An interesting, if somewhat confusing, story hit the international wires a few days ago, appearing in most major U.S. newspapers on the first of May. Three inhabitants of the storied Greek island of Lesbos, two women and a man, have taken a gay rights organization to court, objecting to the use of the term ‘lesbian’ in the organization’s title: “The Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece.” As plaintiff Dimitris Lambrou put it: “Our geographical designation has been usurped by certain ladies with no connection whatsoever to the island of Lesbos.” In other words: this is partly a question of translation. A ‘Lesbian’ is someone from the island of Lesbos; in the 20th century, a ‘lesbian’ has came to connote a woman inclined primarily or exclusively to same-sex erotic attraction. (Google ‘lesbos’ and see which definition comes up first).
What court of law can adjudicate the shifting meanings of words?
It’s actually an interesting question, and like most such questions, it has a history. The plaintiffs are quite right to say that the name ‘Lesbian’ has historically denoted someone from the island of Lesbos. That said, it is important to add that the same name, when pitched as a verb in Classical Greek, lesbiazein, meant “fellatio,” raising interesting historical questions about what the women on the island were really famous for in antiquity.
It wasn't until the nineteenth century that women from Lesbos became associated with same-sex erotic attraction. As the concept of “sexual identity” emerged in modern psychology, and as the question of the gender of your sexual object-choice trumped all other potentially relevant sexual categories (Do you prefer orgasmic sex, or not? Auto-stimulation, or allo-stimulation? Younger or older partners? Implements and toys, or not? A single partner, or multiple partners? This list could become very long, very fast), debates over the etiology and moral value of same-sex attraction quickly gained prominence in the nineteenth century’s Victorian version of the culture wars.
Even Classicists got into the fray. Debates about Sappho took center stage—she was assuredly the most famous poet from the island until the modern period when Lesbian native son Odysseas Elytis (actually, he was born on Crete) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979. And as the fact that her poetry (all except one poem is in fragments, which leaves a lot to the imagination) seemed to presuppose the speaker’s attraction to women as well as men became inescapable, the meaning of the term Lesbian changed right along with her changing poetic reputation. Plato called Sappho “the tenth Muse.” The early Christian rhetorician, Tatian, referred to her as an “eros-maddened slut who hymned her own debauchery.” Victorian classicists considered her poetry “sublime,” but her sexual tastes “irregular.” First-generation lesbian activists called her a “right-on woman” (the title of a popular 1972 manifesto), and enlisted her in the cause of sexual liberation. Taking the form of a bad syllogism, the collective argument ran as follows:
The plaintiffs are thus asking an Athenian court to insert themselves into a quarrel with widespread cultural assumptions rooted in nineteenth century sexual and academic mores, and it is unclear what a decision in their favor could actually hope to achieve.
We have seen similar arguments before. In 1992, when the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia successfully declared its independence from Serbia (the only such republic to do so peacefully), Greece blocked European Union recognition of the new country until they changed their name. Macedonia was thought to be a Greek name, and the southern Slavs could not have it (Alexander the Great was Macedonian, so the argument ran—which was true, but that made him virtually un-Greek from an Athenian perspective… they fought against him, and lost). As late as 1996 in Atlanta, the Olympic team from the fledgling republic was forced to march under F (for FYROM: Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) instead of M (for Macedonia). It eventually got so tiresome to write FYROM, or to say the whole name, that people just started saying “Macedonia,” for short. And that’s roughly how the battle was lost.
There are countless other examples of place-names gaining a sexual resonance. “Greek” love is one such example, which also took on new meaning among the Romantics in the 19th century. Perhaps more pertinent to this case are the names “Sodomy” and “Sodomite.” A Sodomite was, once-upon-a-time, a citizen of the city of Sodom. In the Middle Ages, reinterpretations of the famous story from Genesis 19 led to the creation of a new mortal sin called “sodomy,” in addition to violent new punishments for its conduct (Mark Jordan has told this story brilliantly, in a book called The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology). What is strange about this interpretation is that it is not how the Hebrew prophets or Jesus knew the story. They thought it a pretty simple story about violations of hospitality as symbolized through rape. The people of Sodom were known to be excessively wealthy, excessively self-indulgent, and very short on mercy. There was no conception of “sexual identity” to apply to them yet. It is important to remember that Lot thought it was preferable for the people of the city to violate his own daughters, with his permission, than to rape strangers he had taken into his home who were not permitted to them. A strange world, indeed.
Which is what makes finding simple moral meaning in such stories, and the names they use, so treacherous. A Lesbian is a citizen of the island of Lesbos; a Sodomite is a citizen of the city of Sodom. Neither term connoted a “sexual identity.” But both do, now.
And that fact raises significant issues of translation I hope to take up in future columns.
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Image “Sheep farmer, Lesbos” by Bryan Ledgard, licensed under Creative Commons.