When is a Lesbian not a Lesbian?

// 23 July 2008

A couple of months ago, three islanders took gay rights group OLKE, the Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece, to court to get a ban on anyone except islanders and their descendants using the term Lesbian. The issue was about who has the right to call themselves Lesbians: is it gay women, or the 100,000 people living on Greece’s third biggest island – plus another 250,000 expatriates who originate from Lesbos? (BBC).

Well, now a court in Athens has decided: there is no justification for the islanders’ contention that they felt slighted, because the word does not define their identity.

The man spearheading the case, publisher Dimitris Lambrou, had claimed that international dominance of the word in its sexual context violated the human rights of the islanders – who call themselves Lesbians – and disgraces them around the world.

He argued it caused daily problems to the social life of Lesbos’s inhabitants.

Andrea Gilbert, spokesperson for Athens Pride 2008 and a member of OLKE, drew attention to the amount of money from tourism that lesbians bring to the island when visiting Eressos, the birthplace of Sappho.

“The claim is based in serious prejudice and hatred, a ridiculous claim that most Greeks find laughable”, she said, “However, the underlying homophobia and reactionary sentiment is no laughing matter.”

The court ruled that the islanders do not have sole claim to the word and ordered the plaintiffs to pay court expenses of 230 euros (about £180) – although they can appeal against the decision.

(Via Pink News and BBC websites)

Comments From You

Clare // Posted 23 July 2008 at 8:45 am

Whoo hoo! Glad this stupid action has been ruled correctly. The whole basis of this was “It makes us sound like gays which is horrid” and I’m chuffed that the court agrees that being gay actually *isn’t* horrid.

Hela // Posted 23 July 2008 at 9:54 am

This makes me ashamed.

To assert our rights do we have to tread on other people’s? The residents clearly have a prior and priority right to the description. It is unavoidable for them whereas we could choose to call ourselves anything.

What’s wrong with gay? What’s wrong with dyke? What’s wrong with sapphic? What’s wrong with women who have sex with women?

Just because the gay female community has become attached to the term lesbian doesn’t mean we are right to use it. That’s like saying white people are attached to ruling India or South Africa or having land in Manhattan or Australia. It doesn’t mean they weren’t stolen.

Although there are gay women in every culture of course, gay liberation comes out of the imperialist West. We don’t do our sisters in more traditional societies any favours by linking their sexuality to the usual bullying by people from the West. And stealing a name is a very profound form of cultural effacement.

Keeping this name is not going to make it any easier for gay women in traditional society to win their rights. It is being kept for the emotional convenience of westerners. It is shameful that as gay women we emerge from centuries of patriarchal oppression we join the ranks of world oppressors ourselves, instead of giving a hand up to the world majority that is still oppresssed. It’s narcisistic, selfish and deeply shameful.

We should apologise to the real lesbians and respect them. Only then can we expect respect in return.

Soirore // Posted 23 July 2008 at 11:50 am

It should be noted also that those islanders bringing the legal action were not representative of the residents of Lesbos as a whole (gay or otherwise) who are generally positive about the connection with gay women and lesbian culture.

Naomi // Posted 23 July 2008 at 1:19 pm

This is not a case of the word being ‘stolen’ or of Western imperialism. I think we have a long way to go before western imperialism starts sticking up for lesbians!

The fact is that ‘lesbian’ is not a derogitary term, there is an obvious etymology linking this word to Lesbos and there are plenty of examples of place names becoming part of language. The reason why this has become an issue is because it involves (gasp) gay people.

I also think it is simplistic to talk about western gay liberation being imposed on ‘traditional societies’. Gay rights movements around the world are in dialogue, sometimes there are conflicts, mostly syngeries with grassroots movements in (for example) the global south benefitting from international solidarity and yes, sometimes labels can be positively embraced.

That is not to say that things are perfect, and social movements must always be aware of their incorporation of those in developing countries. But I do not believe that this is relevant to this story as Greece is a member of the EU.

Ellie // Posted 23 July 2008 at 3:01 pm

Sorry but I don’t think there’s any such thing as having the ‘right’ to use a word. Since when can language be owned? Many many many words have different meanings and uses.

I doubt there are any good examples of an instance when the word lesbian is used in such a way that you are unsure of whether it describes gay women or people from Lesbos.

If someone thinks that being mistaken for a lesbian is insulting then its their attitude that ought to change.

Saranga // Posted 23 July 2008 at 3:41 pm

What a ridiculous court case fueled by chronic homophobia. Oh noes! teh lezbianz! They be stealing…stealing… ummmm…

Thank god the court saw sense.

Shev // Posted 24 July 2008 at 12:36 pm

I think Hela has a really interesting point here. It is well-understood in post-colonial (and actually, loads of other isms, including feminisms) theory that language is one of the key tools of the oppressors – that language is a way to frame concepts, and ultimately shapes the way that we think.

However, I do not agree that the right to self-definition regarding nationality trumps the right to self-definition regarding sexuality. The other examples that Hela uses all come from somewhere – none sprang etymologically whole from the 60s as a word used only to describe gay people (in, moreover, positive and non-derogatory terms). Sapphic derives from the poet Sapphos (who, incidentally, lived on Lesbos), and so can be seen as ‘belonging’ to the literary circle, ‘gay’ meant happy (and I have heard my own mother bemoaning the fact that she can’t say she’s feeling ‘gay’ anymore because of the connotations – to which I say, ha ha), dykes are things to keep water from flooding places (so the story about the little boy who stuck his finger ina dyke and saved the town is, naturally, verboten), homosexual was originally coined to term us as diseased….. I really could go on.

My point is that language is changeable, and that this particular dispute seems to stem more from a concern that it is the gays who are polluting the national identity of this Greek island (despite the very, very very VERY long tradition of Sapphos), rather than a protest against the colonisation of culture via the imposition of a set of signifiers onto a separate culture. So yay, whilst I don’t actually currently define (politically or sexually) as a lesbian, I am very pleased that should I wish to draw on the traditions of radical lesbian feminism, I could.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 24 July 2008 at 3:28 pm

i could understand people being annoyed at confusion of the words, as with any confusion of words, and also with the idea that your nationality has been taken for another use, but thats it.

its an annoyance, but it has been used for a long time. if you took the meaning away it would certainly look like they were embarrassed by the association, and thats wrong. no wait, he said it DISGRACES them. thats very homophobic. it would be no more than the annoyance mentioned above were that not the case.

and no i dont think anyone has the right to own a word, although there are some that are usually not a good idea unless you are in a particular environment or with a particular background (the n word for instance) and no, particular environment does not mean where nobody can hear you. it is a totally different thing though. if there are multiple meanings to a word, and none of the associations are negative then it shouldnt matter. as said by ellie “I doubt there are any good examples of an instance when the word lesbian is used in such a way that you are unsure of whether it describes gay women or people from Lesbos.”

Aimee // Posted 25 July 2008 at 5:03 pm

Haha, serves them right for describing sappho et colony as lesbians in the first place. I believe it was bandied as a derogatory term (because in ancient Greece, male homosexuality was okay, but female sexuality wasn’t) because they lived on lesbos in an all female colony without the input of men, although there was little evidence that they were actually participating in sexual practises. But then no one likes it when a derogatory term is reclaimed.

Carol // Posted 25 July 2008 at 7:58 pm

I am a bit confused by the differentiation of Greece from “the West”. I thought Greece was always claimed by people throughout Western European countries, as where the West began historically.

Hence most of European culture is claimed to have come from Greece: e.g. democracy, narrative and theatrical conventions, medecine etc, etc. And I guess this is why the term “lesbian” was adopted for women who love women. ie It has a history going back to the (assumed) origins of Western Europe.

I don’t know how the majority of Greek people feel about this. But usually this legacy from Greece is quite inaccurate, as so much of Greek and Western culture came originally from so-defined Eastern places: eg maths and astronomy and medicine, which ancient Greeks picked up in places like ancient Persia.

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