When I stepped off the coach in Skala Eressos — a small beachside town on the Greek island of Lesbos, where Sappho Women’s Festival has run for the last 19 years — I rolled my suitcase past an elderly Greek man.
With a couple of meters between us, I heard him catcall with that painfully irritating pursed-lip sound that some men make to get a woman’s attention. I turned around, incensed that I’d come all the way to bloody Lesbos — the ancestral home of lesbian-kind and the root of the word “lesbian” — and guys were still treating me like a lesser being. I was ready for battle until I realized the Greek guy was bent over, hand outstretched, calling an actual cat.
This set the tone for the rest of the trip. Skala Eressos is a town where women rule, and where 90 percent of visitors are lesbians. (There are plenty of men, but they are respectful and open.) I’d entered Sapphic paradise.
Throughout the two weeks of Sappho Women’s Festival, queer women roamed around in groups, in pairs, and on their own, doing chilled-out beachy things. I hadn’t realized how much I associated beach vacations with heterosexuality until I caught a glimpse of a lesbian couple eating dinner. Of all the coastal trips I’d been on in my life, this was the first time I’d seen two lesbians dining together as they toasted the end of the day at sunset.
Queer women were everywhere, and for those two weeks, it just felt normal, usual. Finally, I wasn’t the only lesbian in the restaurant or one of three in the office; everyone was like me. At Sappho, the couple cradling in the sea is queer, the people checking you out are lesbians, the person inviting you ’round for a sunset cocktail is gay as the day is long — as are the women painting by the harbor. There are queer women reading tarot cards, queer bartenders shaking cocktails, and a post-nap lesbian stretching like a newborn puppy on the beach.
It was so affirming and peaceful to be in the majority — not for a night or an event, but for long, drawn-out blissful days. There were hundreds of us, and we were one big, out, loud and proud lesbian family.
If you’re heading to Sappho and hoping to get some work done, I’d scratch that plan here and now. Every beachside taverna seems like an idyllic vacation work spot. They’re all quintessentially Greek, with white wood and navy cushions, plus little gay flags flailing in the sea breeze. They churn out Greek salads, silky yogurt, and freddo cappuccinos (iced lattes but better) all day.
But the ability to work is thwarted by two things. First, the sun. It rises, ventures across the sky, then glistens across the endless sea. As it falls, it draws the blue from the sky and turns it into a portrait of oranges, pinks, and lilacs. It’s a masterpiece — and it’s nearly impossible to stare at a Word document while all of this is going on.
Second, and slightly less profound: lesbians are fascinating. They congregate in the mornings and chat with groups of friends, both new and old. They discuss everything from the euphoria they reached on the dance floor last night to the silicone earplugs they invested in because their newly single roommate is embracing the hedonism of island life.
More than this though, they discuss their passions, their careers, and the game-changing work they’re doing in the world. They speak of the projects they’ve launched at the refugee camp in Moria (a couple of hours away by car). They speak of self-sustaining community living, the documentaries they’ve made, the books they’ve published, the exhibitions they’ve curated, the people they’ve empowered, and the work they’re doing with CEOs to elevate the consciousness of their companies.
These are wise, powerful women who are on this earth to make a difference and on this island to connect with others like them. Every day, I’d happily close my laptop and let these exchanges wash over and inspire me.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t this all a bit stress-inducing? Like living on Planet L Word or being stuck in a little lesbian snow globe? Us dykes seem to have enough anxiety walking into a lesbian bar in our evening finery, let alone prancing around in a bikini surrounded by our kin.
Thankfully, the festival — and the Aegean Sea — does a very good job at mellowing and leveling people out. Every morning at 10:30 a.m., a hundred or so women swam 400 meters from the shore to Sappho’s Rock. Herded by a kayak bearing a rainbow flag, women of all ages (the majority of festivalgoers are over 40 — older women are definitely where it’s at though, purr) with varying swimming abilities made their way to the rock. Some powered ahead, while others grappled with swimming noodles; all moved at their own pace through smooth crystalline waters.
When we arrived at the rock, some women scaled to the top, but most lounged on the bottom. People were wearing wetsuits, elegant one-pieces, mismatched bikinis, nothing, snorkels — one person had a unicorn horn on over her goggles. Women of all shapes and sizes chatted and laughed with no preoccupations. Patriarchal judgments or standards didn’t exist on Sappho’s Rock; we were just a bunch of women in our prime, basking in the sun.
As we swam back, a lesbian bar called Budda Bar sat at the shore filled with brunching on-lookers. Suddenly aware of an audience, I psyched myself up to exit the water smoothly, but the pebbles were like quicksand. I’d take a step, sink down, and plunge forward on all fours. It was hilarious and ridiculous. There wasn’t an ounce of grace between us as we held each other up and plowed our way out, some even shuffling backward in flippers. We were all united in our shore-side struggle; no one cared how they looked or who was looking at them.
I tended not to see any of the rock club women for the rest of the day. I liked spending my days alone, working (cough, eavesdropping on power dykes) in cafés, listening to Greek women cackling hysterically during an afternoon dip, wandering along the beach, going for long walks, and getting massages in the village. Sometimes I played in the lesbian volleyball tournament, went to panel discussions, watched a tug-of-war competition, sat in a group meditation, took a writer’s workshop (with acclaimed author Diana Souhami), or went to yoga with Natasha (who is an incredibly talented yogi. People who’d been practicing for 30 years told me they’d never experienced a teacher like her, and as I watched a brittle, much-older woman come to class every day and saw how she seemed to evolve, elevate, and lighten after every session, I knew this to be true).
Then I’d grab a gyro for a few euros, sit on a bench, and watch the sunset. Three elderly women would sit on a neighboring bench, paying homage to the sight while feverishly discussing things in Greek.
Time did strange things in Lesbos. The days rolled by effortlessly, but by the time I left, it felt like I’d spent seven years on that island. Though I technically did so little, it felt like I’d done so much. I made such strong connections and had such important cross-generational, cross-national conversations about the patriarchy, queerness, and womanhood. It felt like the location was doing the work for me — all I had to do was sit on a bench and eat falafel.
When the night came, stars erupted across the cloudless sky, and that’s when it was time to reunite with the women I’d swam with that morning.
I write about nightlife for a living, but I’ve never experienced what I did on the dance-floors of Skala. Every night, the three beachside lesbian bars (Flamingo, Belle Ville, Budda Bar) erupted into hives of feminine energy. A superb line-up of DJs (RPXX, Ritu, Chroma, Bo Monde, Wendy, Promiss, Brenda, Nicky Drummond) played mixes I’d rarely heard, weaving together various decades of music, spanning genres from disco to trance. All the while, the sea lapped and crashed against the shore, adding another layer to the beat.
Often, a small group of women started dancing near the decks, then a couple more joined, and a few more after that until the rhythm enveloped the whole room like a blooming flower. There was no worry about being a good dancer or not, because there was no judgment — just people loosening up, feeling every beat, and floating in freedom of mind and body. This liberation created a force-field. We were impenetrable. There were people around us, guys who’d come to watch the lesbians dance, but they couldn’t enter our space, our vibe, our ecstasy. Every night, people got more connected, dance moves became bolder, and inhibitions became a distant memory. Women took up space on that dance-floor like I’d never seen before.
It’s worth noting that there were no party drugs at the festival. People definitely liked to drink, and some enjoyed a spliff, a coffee or a bottle of water. With just this, everyone was walking around in a euphoric, elevated state. The 70-year-old woman I swam to Sappho’s Rock with that morning was tearing it up on the dance-floor at 2:30 a.m. At 3 a.m., she stood with the rest of us, itching for an after-party as if we’d been popping pills all night.
To close one of their sets, DJ Bo Monde and DJ Promiss played “No Roots” by Alice Merton (mixed appropriately with Faithless’ Insomnia). As the track unfolded, I stopped and looked around. I watched as women from all over the world danced together. Women who’ve had children, been fired, been straight, been nomadic, been young, been lost, been closeted, been married. Women who’ve seen so many people, been to so many places. And they were all there then, dancing to the words, “I’ve got no roots, but my home was never on the ground.” I knew, in that moment, that this magical place is where the wild women come to find their roots.
With every collective of people, there are certain folks who don’t want to be a harmonious part of the group. At Sappho, there were a small handful of people who could not respect trans people and who problematized all men. There were instances when the energy in the bar was so high — people were reaching such joy — and still, someone felt the need to ignore this and make a spectacle of someone who’d had top surgery or pick a fight with a man sitting peacefully on a stool sipping an after-work beer. They spoke as if we weren’t all queer, and as if replacing patriarchal oppression with matriarchal oppression would solve anything.
But these people were most definitely in the minority. The collective gave little weight to them. Sappho’s organizers are trans-inclusive, and I made friends with trans women who’ve been going to the festival for over a decade.
As the parties drew to a close a short while before sunrise, the music switched off and the only sound was the sea surging onto the shore. I’d embraced my dance-floor friends and headed back to my apartment, a two-minute walk away. Everyone at Sappho stays in hotels, apartments, or tents near the beach or higher up towards the village. We were all close — within walking distance to each other. A community, but not claustrophobically so. We’d spend our nights as one on the dance-floor, then spend our days alone, recharging for the evening’s inevitable frivolities.
Aside from nightlife, the festival had a full program of entertainment, from lesbian film screenings to opera performances courtesy of the English National Opera’s Nadine Benjamin (my words won’t suffice, so listen to this). There was also the Alternative Fashion Show, Drag Kings of Eressos, and live music from the likes of S.W.I.M, and Rainbow Girls (a Californian band with razor sharp wit, feminist politics and vocals). Then, for those willing, it was time to return to our dance-floor.
The ambiguity between friendships and romantic relationships is a really important part of Sappho Women’s Festival and a really nice experience for lesbians, in my humble opinion. Often, statistically, there aren’t many queer women around for us to fancy and flirt with. At the festival, you can be attracted to one person in the morning, another that afternoon, and someone else on the dance-floor that night. Next thing you know, you’ve been on the island for two days, you’ve got seven crushes, and now they’re all hanging out in the same bar.
Everyone dabbles in polyamory (wittingly or not) at Sappho. The woman you fell in love with on the first night is now shacking up with your neighbor. The person you went paddle-boarding with in the afternoon is now dancing with the person you’ve been flirting with since the coach ride in. The person you slept with last night is having a romantic-looking cocktail with the woman who keeps telling you she’s staying in Room 8. By some miracle, this isn’t stressful; people are going with the flow. Openness, conversation, and honesty are key and unavoidable, because let’s be real, island lesbians like gossip. You need to be truthful about your hot girl summer in order to stop jealousies and insecurities from flaring up and to prevent things from getting messy. The festival unintentionally doubles up as a training ground for lesbian polyamorous community living — or maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part.
Leaving was hard — very hard. I knew from the moment I settled in that I wouldn’t want to go. On the closing Saturday, I watched women from all over the world embrace each other with such intensity. We’d experienced so much together. I watched lovers prised apart, friendships (physically) separated, drinking buddies, yoga friends, neighbors — all these lifelong connections made so quickly, plucked apart for another eleven months.
I felt like a kitten who’d been grabbed by the scruff of the neck, placed in a basket, and taken away from my people, my place, my Sapphic paradise. I nearly cried while watching a group of Israelis say farewell before someone came up to me to say: “They’re going to see each other on Monday.”
As I stood in Mytilene Airport wondering how I’d readjust to life away from this lesbian utopia, I consoled myself with the knowledge that I’d be back next year and every year after that. I knew I’d grown into a better lesbian: a more powerful person who’s more in touch with my womanhood and my queerness, enriched by the wisdom, experiences, and insights of my elders. With my head held high and shoulders pushed back (granted, that could be all the yoga), I was ready to float back to earth and make it a less patriarchal, more harmonious, conscious, queerer place. I flew away from that island, a beaming smile on my face, Sapphic magic surging through my spine.
Sappho Women’s Festival, September 5th-19th 2020, https://www.womensfestival.eu