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Sappho: The Origin of Lesbians

There was an underlying theme of homophobia and insensitivity growing up in my town.

Rumors whirled around the hallways of my middle school when two same-sex friends were “too close”. When girls began hooking up in high school, everyone seemed to know all of the details. Slurs like “fag” and “dyke” were thrown around the same as "please" and "thank you".

Overtime, the insensitivity that riddled my classmates led me to question my own sexuality and sense of security. When I was seven, I remember hiding under my dining room table with my female best friend while we kissed each other, trying to understand what it felt like. When I was eight, I fantasized about the girls that I might marry when I grew up. This all seemed normal to me — until middle school, when I started to realize that everything except heterosexuality was deemed wrong by my peers.

For years, I attempted to destroy and neglect the attraction I felt to girls deep within myself. My sexuality became a stranger to me. I no longer understood, or rather, wanted to understand my sexuality. As long as I could crawl through middle and high school, unnoticed, as a wallflower, I would be okay. I could deal with everything else later. And by everything else I mean my own identity.

After years of repressing this part of myself, I finally escaped my small town and moved to New York City to attend NYU. Being in Manhattan was everything I had ever wanted. People were open minded and accepting. I began to realize that I had a completely skewed understanding of gender and sexuality. And someone very important helped lead me to this conclusion: Sappho.

For those who may not know, Sappho was one of the first feminists in existence. Only a handful of details are known about her life, but she was born around 615 B.C. in archaic Greece on the island of Lesbos. As an adult, she ran an academy for unmarried women, which was devoted to the cult of Aphrodite and Eros. She earned fame in Lesbos as an influential writer and poet. Fragments of her poetry still exist and continue to be incredibly prominent in the poetry world. Plato called her “the tenth muse” and her face appeared on coins. She even has her own poetry meter that many contemporary poets continue to use: Sapphic Meter.

However, possibly the most amazing thing about Sappho was her sexual identity. She wrote unapologetic poems about her love, desire, and attraction to women. This was completely unprecedented at the time. Three centuries after her death, as people studied her work, they parodied her as overly promiscuous and lesbian. The term lesbian was coined from her home island of Lesbos. This stuck, and Sappho became the first ever lesbian.

When I first learned about Sappho, my jaw dropped. I could not believe what I was hearing. I immediately went home and read all of her poetry I could find. As I studied her work I began to ask myself: how could individuals and institutions possibly deny the existence of same-sex attraction if it has existed for thousands of years?

Sappho allowed me to start accepting my own sexuality as part of my identity. I finally felt it was okay that I was not straight. I could finally explore my sexuality as a spectrum, like I had always dreamed of doing. Sappho did not follow the guidelines and obligations of her society. Instead, she created new ones. And in doing so, she inspired generations of individuals, including me, to realize their identities and accept them.


"Fragment 31": translated by Julia Dubnoff

*about Sappho’s attraction to another woman, who is talking with a man*

That man to me seems equal to the gods,

the man who sits opposite you

and close by listens

to your sweet voice

and your enticing laughter—

that indeed has stirred up the heart in my breast.

For whenever I look at you even briefly

I can no longer say a single thing,

but my tongue is frozen in silence;

instantly a delicate flame runs beneath my skin;

with my eyes I see nothing;

my ears make a whirring noise.

A cold sweat covers me,

trembling seizes my body,

and I am greener than grass.

Lacking but little of death do I seem.


Emma is a rising Sophomore at NYU in Global Liberal Studies.

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