Bendr Magazine

Sappho & Achilles: The Cycle Back to “Classical” Queer Culture

Let’s hark back to ancient Greece, where in the island of Lesbos, Sappho composed her renowned verses exalting the beauty of both men and women. She was an icon of female sexuality, and “WLW” (women loving women). Looking further back to the age of The Iliad and the Odyssey, we find the story of Achilles and Patroclus. Certainly not cousins of any sort (as unfortunately portrayed in Troy, 2004), they are the prime example of a romantic, if not sexual, relationship between two men. Plato and Aristotle mention them as examples of socially accepted homosexual unions between young men of the day. No words existed to define the spectrum of sexuality in pre-Christian/Abrahamic civilizations.

We know that such unions were accepted, though not to the level of marriage. Marriage between a man and a woman was seen as an agreement; essential for the continuation of a community. Yet, even within the confines of this institution, sexual freedom was the norm of life. Men were open about their sexual practices, and for women, constrained by rigid strictures and barely even citizens, evidence of sex or romance beyond the marriage bed were often secret. However, “labels'' weren't used to define one’s individual sexual, romantic or gender orientation. This wasn’t solely limited to Western civilizations. Countless East Asian and South Asian civilizations enacted the same principles.

Same-sex unions were often seen as rites of passage towards adulthood and sometimes were treated as sacred. The widespread acceptance of multiple genders was seen as well, particularly in South Asia’s Hijra community, which includes what we identify as transgender and intersex persons. Well-respected, they held political and religious positions; in society, ironic when we consider the rampant homophobia, transphobia and queer-phobia plaguing much of the world’s population. 

Queer-phobia, fundamentally forms a fear of the “other”; anything that doesn’t fit the pre-conceived notions of a society. During the sixteenth century onwards, encouraged by the “Sodom and Gomorrah” narrative, pre-conceptions of popular society, perpetuated by an evolving toxic patriarchal, misogynistic culture - queer identities were either unseen or criminalized. People arrested Oscar Wilde, who composed “The Ballad of the Reading Gaol,” for sodomy. Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” and Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” both contain queer themes, yet drowned in the sea of heteronormative discourse. In fact, queer theory is a fairly recent area of study in literary criticism. Queer depictions in mainstream media are still unaccepted enough that their mere presence is groundbreaking. 

As a result, the labels we use today- the reclaimed “queer” and the umbrella terms “bisexual”, “asexual” or “non-binary”- are a recent practice. The Stonewall Riots pioneered LGBTQ+ political activism and the legislation that would lead to the community’s rights being legalized. The identification and acceptance of multiple queer identities throughout the spectrum is witnessed through the recognition of the fluidity of the sexuality spectrum as well as the gender identity and romantic and platonic attraction spectrums; this is established with the accepted use of labels signifying minority identities within the queer community such as “ageosexual”,“sapphic”,“demigender” and “abrosexual”.

This wasn’t solely limited to Western civilizations. Countless East Asian and South Asian civilizations enacted the same principles. Same-sex unions were often seen as rites of passage towards adulthood and sometimes were treated as sacred. The widespread acceptance of multiple genders was seen as well, particularly in South Asia’s Hijra community, which includes what we identify as transgender and intersex persons. Well-respected, they held political and religious positions; in society, ironic when we consider the rampant homophobia, transphobia and queer-phobia plaguing much of the world’s population. 

Yet, the growing realization of the fluidity of the spectrums has resulted in less usage of labels. Most now prefer to remain un-labelled or identify under umbrella terms. With a recognition of the stereotypical image of binary gender expression, the challenging of conventional feminine and masculine expression and the normalization of queer identities, labels may soon move out of use. The reclaimed term “queer” may, once more, become common, outside of its derogatory origins.  It is probable that even said term may disappear over time as acceptance of queer identities and relationships becomes the norm. 

This is utopian hope; but it is a possible outcome, and we must consider the utopias as well as the dystopias. It’s reasonable to assume that we are returning to an era much like the Classical eras and civilizations, where labels were insufficient to encompass the entirety of the sexuality, gender and romantic spectrums.  Such changes suggest that a return to the normalization of queer identities in classical western and eastern civilizations is impossible.  Such changes suggest that a return to the normalization of queer identities in classical western and eastern 

civilizations is impossible. However, it is certainly plausible to state that society is evolving to include the same values as classical civilizations in their attitude towards the queer community, and within the queer community as well. The normalization of queer relationships and relationships outside of heteronormative norms as well as freedom of gender expression will be the key differences between the past and the utopian civilization we hope to achieve. 

Savindri Ferdinando

Continuously fascinated by Sappho, Ari Aster and Jane Austen, Savindri Ferdinando is a freelance writer and student whose interests lie in literature, psychology, languages, art and writing. Dabbling in poetry and creative writing, she wishes to use her writing to shed some light on the forgotten, niche, ignored and controversial aspects of society.