The Gay B C’s of Sex: G Is for Gold Star Lesbian

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Welcome to The Gay B C’s of Sex! Each month I’m defining a different sex-related term that’s used within the queer community. I’m crafting these definitions with help from queer archives, pop culture, interviews, and more. Keep in mind that terminology — especially when it comes to sex — varies widely across communities, and no single definition or article can encapsulate every individual’s experience with these terms. Use this column as a jumping off point for your own reflection and conversation in the comments.


“Gold star lesbian” might sound like a cute phrase you’d slap on a T-shirt during pride month, but for many LGBTQ+ folks, this term hurts! Put on your lesbian hard hats — we’re about to enter dangerous territory. First, here’s our definition:

gold star lesbian (n.) — a lesbian who has never had sex with a cis man

“And I fucking lost my lesbian gold star.” — Nessa in Season 8, Episode 8 of Shameless
A still shot from Season 8, Episode 8 of Shameless shows Nessa and her girlfriend Mel standing in a crowded room. Nessa has chin-length way brown hair. She wears a multi-colored, snakeskin-patterned hoodie over a black tank top and rests her head on Mel's shoulder while holding a pie. Mel has long blonde hair and wear a white maxi dress with a floral pattern. She holds a beverage with a pink straw. Fiona stand with her back to the camera speaking to Nessa and Mel. Fiona has long, wavy brown hair and wears a dark blue, red, and white maxi dress with a floral pattern. She puts her pant on her hip.

Gold Star Lesbians: A Brief Media History

According to multiple slang dictionaries, the term “gold star lesbian” originated in the US in the 1990s. The earliest written documentation I could find comes from the 1995 book Revolutionary Laughter: A World of Women Comics (but I’m assuming the term had been used in conversation and in independent queer publications for years before that). The book quotes a stand-up act by lesbian comedian Carol Steinel, who said, “I’m not, in fact, a gold star lesbian — that’s a lesbian who’s never slept with a man. No, I know it’s shocking, but it’s true — I did, once, accidentally sleep with a man. For a year.” Badum tss.

A quick note: While Steinel and other lesbian writers and performers of the 1990s usually said that a “gold star lesbian” is “a lesbian who’s never slept with a man,” my definition at the top of this article is a little more specific: “A lesbian who has never had sex with a cis man.” That’s because based on the context clues around many of these early definitions, “cis” was implied. Of course, like with any queer terminology, there’s some disagreement as to what exactly “gold star lesbian” means — I’ll be covering alternate definitions below.

Eventually, the straights caught onto the meaning of “gold star lesbian.” According to a Facebook post from The Howard Stern Show, radio personality Howard Stern referred to lesbian singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge as a “gold star lesbian” when she appeared on a 1998 episode. Stern then initiated a game called the “Gold Star Contest,” in which “the crew attempted to guess which female contestant lived up to that same standard.” Yikes.

In 2006, the term made its way onto the original L Word series. Here’s some dialogue from Season 3, Episode 7 (“Lone Star”):

Carmen: You’re just jealous ’cause my girlfriend and I are two gold stars that have found each other.

Kit: What’s a gold star?

Bette: Oh, it’s someone who’s gay who’s never had sex with a person of the opposite sex.

Carmen: Yeah, people who bump uglies with uglies.

We’ll come back to this dialogue in a bit. Why does this term hurt some folks in the LGBTQ+ community? Let’s get into it:

1. It’s purist.

First, let me be very clear: There’s nothing wrong with being a lesbian who’s never had sex with a cis man. When that’s presented as a fact about someone’s sexual history, that’s fine! If you feel happy and privileged to be someone who has never had sex with a cis man because you’ve always known that cis men aren’t your jam, that’s great!

But here’s the rub (or shall I say, the trib): When the term we use has the words “gold star” in it, a simple fact about a person’s sexual history is suddenly imbued with a sense of achievement, as if a “gold star lesbian” is somehow better, more righteous, more pure, more queer than, say, a bisexual person, a pansexual person, or a lesbian who’s previously had sex with cis men. And we all know that’s not true. Lesbian, pan, and bi folks aren’t “less queer” or “less valid” in their queer identities if they currently have sex with cis men or formerly had sex with cis men.

In fact, it’s entirely possible that the lesbianest lesbian you know had sex with a cis man at some point — maybe with lots of cis men. Maybe they were once in a “straight” marriage. Maybe they’re still in a “straight” marriage or a “straight” relationship and they’re continuing to have sex with their cis dude partner during their lesbian awakening. Those lesbians are still lesbians, and they’re just as worthy as their “gold star” peers.

2. It’s been used to justify biphobia.

I hope you’re still wearing your lesbian hard hats, ‘cause this one’s a doozy. While the most common slang dictionary definition of “gold star lesbian” is “a lesbian who has never had sex with a man,” there’s another definition I came across that’s much more narrow: “A lesbian who has never had sex with a man or a bisexual woman.” Huh? Why should any lesbian earn a “gold star” for avoiding sex with bisexual women or bisexual people in general? This means of reaching “gold star” status implies that there’s something “wrong” (Less “pure?” Less “queer?”) with bisexual women and the lesbians who have sex with them. It leans on the falsehood that bisexual women are somehow “tainted,” “going through a phase,” or eager to leave their lesbian partners once they find the perfect straight, cis guy.

3. It’s been used to justify transphobia.

Remember that dialogue from The L Word (“someone who’s gay who’s never had sex with a person of the opposite sex“…”people who bump uglies with uglies“)? Back in 2006, our fictional friends Carmen and Bette seemed to have a pretty narrow definition of lesbian sex, and they’re not alone. Some real people in the real world have interpreted “gold star lesbian” to mean “a vulva-owning lesbian (presumably, a cis woman) who only has only had sex with other vulva-owning people (presumably, cis women).” And again — by this definition, what should be a fact about someone’s sexual history becomes an achievement when the words “gold star” are attached. And why should some lesbians earn “gold stars” for exclusively interacting with vulvas? There are plenty of lesbian women, trans folks, and intersex folks with different genital setups. According to the genital-focused definition of “gold star lesbian,” those folks and their partners are denied “gold star” status. Thus, by this definition, their lesbian identities are considered less “authentic” (or at least less worthy of “gold stars”) than the identities of their peers who exclusively, in the words of Carmen de la Pica Morales, “bump uglies with uglies.”

Please adjust your lesbian hard hats, because there’s about to be a risk of falling debris — and by “debris,” I mean TERFs.

The most vile example of the genital-focused and/or assigned-“sex”-at-birth-focused definition of “gold star lesbian” comes from a deeply transphobic, irresponsibly reported 2021 BBC article, which insinuated that cis lesbians are being “pressured” into having sex with trans women. The article described cis lesbian porn performer Lily Cade as a “gold star lesbian” in connection with Cade’s refusal to have sex with trans women on or off camera — because that’s how Cade had been describing herself. Cade went on to publish a series of blog posts advocating for violence against trans women, and the BBC removed Cade’s quotes from the article (partially due to the blog posts and partially due to previous allegations of “sexual misconduct” against Cade…which the BBC knew about before the article was published). Cade seems to believe that having sex with a trans woman would revoke Cade’s “gold star” or make her “less” of a lesbian.

These are just three reasons why the term “gold star lesbian” makes some queer and trans folks feel outcast and hurt, but trust me — I could go on. For now, here’s a reminder for all the lesbians out there who’ve been burned by “gold star” gatekeepers: Your genitals, your partners’ genitals, your sexual history, and your partners’ sexual history aren’t what make you a lesbian. Also, bi, queer, and pan folks — and anyone else who considers yourself part of the LGBTQ+ community — your identities are just as important and just as authentically queer as any self-proclaimed “gold star.” If you’re stuck in a “I’m not queer enough” loop, here are some Autostraddle resources worth checking out:

You Are Queer Enough by Tiara Dee
Competitive Queerness Gives Me the Ick by Yash

And friend, if you’re someone who’s found pride and comfort in calling yourself a “gold star lesbian,” I love that you feel good about your sexual and romantic choices, AND I hope you’ll remember this: Your queer identity is no more important or authentic than anyone else’s. Don’t we all deserve gold stars for beautifully and bravely being ourselves?


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Ro White

Ro White is a Chicago-based writer and sex educator. Follow Ro on Twitter.

Ro has written 97 articles for us.

32 Comments

  1. Woah I didn’t know Cade had allegations against her. I remember I followed her for a moment on Tumblr & someone asked her would she work with NB lesbians. She said only if I can say, “I fucked her.” Then said one of the people she had sex with now uses they/them pronouns & that she is cool misgendering the person. This was right around the time she started being a bigger pile of shit by punching down on trans women.

    • This gold star ish is so cringe. I’m a lifelong butch and well into silver fox territory, and I’m not ashamed to say that I had sex with cis men a few times. You know what? It was fun, it was pleasurable, it was respectful, and it was sexy…and I’m still queer AF! No regerts!

  2. As a younger queer woman, it’s interesting to me how this term has become markedly less prevalent in recent years – it’s not a word that’s ever come up for me outside of reading sapphic media / discussion of straight people using it. I wonder if younger (by young I mean older Gen Z) lesbians use the term less because 1) it’s outdated (as the article deftly discusses) but also 2) increasing LGBTQ+ acceptance has meant that young lesbians are less likely to have sex with a cis man before realizing they are gay/coming out as gay. It’s like the term is both less wanted but also less needed.

    • I wonder about the need… A few years ago the stats were that something like 66% of lesbians had ever had sex with a man. That’s pretty high. I think you’re right it’s likely dropped for the reasons you suggested, and would be curious to see numbers for Gen Z. However of course, they’ve also had fewer sexual partners overall, largely, due to age

      • It’s also very much dependent on which country people are from. The more generally homophobic a country, the more gay men and women will be with the opposite gender because they feel they have to, family pressure etc.
        I have never slept with a man but I would never think that makes me better or more valid than other lesbians. I hate that people use it to shame other lesbians or bi women/ to be transphobic.

  3. I had a (morbid) chuckle reading the article because one of the most common forms of homophobia I’ve encountered is the ol’ “How could you know you’re a lesbian if you’ve never tried (men)?” Whereas with the “gold star” stuff it’s “How could you ever be a lesbian if you’ve been with men in the past?” Damned if we do and damned if we don’t haha, the world will do anything to invalidate us! Thoughtful article, appreciated the breakdown of information like this.

  4. This was an interesting article. I’ve always heard gold star as more of a shaming/mocking type of thing and I assumed those were it’s origins as well, like an “oh you’ve never slept with a man before? What do you want, a gold star or something?” Usually said by people who weren’t lesbians or had slept with men at one point or another to “gold stars”.

    And with the current (mostly) online queer discourse being rooted in the assumed inherent sexual fluidity and openness of everyone (and the superiorty in being more sexually fluid), it always stings a bit when people dismiss the experiences of monosexual queers. It’s kind of weird that the term spirals into things it was never meant to represent like exclusion of trans women, inclusion of trans men and exclusion of rape survivors. I always assumed it was a cheeky joke amongst lesbians. It’s weird how a tiny bit of lesbian history now has to account for and hold space for all types of people not really historically relevant to it.

    • Yeah, I’ve also seen the reverse too, usually by someone who’s bi (or pan) repackaging classic homophobia like how do you know you’re a lesbian if you’ve never tried men. Also have seen people call “goldstars” exclusionary for their sexual history. Shaming is widespread amongst sapphics, it’s unfortunate.

      • This! I’ve seen this really odd trend of implying lesbians are not “woke” in our sexuality for not being open to men. As if our sexuality is a political choice to be “woke” about? Are they just trying to invent some kind of “political bisexuality” or something? It’s really weird!

        • Where have you seen this?

          Gotta say this sounds a lot like the anecdote in that transphobic BBC article.

          The one where ‘trans women are pressuring lesbians’ turned out to actually be one cis lesbian who asked her girlfriend if she wanted a threesome.

          • I’ve seen this frequently, mostly in online spaces but some in real life too. A lot of those “hearts not parts” type that tend to paint themselves as more “work” for being “open to dating anyone”, unlike us restrictive lesbian (not to mention that sentiment is transphobic/bioessentialist in and of itself). Or even on the milder end, just those that like to pester us about how we could “know” without being with a man, or “how could you know you would never have an exception” and “surely there has to be at least one man you would be open to”.

      • I’ve *never* seen the term ‘gold star’ to shame any lesbian.

        It *is* frequently used by (transphobic and biphobic) lesbians and straight TERFs to attack other women for not being ‘queer enough’.

      • Can you provide any linked examples, Mel?

        Because I’ve been in queer spaces, in real life and online, for over two decades. And I haven’t seen it even once. I’d be more than happy to correct any bi person using it as a pejorative.

    • i thought it was weird that this article tried to retroactively define this term as meaning only cis men. also what does that really imply about transmen? that they don’t “count” as men?

      • Hi, Michelle! I’m the author of this article and Autostraddle’s Sex & Dating Editor. Thanks for engaging with my column! My main definition of “gold star lesbian” is “a lesbian who has never had sex with a cis man” because in nearly all early, written references (and even some recent references) to “gold star lesbians,” the word “cis” is implied, even when the speaker/writer just refers to “men.” The dialogue I included from The L Word is a pretty good example of how early definitions of “gold star lesbian” were rooted in “assigned sex” and didn’t make room for the existence of trans folks (“Oh, it’s someone who’s gay who’s never had sex with a person of the opposite sex”). I included the word “cis” in my definition because I wanted to stay true to the term’s historical origins — and unfortunately, those origins are pretty transphobic!

        In this column, I’m often taking old terminology and defining it for a modern audience, and we use different words when we talk about sex and gender today than we did in the early 1990s when the term “gold star lesbian” was introduced. Here’s a little more info on that: The word “cisgender” can be traced back to a 1994 Usenet newsgroup, which covered trans-related topics, but at first, the term was mostly used within the trans community and, later, within academia. It wasn’t until the publicaiton of Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl in 2006 that “cisgender” slowly started gaining traction outside of those small circles. So a person who referred to “men” in the 1990s and early 2000s probably meant “cis men,” since during this time, most people didn’t have easy access to information about the trans community, the falsehood of the gender binary, and the word “cisgender” in the same way we do today (if someone wanted that info, they really had to look hard for it!).

        I hope that helps! Thanks again for reading!

  5. Thanks for this article! When I was younger and thought about whether or not I was a lesbian, a reason against it was that I’ve had sex with cis men before and my perception was that I would be hated by lesbians for this, and not be considered a “real” lesbian. It was a different time back then and would have meant so much to younger me to read this article!
    Also, I had to think about this clip from the movie “Go Fish” – it is the scene that inspired the movie “Chasing Amy.” The movie is from 1994 and they don’t consider trans people, but I think it does say a lot about the biphobia and gatekeeping of many lesbians, and the stigma against lesbians who have or had sex with a man.

  6. Ro, thank you for this piece and it has unlocked a memory for me: circa 2006-ish a classmate explaining the concept of a “triple gold star gay” (ie a gay man who has never been near a vagina, including was born via c-section) ?? I just??

  7. CW: mention of r*pe

    i’ve struggled a lot with this term being thrown around when i was still in the closet. it made coming out to myself a bigger struggle than it was anyways. the lesbian circles i ran into as a baby queer heavily made use of the “gold star” analogy. its implications around purity, willpower and strength awarded to people who’d never had sex with a cis guy, left me feeling even more ashamed, isolated and unable to deal with what had happened to me.

    long story short: for all the reasons you mentioned, Ro, and a few more on top, i’m not a fan of this phrase.

  8. I have also seen this term be used against rape survivors – namely back in college in the 2000s a whole lot of people seemed to think it was ok to tease survivors for not being gold stars when they in no way consented, thus both directly bringing up their trauma and re-traumatizing them but also implying their lesbian identity is somehow lesser because they were attacked.

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