Thursday, April 3, 2008


I’ve been reading about Sappho. She’s been a cult figure in the lesbian community for over a century now. One of my associations with Sappho is the book, Sappho Was a Right On Woman. While Sappho has been an inspiration to lesbians for decades, I’m also learning that she has been inspiring to many poets and writers – not just lesbians. There is a rich literary history of poems, stories, and plays inspired by Sappho’s life and legacy.

All of this I knew and it’s been delightful to explore further; what I didn’t know and was surprised to learn is that Sappho is said to have committed suicide. This has caused me much reflection over the past weeks. What does it mean for us as a lesbian community to base our central iconology on a woman who committed suicide?

On one hand, it is not surprising. There are ample references over the past one hundred years of suicide among lesbians. I’m particularly thinking of The Well of Loneliness by Radcliffe Hall and my new favorite book, Olivia by Olivia. The tragic lesbian figure, unable to find love and driven to end her own life is a part of our cultural history and memory. It is a consequence of the pervasive sexism and homophobia with which lesbians have lived. It is an experience that we have to respect and understand.

I think that the image of the tragic lesbian has changed, however. In fact, I posit that Sappho Was a Right On Woman, published in 1972, is one of the first books in change and rewrite our lesbian history and identity. During the 1970s and 1980s, the image of the lesbian as lonely, isolated and perverse was whittled away by the growing community of lesbians and women-identified women. As a result of this community, the image of the suicidal lesbian was overcome. I even wonder if was put to rest for perpetuity. (Though, realistically, reading history regularly, I’m aware that it is highly repetitive and cyclical: the tragic lesbian seems certain to return again.)

Perpetuity or not, the lesbian has now been positioned in our society as not a woman who is lonely and suicidal but a woman who is surrounded by a strong and loyal community. As we look back through history, I think that this image of the lesbian reached its apex at some point during the 1980s. Perhaps when Cris Williamson and Meg Christian performed at Carnegie Hall; perhaps during the second March on Washington in 1987. Whenever it occurred, lesbians over the short course of a few decades remade themselves from the women molded after a suicidal Sappho to the women molded after an empowered, autonomous, independent, and happy Sappho.

This is the Sappho that we’ll embrace for now, but knowing the history of it is important to me. Since the apex of this particular incarnation of Sappho, we’ve been going through additional transformations of our selves and our collective self-images. Some of the forces at play include identity configurations of queer and transgender. I have come to think that our current identity formation of “empowered Sapphos” is part of what makes the lesbian community, and particularly lesbian feminist communities, important flashpoints for the working through of these new identities of queer and transgender. Challenges to lesbian separatism are a way for a variety of other identity formations to receive validation from a “community” and from the “empowered Sapphics.”

Sappho’s poems only exist today in fragments. No matter how we understand our lives and our identities, we are building them from fragments of an ancient poet and from a narrative that is by and large lost and simply pieced together from various historical and literary sources. The strength of this is we can continue to reinvent ourselves and our identities from this fragmented past. We can and we will—lesbian identity will continue to be challenged, reformulated, and reconfigured.

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and poet who lives in University Park, MD. You can read more of her work at

This is column #19 dated April 3, 2008 in the series, CIVILesbianIZATION.

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