the trees.