Domesticating Sapphos

Modern Mythmaking 6 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday April 10, 2011


Last Sunday I read a newspaper report describing the plight of two lesbian women in Delhi. Outside their home were the police and family members of one of the girls trying to barge in. Inside were activists standing by the couple. The girls from Mumbai had eloped so that they could live as a couple. This upset the parents of at least one of the girls who have tried their best to dissuade the girl and get her back home, one way or another, even by force if necessary.

One can understand the plight of the parents. We live in a country where homosexuality is still a crime, and homosexual civil partnerships not even a consideration, a court verdict 60 years after independence and clarifications from psychiatric associations notwithstanding. How else will the parents react? Unless, of course, they have the maturity and empathy and the strength and the resources to rise above unfair cultural assumptions.

One can understand the plight of the girls. They are girls – and our society is not used to girls exerting their own right to self-determination. Often, even the feminist movement excludes lesbian rights.

The word lesbian comes from the island of Lesbos where there lived a lady called Sappho whose poetry describes most elegantly her passionate love for women. She lived at the time of Socrates and Plato. Was she a lesbian? Historians are not absolutely sure – some describe her love for women as platonic (non-sexual) and there is even a story of her killing herself by jumping off a cliff after a ferryman did not reciprocate her love.

This is the classical heterosexual gaze, that doubts every homosexual assumption, yet does not permit the reverse. If two men or two women are seen together, few assume homosexuality before concluding they are ‘just friends’. But if a man and woman are together, they must be a couple!

Across India there are several images of goddesses who appear in pairs. They are enshrined in temples and worshipped in households. Are these representations of lesbian women? Could they be? No, say most scholars and academicians. There is no explicit reference, they assert. They are ‘just friends’ or ‘mistress and servant’ or ‘sisters’ or ‘shadow images’ or ‘co-wives of the same god’, they argue. Thus is lesbianism made invisible. We don’t see them because we don’t want to see them. And because we don’t want to see them, there are no references to them in history or religion, they become aberrations to be removed, truant women who have to be domesticated, forced into marriage and maternity. We want the girls to fit into a cultural template, blessed by the law of the land.

What we forget is that the law of the land is itself an artificial contruct, not a natural phenomenon, based on the principle of fairness, but created by excluding incovenient sexual minorities. The parents want their daughter back, but her lesbianism will be kept out. There it will stay, not just until the law changes, but until their hearts expand.

  • aarthi raghavan

    Hi Devdutt,
    But what do the pictures of Goddesses imply? Are they lesbians?…..And, doesn’t mythology and scriptures teach us to be civilised than natural? Which is better, being civilised or natural? I ask you this question because I have always been taught that we must be civilised. Could you please explain that to me?

    • Devdutt

      Look at the reason beyond the instruction, and you will find the answer

  • Darshan

    As you rightly said… There it will stay, not just until the law changes, but until their hearts expand.

    But let us imagine and just imagine… if every one were to turn homosexual wouldn’t the society collapse or the life cycle come to and halt… it is therefore why i say just imagine. let every individual live life as he wants to. until an individual belives he is right, he is… the moment he belives he is wrong, he is…

    • p v raj shekhar

      Homosexuality is just an exception. You can’t convert a person to homosexuality by teaching or force. Nature has its ultimate say in this regard. However, for unknown reasons nature has created exceptions. Some are natural exceptions some are phycological exceptions. Whatever it may be we have to accept exceptions the same way we acccepted love marriages, marriage out side caste, marrige of older girl with younger boy, widow marriage etc. When these changes were taking place, then also there were apprehensions like these. But remember nature is ultimately more powerful then the the few aberratios.

      • isha

        homosexuality is nature’s way of maintaining balance….even the vedas estimated that 5% of the population shall belong to the third gender….

  • Ritesh

    First things first. Exclusive homosexual preference(physical & emotional) is inborn while just performing homosexual activity is habitual. The second category is what people call ‘straights turned gays’. I am a gay man. I believe I was born gay & without being judgmental I don’t want to be lumped with the second category.

    Around the world cultural understanding about homosexuality has been different at different points in time. Ancient Indians were wise. Even in the absence of modern medical, legal, social & secular moral theories, they could accommodate homosexuality. Most of the Indians don’t even know that the homophobic atmosphere in present day India is a legacy of puritanical Victorian Briton. As Dr. Devdutt says medical experts have given their clarifications & legal experts have given their judgments. These are objective standings. But until subjective opinions don’t change social life won’t be easy for us gays. What is really required is increasing the awareness of this topic among the masses. Positive articles like this one just do that. People can start with opening up their minds & hearts. Gay right are human rights. So gays should hope that wisdom & human values will prevail & incessantly fight for their rights. As the father of the nation said – “It is the reformer who is anxious for the reform, and not society, from which he should expect nothing better than opposition, abhorrence and mortal persecution”.