Sappho

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Earliest known depiction of Sappho, c. 470 BCE

This woman really needs no introduction, she’s basically the mother of all lesbians. And by that, I mean, they wouldn’t be called lesbians without her. I’m talking about Sappho.

Now, like, Sappho was around in really ancient times and she was a woman, and it kind of took a bit for people to notice she might be someone to pay attention to and maybe write things down about. So, there’s a lot of her life that’s isn’t known for sure or that we have to get from reading in between the lines of things. We’re literally not even sure how to spell her name because there’s a few different ways to spell it, sometimes appearing in her own native dialect.

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“Sappho” by John William Godward

But we do know for sure that she originally came from Mytilene, the capital city of the island of Lesbos — sometime around 630 BCE. Some scholars have guessed that her mother was named Cleïs, but the evidence for that is flimsy at best. The best guess for her father is a dude named Scamandronymous (and I’m not kidding when I call it a guess) but Sappho tells us in her poetry that he died when she was seven.

From her poems, we can also gather that she had three brothers: Erigyius, Charaxus and Larichus. Larichus, apparently, had a job pouring wine in the town hall which also tells us that their family was aristocratic. Charaxus was the black sheep of the family, it seems, who once ransomed off an Egyptian courtesan for a whole lot of money — and Sappho wrote a scathing poem shaming him for it.

She and her relatives were temporarily exiled from Lesbos to Sicily around 600 BCE because some sort of political conflict arose, and her family was involved with the wrong side.

She may have had a daughter named Cleïs (and that’s why its suggested that could be her mother’s name), though some sources indicated Cleïs may have actually been a younger lover. I, personally, think that’s more likely especially since the word “pais” — used in a couple of places to describe Cleïs — is sometimes used to denote a younger same-sex lover (albeit typically in a male relationship. For fun, look up where the word “pais” was used in the Bible some time. That’s a super controversial post for another day.)

And then of course, I’m also fairly convinced because of who is described as her husband in the Suda (which was like an ancient encyclopedia). Her husband was Kerkylas of Andros. The thing is, according to basically everyone, Kerkylas wasn’t a name — it was a word for “penis”…and Andros, although it is a Grecian island, is also a word that means “man”. So…yeah, Sappho was supposedly married to “Penis of Man”? I’m just a little skeptical. It’s been suggested that this was invented for a comedic play, which makes more sense but it’s still kind of at fart-joke levels of humor. Like most scholars, dating from 64 BCE to today — I am also really skeptical of the story that she ultimately killed herself for the love of a guy named Phaon. While we still don’t know how she died, this little story tells us two things: she died around 580 or 570 BCE, and straight-washing has been going on for a long time.

It’s believed that, much like Socrates, Sappho led a sort of informal “school” that was really more a collection of people, mostly women, who liked to discuss art and philosophy and culture. Theoretically, a number of these women may also have been her lovers but we really don’t know for sure.

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Anyways, throughout her life, Sappho wrote something like ten thousand poems in the rare Aeolic Greek dialect — making her the earliest known Lesbian poet. (To clarify — that’s Lesbian with a capital L — as in from Lesbos.) She was also one of the greatly revered Nine Lyric Poets — lyrics poets from ancient Greece who were determined to be worthy of study by the scholars of Alexandria (you know, before they torched the library.) Of those Nine Lyric Poets, Sappho is the only woman. Plato is also known to have described Sappho as “the Tenth Muse.” Statues of Sappho were built, her face appeared on coins in Mytilene — given that she was in a pretty strictly patriarchal society, and that she is the only woman who’s cultural contributions survive to this day, it’s pretty incredible that she managed to reach such high levels of respect and celebration across Greece.

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Sappho in “Parnassus” by Raphael, depicted with a paper that says “Sappho” because I guess the Greeks invented name tags?

As of this writing, about 650 of them are known to have survived. Her most famous of these are lyric poems, which were intended to be played with music. Her contemporaries who wrote about her spoke mainly of her love poetry, but she also has a lot of poems about her family (mostly her brothers).

None of the love poems are truly explicit — it’s hard to say if she was actually sexually or romantically attracted to men or women or both or neither, or if it changed from day to day. The Suda states that accusations of her sexual relationships with female students were slanderous, and other ancient sources only describe her as being accused of having relations with other women. And so — for centuries — it’s been hotly debated whether or not Sappho was in love with women or just really good friends with them — and conversely, whether or not she was in love with any guys or just really good friends with them. A lot of the answers may depend on cultural context that we simply don’t have and probably will never get.

That said, it’s from her name and her life that we’ve derived the words “sapphic” and “lesbian” so I’d say that we get to claim this one.

Jackie Shane

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Jackie Shane was an R&B singer who was a sensation in the music scene of Toronto, and was a nationally charting artist in Canada — and broke new ground as an openly queer performer.

Jackie Shane was born in Nashville, Tennessee on May 15, 1940. She would later explain that she began dressing as a girl when she was 5, and that she identified herself as a woman in a man’s body by age 13 — but openly she described herself as gay. Her mother supported her, and Shane would later say she never had any problems in school — at least, not because of her sexuality or gender identity.

As a teenager, she played the drums and was a regular sessions player for gospel and R&B record labels in Nashville. Through this, she met various famous musicians including Jackie Wilson.

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Nevertheless, she was a black queer kid living in the south during the Jim Crow era. In 1959 or 1960, she moved to Montreal — still fully presenting as a man. She was brought by a local saxophonist to see Frank Motley and the Motley Crew perform. Frank Motley invited Shane on stage — and quickly became the band’s lead vocalist. She traveled with them, recording with them in Boston and performing in Los Angeles and Nashville.

Shane moved to Toronto in 1962, where an R&B scene was emerging on Yonge Street, and went solo. Shane’s arrival in Toronto has been described as a “revelation” — her sound was unlike anything else in the city. The way it’s described, she appeared on the scene and instantly became a legend. She was still presenting as a man, though she clothes were becoming more androgynous, and she typically dodged the question of gender altogether when asked. Canada may not have been as oppressive as Tennessee, but they wouldn’t decriminalize homosexuality until 1969 and were decades away from acknowledging transgender identities at all. Her performances had a profound impact on the Toronto Sound and on the queer community and culture that would develop in the city over the next decades.

16jackie-shane1-superjumboFor live performances, Shane was a performer through and through. She would tour with around 20 trunks of outfits, and insert monologues and comedy bits into her songs.

In 1962, Shane released her first solo recording — a cover of the song “Money (That’s What I Want)” with a B-side recording of “I’ve Really Got the Blues.” “Money (That’s What I Want)” was later re-released as the B-side on a recording of “Have You Ever Had the Blues?” The same year, she released her second single — “Any Other Way”, which almost instantly became the #2 hit on Toronto’s CHUM Chart of the top 30 songs being played on local radio stations. It is probably her most famous song.

During live performances of “Any Other Way”, she would add quips that were usually used to underline the subversive subtext of the lyrics “Tell her that I’m happy, tell her that I’m gay.” (Her live album is available on Spotify and on iTunes, so you don’t even have to take my word for it, you can hear it for yourself.)

“Any Other Way” was followed by releasing the single “In my Tenement”, which did not do nearly as well and only charted in upstate New York. She began to focus on performing and touring, and did not make any new recordings for several years.

In 1965, Jackie Shane returned to Nashville, where she performed “Walking the Dog” on Night Train. I don’t know that this was a particularly huge moment in her life, but there’s video that I thought I’d share.

Two years later, “Any Other Way” was re-released and this time it rose to #68 on Canada’s national RPM chart. This seems to have encouraged Shane to return to recording new music, as she released “Standing Up Straight and Tall” later that year. This was followed by a live album. In 1969, she released “Cruel Cruel World” — this would prove to be her last recording. (Although, some tracks from the live album would later be re-released on the Motley Crew album “Honkin’ at Midnight.”)

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Her prominence began to fade in 1970, and in 1971 she moved to Los Angeles to take care of her mother. She turned down an offer to be part of the band Funkadelic and all but disappeared from public consciousness. Her mother passed away around 1996, and Shane moved back to Nashville.

At this point she literally disappeared for years. Rumors persisted that she had committed suicide or been stabbed to death — in truth, she was just living a quiet life at home. Frank Motley managed to connect with her, and relayed the news that she was alive. Some of her musician friends attempted to reconnect, there were discussions about a reunion tour — and then her phone number was reassigned and she disappeared again.

But she was not forgotten. In 2010 CBC Radio released a documentary about her called I Got Mine: The Story of Jackie Shane. The producers had sent a letter to Shane asking if she would participate — but she never responded, leaving question as to whether or not she was even alive. A 2011 documentary called Yonge Street: Toronto Rock & Roll Stories included Shane. These documentaries were very well received, and the media began attempting to contact Shane for interviews but to no avail.

In 2014, a scout for the reissue record label Numero Group finally managed to reach Jackie Shane by phone, very much alive — although none of her staff had ever even see her face. The scout, Douglas Mcgowan, built a friendship with her over the phone and convinced her to allow his label to re-release her recordings. Though Shane was able to retain her privacy, she was no longer hidden from the world.

Her live album was reissued and shortlisted for a Polaris Award in 2015 (and again in 2016 and 2017). In 2017, her influence on Toronto was remembered in an anthology of essays entitled Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer. That same year, a compilation album of many of Shane’s recordings was released and called Any Other Way. The album was nominated for “Best Historical Album” at the 2019 Grammy Awards.

In 2019, Jackie Shane finally granted an interview to Elaine Banks. The interview was aired on the CBC Radio program Q on February 8. This would be the first publicly broadcast interview Shane had given in decades — and it would also be her last. In February of 2019, Jackie Shane passed away in her sleep. She was found in her home on February 21. She was 78 years old.

You can listen to that interview here.

Prehistoric Queer Art

The earliest depictions of homosexuality in art are a subject that’s up for a lot of debate — and that’s understandable considering that we’re talking about primitive rock art. Our cavemen ancestors may have been a lot of things, but Picasso wasn’t one of them. Actually, maybe Picasso isn’t the best example… My point is, there’s a lot of room for interpretation.

800px-Palermo-Museo-Archeologico-bjs-11Arguably, the oldest depictions of homosexuality are the Grotta dell’Addaura (or the Addaura Cave) in Sicily. These particular images are estimated to date back to somewhere roughly between 9,600 BCE and  The area had already been studied by paleontologists, because there’d been remains of a dwarf elephant nearby but in 1943 Allied forces invaded the island. They decided to store ammunition in some of the caves near Palermo. Some of the ammunition being stored in this particular cave exploded — revealing previously buried rock art. Obviously, there was a war going on and a recent explosion of valuable ammo, so studying the rock art wasn’t an immediate priority. Nevertheless, Jole Bovio Marconi studied the rock art extensively and published her findings in 1953 CE. The particular drawing of note in this cave — which Marconi herself believed was a homoerotic image — shows a circle of people around two men who are arching their backs. It’s been argued this isn’t actually an image of gay sex (and — again — it’s a little hard to tell but if it is, it seems kind of, I dunno, kinky?) Some people say it’s an image of hunters hunting (hunting what?) or of a religious ceremony, or possibly of acrobats. I honestly couldn’t tell you but that’s why I included a picture of it. I sort of see seals but what do I know, really?

The oldest rock art to definitively show some man-on-man action is in Zimbabwe, painted by the San people. These paintings date back to roughly 8,000 BCE and some are especially controversial because they appear to show three men engaged in a sexual act together. I don’t have a picture of that one, and I am really sorry about it. It must really be something to see.

Art — both drawings and figurines — dating between roughly the years 7,000 BCE and 1,700 BCE also seem to depict transgender and/or intersex people and even some individuals are depicted without any defining gender or sex characteristics at all. At least one figure found thus far seems to depict what some have called a “third sex”, with breasts and male genitals. I wasn’t able to find any pictures of these yet, but I will definitely keep looking!

So what’s the take away here? We’ve been here, we’ve been queer, and the world should definitely be used to us by now.

(Adapted from a Facebook post.)