Two women holding hands. Two women pulling each other close. Two women sharing a passionate kiss. Not just a scene from… every pornographic movie ever… romantic and sexual love or desire shared between women has been around since the beginning of human civilization. Let’s dive a bit deeper into the L in “LGBTQ”, and learn more about homosexual women also known as lesbians.
How can Love be a Sin?
Lesbos 🏝 and Sappho
People from California are known as Californians. People from Canada are Canadians. Then how about Lesbians? Surprisingly, this term originally referred to the people living on the island of Lesbos. How did the term referring to the people of Lesbos Island become a noun for homosexual women in modern times?
- Poet Sappho and her disciples
Around B.C. 630-612, a woman named “Sappho” was born on Lesbos Island on the eastern coast of Greece. Sappho grew up to be a great poet. Many women came to Sappho to learn poetry, and Sappho would share loving relationships with them. Sappho spoke of women falling in love and their beauty. There is still a dispute as to whether the “love of a woman” in her poem is sexual love or not, but it is an indisputable fact that she loved women in some way.
After some time, Sappho’s work and life came into the spotlight again in the Victorian era. Materials on Sappho were limited at the time, and her works were censored due to the patriarchal rejection of heterosexual love, but the public’s imagination filled the gaps. The term “Sapphist” was derived from Sappho’s name in the Victorian era and was used to describe a woman who loved women. “Lesbian” also began to be used to refer to homosexual women, pertaining to homosexuality among women being prevalent on Lesbos Island where Sappho lived. Ultimately, “Sapphist” from Sappho’s name and “Lesbian” from the name of Lesbos Island all come from the same origin.
Lesbian? 👨⚖️You are guilty!
Unlike ancient Greece when Sappho freely shared her love toward women as a woman, the world began to oppress homosexuality with the spread of Christianity. Because it was “contrary to the provision of nature”. Love between the same sex was considered a sin and dealt with through oppression and violence instead of the virtue of inclusion and generosity. This situation was reflected throughout societies around the world.
- The sin is love between women!
“John Cotton” of the state of Massachusetts proposed a law in 1636 to ban sexual relations between two women, and suggested the death sentence as maximum punishment. John declared giving a death sentence for “unnatural things”, which included not only sexual relations between women or men but also with an animal. Fortunately, the law was not passed or enacted, but it demonstrates the atmosphere of the time.
Avoiding a death sentence did not mean that queer people were legally free. There was a case of two women, “Sarah White Norman” and “Mary Vincent Hammon” in Plymouth, Massachusetts, being indicted for “playing around with each other in bed”. This case was the first documented conviction of lesbians in the US; while Mary Hammon was not indicted as she was below the age of 16, receiving disciplinary preaching instead, Sarah Norman received a guilty verdict. As part of the punishment, she had to admit publicly to “misbehavior” with Hammon, and received a warning never to engage in “such behavior” again. Women became criminals because their sexual relations were regarded as “unlawful” only because the person was of the same sex.
Daughters of Bilitis👭 - The first lesbian organization in the US
After ancient Greece which was relatively positive and open to homosexuality, lesbians were forced to dig deeper into the closet due to the arrival of the Middle Ages when homosexuality was persecuted for religious reasons. That cruel oppression and repression has continued into modern day. However, love is not a sin no matter how much it is repressed, and humans find a way regardless of how coerced they are.
- Let’s sing the Songs of Bilitis together;
In 1955, eight lesbians formed a social gathering, including Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin in San Francisco. They named the gathering the “Daughters of Bilitis” inspired by Songs of Bilitis, a poem by Pierre Louys that depicts a fictional lesbian who lived with Sappho in ancient Greece.
The 1950s in the US saw prejudice against homosexuals becoming prevalent, and the discriminatory gaze toward them was as sharp as a knife. The Daughters of Bilitis gained huge popularity by providing a space for lesbians to gather safely and escape from social prejudices and threats. In just 3 years, they established the New York chapter and expanded their influence, gradually beginning to develop from a social gathering into an activist group that protested for the freedom and rights of lesbians.
As the first lesbian organization in the US, their most notable achievement is publishing and distributing “The Ladder”, a magazine for lesbians. The magazine allowed active exchanges in the lesbian community and became an indispensable part of building the community for 16 years from 1956 to 1972. They also took the lead in protests as well as the human rights movement for lesbians. The founder of the New York chapter, Barbara Gittings, participated in a protest by holding a picket in front of the White House in the 60s and made her mark by counselling discriminated homosexuals.
The refuge for lesbians that shone a light on them in the dark age lasted for 20 years. They stayed true to their role as a pioneer until the strong currents of the progressive movement and welcomed the next generation with a mature attitude. The Daughters of Bilitis published the last volume of the magazine in 1978 and officially declared their disbandment while welcoming the powerful steps of their followers.
Proud to be Lesbian🏃♀️
Various movements followed for decades even after the Daughters of Bilitis to fight for the rights of homosexuals in the world. Lesbians raised their voices to break down the barriers of prejudice against homosexuals and to destigmatize their name, and they marched with pickets to take back the rights that were unfairly taken away from them. With every step forward a new crisis seemed to arise, but their efforts bore new fruits slowly and persistently.
Many countries around the world have legalized same-sex marriage, and many women protest to create a society where still closeted lesbians can freely reveal themselves. Society is gradually and slowly changing due to these voices.
Although the exact origin is unclear, April 26th of every year since 2008 is known as Lesbian Visibility Day, to celebrate the numerous achievements for the rights and equality of lesbians.
This day calls attention to lesbians who have ceaselessly strove to eliminate not only the discrimination experienced by gender minorities but also the gender discrimination experienced by women, as well as support lesbians who are active in politics, media, and pop culture
- What they want to say in front of the camera📸
Many celebrities every year confidently reveal their gender identity and send a message to the world. To the world that built a barrier and disregarded differences, to lesbians who united together to break that barrier, to lesbians who need a little more preparation to reveal themselves to the world, and to women who have not yet discovered their identity
- Women who love women have been around since the birth of humanity.