Lesbos is an island in the Aegean Sea near the coast of modern-day Turkey. The third largest Greek island, Lesbos (also known as Lesvos, Mitylene, Metelin, and Midili) is a site for Lesbian pilgrimage because it was the home of Sappho, a sixth-century BCE poet whose writing fragments include romantic verses dedicated to women. Due to the association of Sappho the Lesbian (citizen of Lesbos) with same-sex romantic-erotic attraction, women with same-sex orientation have been called sapphists and lesbians regardless of their places of origin. Same-sex orientation for women was pathologized in late nineteenth century medical discourse as lesbianism and sapphism. Since Gay Liberation, Lesbos has become a site of pilgrimage for Lesbians around the world.
Lesbos was the home of some renowned classical Greek poets, the most famous being Sappho, who was acclaimed as the “Tenth Muse” by Plato. Although her romantic poetry was popular among Greek men for centuries after she had died, she was more famous for the beauty of her verses than any controversy associated with her subject matter. This changed with the rise of Christianity, and Sappho was remembered as a woman of bad character. Her infamy was sufficient that both her name and her birthplace became code words for same-sex love between women. As with the term sodomite (citizen of Sodom) used for men who had sex with men, women with same-sex orientation would be ascribed a geographically-based identity.
After Stonewall, women in the Lesbian community celebrated their imagined connection with Sappho and Lesbos, and a regular pilgrimage of women visited Lesbos to see Sappho’s hometown of Eresos on the southwest part of the island. Local Lesbos residents were initially reluctant to welcome non-Lesbos Lesbians from around the world to their mythic/linguistic place of origin, but the boost to the local economy has led to a fairly comfortable accommodation between the two different Lesbian identities. A permanent population of formerly non-Lesbos Lesbians has settled in Eresos.
Residents of Lesbos and their descendants often use a different spelling for their island and their identity when using the Latin alphabet, allowing residents of Lesvos to distinguish themselves as Lesviot or Lesvonian rather than Lesbian.
Due to pronunciation of the Greek letter Beta in Modern Greek as “vita,” and a marked difference in suffixes denoting citizenship, Lesviot/Lesvonian communities use Latin-lettered “lesbian” to mean only women with same-sex orientation. The emphasis on the sound of the letter V in English rather than the B in Beta is especially important in non-Greek written discourse for Straight Lesvonians who are concerned with perceived negative connotations due to the proximity of terms. Nevertheless, the differences are minor in terms of spelling in English, and even less in pronunciation. “Lesviot” is fairly close to “lesbian,” “Lesbiot” would invite possible ridicule by English speakers due to robot-based folk speech (fembot, chatterbot, etc.), and “Lesvonian” looks and sounds in English like the folk term “lesbo” (lesbian).
However effective these strategies may be with speakers of non-Greek languages, they appear to be almost useless when dealing with Greek Lesbians, and there has been a movement to legally forbid LGBTQ Greeks from using Greek-equivalent terms that do not clearly distinguish women’s same-sex orientation from citizens of Lesvos.
The policy of distancing Lesbos and its inhabitants from “lesbian” follows a well-established pattern of isolation for terms and symbols that are associated with same-sex orientation and gender variation. Definitions for “gay,” which meant “happy,” “licentious,” and “carefree” before Stonewall, have been narrowed in popular speech to mean exclusively same-sex orientation and gender variation, as have “faggot,” “queer,” and (in terms of symbols) the rainbow.
Midgette, Anne. Greek Islands. Munich: Nelles, 1999.
Robertiello, Richard C. Voyage From Lesbos: The Psychoanalysis of the Female Homosexual. New York: Citadel, 1959.
Snyder, Jane McIntosh. Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho. New York: Columbia University, 1997.