Though the word “sapphic” is likely well-understood in many LGBTQ+ circles (mostly likely sapphic ones), there’s still a lot of confusion around the word. Is it a vibe? Is it a label? Who does it include? Where does it apply? As a core team member for Sapphic Writers, I’ve encountered both personal and professional confusion around the term. So, let’s get to the bottom of it. What does sapphic mean?
Where did the term sapphic come from?
“Sapphic” comes from the Greek poet, Sappho, of the Greek Island, Lesbos, famously known amongst the queers for her writing of love and desire among women. Yep, the word “sapphic” and “lesbian” both originate here.
What does sapphic mean?
Let’s start with the basics. “Sapphic” is an identity term or label generally used to describe women’s attraction to other women. It’s an umbrella term for lesbians, bisexual/pansexual women, and queer women. It’s almost used as a synonym for “WLW” or “women who love women.” However, the term “sapphic” is actually much more expansive than this.
Why do so few people use the term sapphic?
Generally, I think people (sapphic and non-sapphic people) are simply unfamiliar with the term. Here’s a handful of encounters with people who didn’t know what the term meant or simply don’t use it:
- My girlfriend confessed that she thought the term “sapphic” was an astrology/hippie aesthetic for queer women just a few years ago.
- My (bisexual) best friend asked me what sapphic meant a few years back.
- A few men (mostly queer men) have submitted work for the zines I put together with SAPPHIC Writers.
- A group that provides relationship and self-help tools to sapphic people doesn’t use the word on their website, yet the founder made a point to tell me that the virtual classes and tools are open for women, trans women, and nonbinary people (though the website language does not suggest it’s open for nonbinary people).
Why use “sapphic” in community spaces?
Unlike the sapphic’s sister term “WLW”, “sapphic” is gender-inclusive, meaning it expands further than just women, opening the community to nonbinary people who are attracted to women.
Many nonbinary people (especially those assigned female at birth) that are attracted to women(+) have very similar experiences to cisgender sapphics when it comes to dating, relationships, and simply life in general. It makes sense to have an umbrella term that unites everyone under this one experience.
In fact, many of us assigned female at birth thought we were women and lived as women for a large portion of our lives. I knew I was attracted to women when I was 18; I didn’t know I was nonbinary until I was 25.
When I see the word sapphic used, it tells me the space is open to me. It tells me the space is open to my sapphic nonbinary siblings. It sends the message that the person or group has an open idea about gender identity, that my gender is more welcome in a space with that group/person, and that the likeliness of being judged for my nonbinary identity is lower.
When I see the word wlw used (or community languages that centers women-only), it doesn’t tell me much; it just makes me weary. I don’t know if that person knows about the term sapphic, and that’s why wlw is used. I don’t know if that person knows about the term sapphic and chose wlw to deliberately exclude nonbinary identities from the community. Using the term sapphic by default eliminates that possible message entirely.
I have to cater an umbrella term for the nonbinary community?
Yep! It’s not that hard to learn a new word and use it! I have every faith in your ability to expand your vocabulary!
It also helps keep communities open and inclusive especially for queer women who are beginning to question their gender identity. This was really important going through my gender identity crisis, which you can read about here.
What do other sapphics have to say about the term?
I gathered some responses from a bunch of sapphics on the internet. I don’t speak for everyone—so here’s some of what they have to say:
- Queers who like women. Tho idk where the line is or where I would draw the line… I just thing all the queer people who like women should form a sapphic club
- gay person that loves their gf and probably uses the 🥺 emoji
- It suggests being somewhere on the spectrum of having a queer attraction to women, and I think it’s beautiful— both the word itself as well as how many people are able to find a sense of belonging and identification within it
- wlw, generally
- generally women loving other women/woman aligned poeple, but personally it gives me the feeling of community among wlw where we can express our love for women and each other; not always strictly romantic affection among wlw
- my personal understanding a woman who is interested in other women either physically & emotionally
So there you have it! Even amongst the sapphics, the word and it’s bigger implications (beyond purely women) is still waking up and spreading through the community. I would really encourage cisgender sapphics to use the term “sapphic” a little more, and might warn against describing nonbinary sapphic people as “woman-aligned or femme-aligned” as this is not the case for all nonbinary sapphics. The takeaway here is that nonbinary people’s attraction to women fits in with the sapphic experience; it has less to do with how our gender identity is categorized neatly into a definition for the umbrella term.