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lesbian

 

(Greek origin) A person from the Isle of Lesbos. The adoption of this term for a female homosexual is inarguably due to the association with Sappho, however the path has a few tangles. Greek comedic writers of the 5th c BCE used the word to indicate a sexually assertive (heterosexual) woman, especially one who practiced oral sex. One sometimes hears mistaken claims that the use of lesbian for sexual orientation is a modern invention. The earliest suviving use clearly indicating homosexuality is from Lucian in the 2nd century CE. Byzantine commentaries of the 10th c on the 2nd c religious writings of Clement of Alexandria directly equate lesbian and tribas. The earliest known use in English in this sense is in the 1730s.

LHMP entry

The themes of this set of selections might be: the re-discovery of Sappho, men lamenting that women who love each other aren’t available for them, and the use of queer-baiting for socio-political purposes. The significance of the suppression and erasure of women’s own voices from the record is seen in the one item known to have been written by a woman, which presents a positive and personal view of same-sex love. We also continue the literary motif of same-sex desire being due to confusions caused by gender disguise.

The association of the name Sappho and the word Lesbian with female homoeroticism is so well entrenched that the question is rarely asked: what evidence do we have that Sappho was a lesbian (in the orientation sense, rather than the geographic one)? And how would such an orientation have been understood in her age and culture? Lardinois addresses these questions from empirical (if scanty) evidence.

The introduction begins with a consideration of the play Il Pastor Fido (The Faithful Shepherd) and the interpretation of a key scene in art, when the shepherd Mirtillo -- having disguised himself as a woman to gain access to the object of his desire, the nymph Amarillis -- comes upon the nymphs holding a kissing competition among themselves. He enters the competition (still in disguise) and is crowned the victor by Amarillis (the scene commonly portrayed in paintings).

Rictor Norton has assembled an on-line sourcebook of primary documents relating to homosexuality in 18th century England. (He also has several other pages on related historic topics.) He notes: “All the documents faithfully reproduce the spelling, punctuation, capitalization and italicization of the original sources." As is typical for sites covering homosexuality in general, male-related material vastly overwhelms female-related material (which represents less than 10%).

There are many aspects of the history of homosexuality where an assumption of parallelism between the experiences of men and women leads to erroneous conclusions about what did and didn’t exist. For men seeking sexual experiences with men, there’s a fairly well documented history of networks, meeting places, and informal associations that helped them achieve their ends.

The introduction begins with a contradiction that inspires the book’s title. In twenty years of correspondence between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (who were famous for their close and loving friendship), the two closed letters with phrases in which the words “passionate” or “passionately” figured prominently. And yet a comment by Sarah regarding a somewhat scandalous pamphlet described it as including “stuff not fit to be mentioned of passions between women”. Did the word “passion” have distinct and separate meanings in these two contexts?

While the academic “queer studies” movement has analyzed a great many “high culture” works in literature and art, looking for evidence of same-sex impulses, this approach has been less useful for (or perhaps less interested in) an understanding of the ordinary lives of average people who might have had those same impulses. For this purpose, identifying lesbian motifs in works like the Roman de Silence or interpreting nuns’ adoration of vulva-like images of the wounds of Christ as homoerotic is somewhat beside the point.

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