Sappho as queer icon: At Pomona College, Ella Haselswerdt talks lesbian futurism and queer theory

A collage of various limbs and heads from statues of greek women in front of the lesbian flag.
Ella Haselswerdt, Professor of Classics at the University of California at Los Angeles, discussed the significance of Sappho’s fragmentary poetry for the modern queer community at an Oct. 19. (Sasha Matthews • The Student Life)

As an icon of the queer community, Sappho has always been shrouded in mystery. Many of her poems exist only in fragments, which has led to controversy among Ancient Greek scholars about her status as a queer figure.

At a talk on Oct. 19, Ella Haselswerdt, professor of classics at UCLA, suggested that the fragmentary form of Sappho’s work can itself have important implications for queerness.

Open to students and faculty members from across the 5Cs, the event was organized by Jody Valentine, visiting assistant professor of classics at Pomona. According to Valentine, Haselswerdt first caught her attention and earned her admiration in 2016 by publishing a “brave, honest, wickedly smart and very funny” piece titled “Re-Queering Sappho.”

During her presentation, Haselswerdt expanded on some of the ideas referenced in her 2016 article, which she described as a “living” project. She opened by talking about how Sappho’s prevalence in the queer community took root over 2,700 years ago, when she initially composed her poetry on the Greek island of Lesbos. Her work, which Haselswerdt says is meant to convey homoerotic feelings, now exists only in fragmentary form.

Haselswerdt said that the space between fragments can be seen as reflective of the potential for queer people to create and imagine queer narratives.

The perception of Sappho as a queer figure has been widely contested by Ancient Greek scholars. Ellen Jennings PO ’24, who is currently enrolled in Valentine’s History of Sexuality class at Pomona, explained that classicists often disagree about whether or not we can call Sappho a lesbian or identify with her elements of sexuality and gender.

“Sappho’s erotic poetry articulates an intense love for women that is meaningful to many as representation despite efforts to deny or reframe her expressions as those of platonic love between women,” Jennings said in an email to TSL.

In her talk, Haselswerdt explored this idea of Sappho as representing the lesbian community. She not only suggested that Sappho serves as an important figure within said community, but also emphasized the importance of approaching Sappho with an inclusive, open concept of  queerness.

“What I’m interested in talking about today is what it means to cling to Sappho as an emblem of modern lesbianism at a moment when the identity category is fraught with attempts to pit cis lesbians against trans women and trans lesbians in particular,” Haselswerdt said.

According to Valentine, Haselswerdt’s ideas challenge scholars’ traditionally misogynistic interpretations of Sappho.

“By centering Sappho as a queer icon and by exploring the possible expansive meaning that might still be able to emerge from understanding this historical figure as a lesbian … [Haselswerdt] is sort of breaking Sappho out of that misogynistic tradition,” Valentine said.

Haselswerdt delved further into the topic of Sappho by analyzing the ways in which artists have previously represented and transmitted Sappho’s work, looking into the immersive art book “Sappho Fragments” by Rose Frain in 1989, the fifth-century B.C.E. hydria “Sappho Lisant” and other pieces.

Jennings expressed her appreciation for Haselswerdt’s approach to Sappho, which she felt made the topic very accessible.

“I liked that Dr. Haselswerdt’s presentation had something for everyone — queer theory, literary theory and interpretation, history, very old and contemporary visual art and ancient language,” Jennings said. “It really felt like an interdisciplinary experience and though I’m new to the study of classics, I felt inspired in many directions and it was a very accessible and fun experience.”

The accessibility of the field of classics is something that Valentine hoped to address by hosting this event.

“One thing about classics is that it has, traditionally, been an inaccessible field of study for many people,” Valentine said in an email to TSL. “I like to create opportunities for students to decide for themselves whether or not they are interested in Greek and antiquity. So, an event like this is invitational.”

 Jennings noted that the event was largely attended by women and feminine presenting people.

“I wish that more men involved in the study of classics, poetry and history at the 5Cs had found their way to Dr. Haselswerdt’s talk and that more men felt moved to attend and listen to events pertaining to women’s histories, research and art,” Jennings said.

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