A Lesbian by any other name

There’s a lot of power in names. You don’t need to be a daemonologist to know that. We do have this seemingly inbuilt and unavoidable need to name and categorise everything. While a personal name is very important, group names become something of a murky area.

I’ve been entertained over the last few days with news from the Greek island of Lesbos. It seems that the people there, the Lesbians, have had enough of the global female gay community appropriating their name to identify their gender preference.

For example, as reported in The Register:

local activist Dimitris Lambrou states in his complaint that the “seizure” of the island’s name is responsible for the “psychological and moral rape” of true lesbians

Seriously, that’s a bit strong, isn’t it? Lambrou is actually bringing the case to an Athens court, as reported by the BBC:

for judges to decide whether to grant an injunction against the Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece and to order it to change its name

The term lesbian, used to describe girls that dig other girls, stems from a famous Lesbian (native of Lesbos) that went by the name of Sappho. She was a lyrical poet that lived some time between 630 and 570 BCE and was famed for her poems about her love and infatuation with other people, many of whom were women. She often wrote of unrequited love but rarely wrote of any physical acts of love. Regardless, Sappho, born on Lesbos, indirectly and unwittingly coined the term lesbian for gay females.


Sappho (by Charles Mengin, 1877)
She’s a tortured looking lass if Mengin is to be believed.

Interestingly, the act of girl love has also been referred to as sapphic and gay girls have been called sapphists. This would seem to completely circumvent the whole problem between geographical lesbians and sexual lesbians, but so would simply calling them gay. Why do we have such a pathological need to name everything?

The use of collective nouns is extremely entertaining and descriptive, especially in the English language. After all, without collective nouns we wouldn’t have such pearlers as a Murder of Crows, a Parliament of Rooks or a Clamber of Assistant Professors (I’m not kidding, feel free to check). But do we really need to go so far as to categorise everything? Isn’t it enough to simply refer to men and women as either gay or straight if the need for a such a distinction ever arises?

Intrigued by these thoughts, I set out to do some serious research into the subject. By serious research I mean that I asked a good friend of mine that happens to be a girl that digs other girls. I asked her what she thought of the terminology and what her preferences were. She told me that it took her a long time to be comfortable with lesbian, but that she likes it now. She’s Australian and mentioned also that in Australia dyke is quite acceptable these days, but not really acceptable at all in the UK. I’m not entirely sure how it would be taken in other English-speaking countries. Otherwise she was happy enough with gay and said that there aren’t really any other nouns that she considers useful or acceptable.

However, she gets absolutely the last word on the subject with her own final comment to me: “Personally, I’d like not to be identified by the gender of the people I date. Maybe one day.”

Word.

.

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