Origin and transformation of the term

Painting of a woman dressed in Greek robes sitting on a marble bench with trees and water in the distance

Sappho of Lesbos, depicted in an 1904 painting by John William Godward gave the term Lesbian the connotation of erotic desire between women.

The word “lesbian” is derived from the name of the Greek island of Lesbos, home to the 6th-century BCE poet Sappho. From various ancient writings, historians have gathered that a group of young women were left in Sappho’s charge for their instruction or cultural edification. Not much of Sappho’s poetry remains, but that which does reflects the topics she wrote about: women’s daily lives, their relationships, and rituals. She focused on the beauty of women and proclaimed her love for girls. Before the late 19th century, the word “Lesbian referred to any derivative or aspects of Lesbos, including a type of wine.

In 1890 the term was used in a medical dictionary as an adjective to describe tribadism (As”Lesbian love”): sexual gratification of two women by simulating intercouse. “Lesbianism” to describe erotic relationships between women had been documented in 1870. The terms were interchangeable with “Sapphist” and “Sapphism” around the turn of the 20th century. The use of “Lesbian” in medical literature became prominent; by 1925 the word was recorded as a noun to mean the female equivalent of a sodormite.

Portrait photo of Havelock Ellis, an older man with white hair and a long beard and piercing eyes

Lesbian subculture developed in response to the categorization of lesbianism as a medical problem by sexologists such as Havelock Ellis.
The development of medical knowledge was a significant factor in further connotations of the term. In the middle of the 19th century, medical writers attempted to establish ways to identify male homosexuality, which was considered a significant social problem in most Western societies. In categorizing behavior that indicated what was referred to as “inversion” by German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, a researchers determined what was normal sexual behavior for men and women, and therefore to what extent men and women varied from the “perfect female sexual type”. Far less literature focused on female homosexuality, as medical professionals did not consider it a significant problem. In some cases it was not acknowledged to exist. However, sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebbing from Germany, and Britain’s Havelock Ellis wrote some of the earliest and more enduring categorizations of female same sex attraction, approaching it as a form of insanity. Krafft-Ebbing, who considered lesbians (what he termed “Uranism) a neurological disease, and Ellis, who was influenced by Kraff-Ebbing’s writings, disagreed about whether sexual inversion was generally a lifelong condition. Ellis believed that many women who professed love for other women changed their feelings about such relationships after they had experienced marriage and a “practical life”.
However, Ellis conceded that there were “true inverts” who would spend their lives pursuing erotic relationships with women. These were members of the “third sex” who rejected the roles of women to be subservient, feminine, and domestic. “Invert” described the opposite gender roles and the related attraction to women instead of men; since women in the Victorian period were considered unable to initiate sexual encounters, women who did so with other women were thought of as possessing masculine sexual desires. The work of Krafft-Ebbing and Ellis was widely read, and helped to create public consciousness of female homosexuality. The sexologists’ claims that homosexual men; it indicated that their behavior was not inspired by nor should be considered a criminal vice, as was widely acknowledged. In the absence of any other material to describe their emotions, homosexuals accepted the designation of different or perverted, and used their outlaws status to form social circles in Paris and Berlin. “Lesbian” began to describe elements of a subculture.

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