Once upon a time there was a poet named Sappho. With Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and even some playwrights and poets who names didn’t end in –es writing during the Golden Age of Ancient Greece, it’s not as if they were exactly lacking great literature. Oh—and she was a lesbian.
Of course, we’re not lacking for lesbian and bisexual women of words today, either, from heralded masters such as Virginia Woolf to underappreciated LGBT icons like Djuna Barnes to modern day writers such as Jeannette Winterson. But when was the last time you read a story with lesbian or bisexual women as the heroines? It might well have been in Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Still, that was 30 years ago, and isn’t nearly as widely known or read in the US as it is in the UK.
Think of it another way—from the amazing Hermione Granger and spunky Katniss Everdeen to the simpering Bella Swann and simply awful Anastasia Steele, what do popular literature’s leading ladies ALL have in common?
They’re still (mostly) white, and still (mostly) straight.
And that’s a problem. The furor surrounding Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey wasn’t simply because those were horrendous books written in a semi-illiterate fashion and seemingly advocating or otherwise making allowances for misogyny as well as sexual abuse and assault (though, yes, those are valid criticisms.) Rather, it was because, for better or worse (and with Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James, it’s certainly the latter) these novels and their popularity establish and seek to capitalize on perceived cultural norms—and when the image of what’s considered “normal” or “identifiable” for women are straight white women of varying degrees of competence, we ALL suffer.
Especially for women of color as well as lesbian and bisexual girls, who are not only left out of the loop, but made to see others besides themselves held up as the heroes and grow up wondering what, precisely, that makes THEM.
Then there’s the matter of essentializing lesbian or bisexual women. No one would ever reduce Hermione Granger to “the white girl” or “the straight girl” in the Harry Potter franchise, and with good reason—she’s far more developed and powerful a character than that, meaning that the bond one might form with her is far more personal in kind, especially in this era of rabid fan-to-character self-identification. Nevertheless, that’s also due to the fact that her character is not only defined by more than simply her skin color or orientation, but that she is in an assumed majority. By contrast, when bisexuals and lesbians do crack literary classics, such as Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, their sexuality and orientation is often a key, defining focus.
From Sappho to Shakespeare to Djuna Barnes to J.K Rowling and beyond, one of literature’s greatest strengths has always been the ability to empathize with and see the world through another’s eyes. As controversial as The Merchant of Venice was and continues to be, Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech blends raw rage with a potential plea for tolerance and distills all that and more into an actual (if not idealized) CHARACTER.
“Lesbian” comes from the place of Sappho’s birth, Lesbos—and two thousand years later, lesbian and bisexual women in literature, “the Children of Sappho,” deserve at least that level of dignity.