|TRAVELS IN LESBOS: THE END OF THE AGE OF INNOCENCE
The events of September 11th were beyond the moral pale: religious fundamentalists launched attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. on a scale and with such Horror that our world as we knew it is irretrievably changed, and the nations of the world have been shocked into creating unprecedented alliances. Of course, irrational hatred is no stranger to us in the gay and lesbian community. Just like the rest of the nation, we are shocked, grieving and afraid. But, the wake of the tragic events of September 11th as the nation moved into battle position and then to war, we here in South Florida’s gay community, and in gay communities across America, the battle to preserve the most basic of human rights: the right to work, and the right to find housing, and have access to public accommodations, continues without pause. Our homegrown religious fundamentalists didn’t miss a beat in their assault on Miami-Dade and Broward Counties human rights ordinances in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On September 11th , I was on the board walk in Skala Eressus, on the Greek Isle of Lesbos, in the Aegean sea, just a short hop from the Middle East. My sweetie and I were wrapping up an idyllic Grecian holiday.
After eight months at the helm of Americans for Equality’s Decline to Sign Campaign (fighting the petition drive to legalize discrimination against gays in Broward County) I left the campaign in the capable hands of my vice-chairs and board to take a short working holiday in Greece with my partner, who had a international bariatric surgery conference on Crete. I planned to be home for the final days of the campaign as the deadline for turning in the petitions was September 17th. We kicked off our island hopping on the isle of Crete, visiting the Palace of Knossos, the archeological ruins of a cultural and religious center of the Minoan civilization, circa twentieth century B.C. Our “official” guide, trained by the state (Greece) initially neglected to reveal that the Minoan civilization had been a matriarchal civilization, that is, governed by a queen who also served as the religious figurehead for the culture. As we moved through the entrance way into the palace proper, she referred to the “king” and the priests. My irrepressible lover, piped up with “Wasn’t the Minoan civilization a matriarchal civilization?” To which the guide replied, both to our delight and our consternation: “Actually, all evidence indicates that there were no kings here, only queens, but, we say “kings” for political reasons.” Later, she would tell us that some of the other guides shun her for talking about the matriarchal nature of the Minoan civilization. I had thought it was common knowledge that the Minoans were matriarchal, governed by women, and worshiped the Great Goddess. But, on Crete, where big breasted knock-offs of Minoan goddess figures bring in tourist bucks they don’t deny that the Minoans were into the Goddess, but, the matriarchy thing is actively repressed - purposely deluding the multitudes of visitors to the archeological sites and to the museum in Irakalion that Knossos is yet another “kingdom”. Almost obscenely, a Greek guidebook on the Palace of Knossos describes a fresco depicting a religious ceremony as “a crowd of men enjoying dancing girls”, when the only reasonable interpretation when one takes into account what is known of the hierarchy and religious practices of the culture is that the fresco depicts priestesses performing religious rites in the presence of a mixed crowd of worshipers.
Given the comparative level of evils I have experienced in the world, I must admit that I was only slightly galled, and not surprised at the purposeful suppression of the fact that women were the political and spiritual leaders of the Minoan civilization which produced the first written language, remarkable sophistication in architecture, art, and the famous Minoca Pax - fifteen hundred years of peace. The two distinct types of written language etched on round clay tablets and named Linear A and Linear B have remained largely untranslated to date. Having witnessed first hand the purposeful dissembling of the Greeks with regard to the matriarchal nature of the Minoan civilization I have a feeling that even if they ever decipher the content on the tablets, if they don’t like what they say, we’ll never hear about it...
After Crete, we were stoked and on a quest for the Goddess in the “cradle of Western civilization”, as Greece likes to call herself. Next stop, the isle of Lesbos. Yes, Lesbos, birthplace and home of the famous Greek poet(ess) Sappho, and the root of the modern word, lesbian, which outside of Greece means, well, we all know what a lesbian is. But, in Greece, a “Lesbian” is someone from Lesbos, or in Greek, Lesvos. The “v” is pronounced like a “b”. It is a sad fact that many Lesbians, when asked where they hail from, report that they are from Mytilene, the capital city of Lesbos. Travel agencies often refer to Lesbos as Mytilene, rather than the truth, in order to avoid the stigma associated with the proper name. Gentle reader, I ask you: Are we surprised?
So, on Lesbos, we headed straight - or should I say “gayly forward” - post haste, without delay or hesitation for Skala Eressos, the birthplace of Sappho, and lesbian Mecca since the 1950s. Most gay travelers know that Mykonos is the preeminent travel destination for the gay and lesbian traveler in search of hordes of their own on a relatively hospitable and exotic Greek isle. Less well known is the fact that on Lesbos a sizable population of international lesbians live year round, and the tiny beach town where Sappho was born on the remote western end of the island is dominated by lesbian visitors during the most hospitable months of the year, from late March through October. For the locals, the hordes of women, that is, lesbians with a small “l”, were initially tolerated in the 1950s when they began to converge on the beach to camp out and commune with the tenth muse, i.e., Sappho. In the 1960s, what with the generation of love, and the rebirth of feminism, the beaded, feathered, painted, besotted, and likely pot-head bands of women, also known as “womyn”, women dancing and drumming and chanting and generally carrying on, carrying on in and on the beach, in the caves, on the road, (some of us remember the song lyrics, “why don’t we do it in the road...”) - let us just say that in the 1960s on Lesbos, there was a clash of cultures. The locals attempted to route the invasion of strange acolytes of Sappho. But, inevitably, the tourist dollar prevailed, and now the visitor will find a remarkable co-existence in Skala Eressos where traditional Greek culture moves implacably forward at a snail’s pace in the midst of an international lesbian playground.
Granted, the level of acceptance is extremely localized. On a foray into the next town on the “highway” (a euphemism for the two lane black top that, without a moment’s notice or a sign, turns into a one lane wooden bridge, or winds through the narrow cobbled stones of a village, and serves not only as a route for automobiles, but also for flocks of sheep), I looked in vain for the “Sappho’s Cave” described in my guidebook. When I inquired at the Petrified Forest Museum, the woman at the counter told me, with “attitude”, that they didn’t have anything like that around there, and, she added with a sniff, maybe they had such a thing at Skala Eressos. Her disdain for me, and my inquiry was palpable. I can tell you that my regard for her only slightly picturesque but mostly ragtag little town in “bum____” Greece plummeted, and I retreated to Skala Eressos, my curiosity about the surrounding environs sated for the time being.
And it was there that I spent my last days of innocence before the Horror (if I can so loosely characterize my state of mind prior to September 11th), or my last days of whatever state of mind we all had before the world changed. No matter how jaded we thought we were: We are all somehow, irrevocably different now, aren’t we? But then, before, I was at the beach, on the boardwalk, at Sappho’s Restaurant, The Tenth Muse Café and Bar, with the women walking, biking, dining, drinking, singing, nude sunbathing, or in tye dyes, tattooed, pierced and bedecked, wildly dissimilar, yet somehow homogeneous: the multinational lesbian visitors in Skala Eressos at any given time, notwithstanding their origin, appear to the locals as members of the same tribe.
After the events of September 11th, we packed our stuff and drove our little rental car hell bent for the airport at Mytilene. We careened down the mountains, while hairpin turns, scenic views, golden olive groves (where Sappho danced with her students and her lovers) zipped by largely unnoted as we hotly debated the appropriate U.S. military response to the Horror. Little did we know we hurried to just to wait, about to embark on an eight day saga of “stranded in Greece and trying to get home.” (To be continued...)
More next month on equal rights, your legal rights, and lack thereof!
Robin L. Bodiford is an attorney practicing in Fort Lauderdale and serving the tri county area. Her practice includes wills, trusts, powers of attorney, real estate, probate, domestic settlements and divorce. She currently serves our community as the chair of Americans for Equality: Empower Broward, and serves on the boards of the Dolphin Democratic Club, PAC PAC, the Gay and Lesbian Political Action Committee, and the Broward County Nuisance Abatement Board. She co authored the Broward County Domestic Partnership Ordinance and was the co chair of Americans for Equality, the PAC that defeated the 1996 effort to repeal the Broward County Human Rights Ordinance. She can be reached at (954) 630-2707