Lesbian Visibility Week 2022: Where We Look For Lesbianspiration

In a collage against a pink background, left to right in the back row: Cheryl Dunye playing with her hat, Vanessa Friedman hugging friends, Audre Lorde in black and white, and Natalie Diaz smirking at the camera. Front row, left to right: Shelli Nicole as a little girl on picture day, Heather Hogan smiling in a tie, Malinda Lo looking directly into camera with an intense gaze, and Kayla Kumari taking a selfie with her phone. All of these photos are highlighted with background shadows in the color of the lesbian pride flag.

Graphic: Autostraddle // Photo of Cheryl Dunye by Michael Tran/Getty Images and Audre Lorde by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Well friends, Lesbian Visibility Week is once again upon us. And we spent a lot of time thinking about — just how stop and can we celebrate the lesbians in our lives, you know? Now obviously we celebrate lesbians every day at Autostraddle, but also that background hum of “let’s go lesbians” can always stand to be turned up a notch. Or a hundred notches. Why not do it big?

Our managing editor Kayla, master of puns, thought of it first: Lesbianspiration! Who have we looked up, been inspired by, or admired? Who are the lesbians, either in our daily lives or far away — or, be real, don’t even know us — that we want to just take a moment and say thanks. Thank you for making our day brighter or thank you for changing how we think about things. Thank you for being a lighthouse that we can model the lives after, even just a little bit. We decided that you did not have to be a lesbian to join in on this celebration of visible lesbians, just wiling to share the love. Everyone hopped in to respond and our editor-in-chief Carmen made the graphics (so please be kind!). That’s how this roundtable was born.

If you’re a lesbian reading this roundtable we hope you had a chocolate bar today! Or that you get to have a really relaxing night under a blanket with a book. Lesbians. F*** yes.


Heather Hogan, Senior Writer + Editor

A close up photo of Malinda Lo looking intensely at the camera against an orange background. The following text is in front of the background: “Malinda Lo is one of those very rare people who pulls other people into her success, who breaks down walls and then invites other marginalized creators through.” — Heather Hogan, Senior Editor

When I started writing professionally in 2008, I had exactly zero experience outside of telling stories on my personal blog, and, to be completely honest with you, I got the writing gig because I was a nice and funny commenter who knew how to use Photoshop. My boss’ boss was Malinda Lo, now a National Book Award-winning YA author. I had never in my life met a woman like her. She was so fierce, so uncompromising in her standards for herself and our team, so driven in her pursuit of lesbian visibility on TV and in movies and books, full of curiosity and compassion. She did things no one had ever done before. She got accepted into the Television Critics Association, something that was nearly impossible to do if you didn’t work for a print newspaper or magazine at the time. She convinced the straight Lena Headey to interview with her because of Imagine Me & You, another near-impossibility for queer media back then (and she ended up doing it inside a photo booth on the Santa Monica pier ’cause it’s the only place they could make it work with their schedules).

Everything Malinda edited of mine became smarter, funnier, more moving, more convincing, more… me. The one thing I had going for me was that I had a voice, and Malinda kept pulling it out of me, no matter how much work it took on her end. And the whole time she was changing the landscape of lesbian media, and helping me become a real writer, she was writing her first book, Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella that became one of the first LGBTQ+ YA novels to ever be published. She wanted to be an author, so she left the safety of a world she’d helped build and wrote more and more and more books. And then, like I said, won a National Book Award last year. But that’s not even all! While she’s been creating this whole catalogue of gay fiction, she’s been relentlessly pushing the publishing world to the level of diversity it’s at now, something that seemed impossible to imagine when I picked up her first book at Barnes and Noble over a decade ago.

Malinda brings math to the party, stats to the party, all from research she’s done herself, while carving out a career in a punishing industry. She is one of those very rare people who pulls other people into her success, who breaks down walls and then invites other marginalized creators through. She’s also been vocal in the fight to take back the word “lesbian” from anti-trans bigots, long before we got to the place we’re at today, where they’re thriving and writhing in the gutter, screeching about whatever jackassery of the day.

Malinda is one of the lesbians who has changed my life the most, a credit to the word “lesbian,” one of my personal heroes, one of my favorite writers, the first person to tell me it was cool to love stories loudly — and I will be forever grateful for her example and empowerment.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, Managing Editor

Kayla is in a pink sundress and being held by the waist by Kristen Arnett, they are in front of a hot pink background. In front of the background is the following text: “I’m lucky that I get to be inspired by Kristen Arnett EVERY DAY. And in fact, I’m probably out somewhere being a visible lesbian with her right now as you read this.” — Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, Managing Editor

Graphic: Autostraddle // Photo: Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya on Instagram

I feel like I could take my answer in a lot of directions, because I am lucky to have a lot of very inspirational lesbians in my life, including coworkers right here at this very website! NEAT!

I’m gonna shout out some of my favorite writers whose work I consider a constant source of lesbianspiration (YES I WAS THE ONE WHO CAME UP WITH THIS PUN FOR THIS ROUNDTABLE TYVM). Folks like T Kira Māhealani Madden, K-Ming Chang, Nicole Dennis-Benn, and Franny Choi have all written work (in a range of genres) that inform the way I think about words, about sentences, about the zoomed-out experience of being queer in this industry. They inspire me to keep writing.

And of course, my #1 favorite dyke writer of all, my heart, king of the Lesbian Domestic genre, Kristen Arnett. I’m lucky that I get to be inspired by her EVERY DAY. And in fact, I’m probably out somewhere being a visible lesbian with her right now as you read this.

danijanae , Writer

Natalie Diaz smiles at the camera with the wind in her hair, she's in front of a pink background. In front of the background is the following text: “Natalie Diaz is also so talented when writing about grief, her words never fail me.” — Dani Janae, Writer

Graphic: Autostraddle // Photo: Natalie Diaz on Instagram

I’m inspired by so many lesbian poets it’s hard to list them here but the first two that come to mind are Natalie Diaz and Ellen Bass. I’ve learned so much from both of them and like to believe I’ve been made a better poet by their work.

They are both really champions of the lesbian erotic poem! Natalie Diaz is also so talented when writing about grief, her words never fail me. I always find something poignant and true in her poems.

Reading their work makes me proud to be a lesbian, and makes me want to be a better lover and friend in my lesbian community. The magic of poetry never ends!!

Ro White, Sex & Dating Editor

Nancy Garden is in an old photo from the 1980s, smiling in the camera. She's in front of a purple background. In front of the background is the following text: “On this Lesbian Visibility Day, I’m shouting out the author of Annie on My Mind, Nancy Garden, who somehow managed to write and publish a lesbian novel about teens, for teens, in the early ‘80s.” — Ro White, Sex and Dating Editor

I figured out that I was queer at a pretty young age, and I didn’t have access to much lesbian media in my suburban Indiana town (until I learned how to illegally download The L Word, of course). But some very hip and possibly queer librarian had apparently decided to purchase a copy of the 1982 lesbian YA novel Annie on My Mind for my (deeply conservative and explicitly homophobic) high school’s library, and I must have checked out that book at least 20 times during my freshman and sophomore years. I didn’t have any lesbian adults in my life, and that book and those characters became my lifeline.

On this Lesbian Visibility Day, I’m shouting out the author of Annie on My Mind, Nancy Garden, who somehow managed to write and publish a lesbian novel about teens, for teens, in the early ‘80s. The book was banned from some schools in the early ‘90s, and it was even burned during anti-gay, pro-censorship demonstrations. Somehow it remained in circulation long enough to reach me when I was coming out in the early 2000s, and I’ll always be grateful for that.

Before her death in 2014, Nancy lived the MOST lesbian life, bouncing between Massachusetts and Maine with her partner, her golden retriever and her many cats, and honestly, that’s exactly the kind of life I’m working towards.

Casey , Contributor

As a bisexual woman, I’d like to start by saying I love lesbians! One fine specimen of a lesbian is Autostraddle’s very own Heather Hogan. I love how Heather embodies the very lesbian quality of a fierce dedication to women. Have you seen her take downs of TERFs online? Have you noticed her undying devotion to Viola Davis? Perhaps you have encountered her hard work in so many forms on this very website, lifting up the stories of women! What other lesbian qualities does Heather exemplify? Misandry! I am consistently delighted by her social media stories of encountering men who think they’re going to get away with some patriarchal bullshit, only to walk away from Heather cowering and promising to never speak to women on the street again. And Heather does all of this with a kind generosity of spirit that is truly lesbiansprirational!

I’d like to think Heather is following in the footsteps of legendary lesbian Anne Lister. If you haven’t already, check out Heather’s review of the second season of Gentleman Jack, the HBO series based on Lister’s life. It is the gayest thing Heather has ever seen! Perhaps second only to the real Anne Lister, an upper-class Englishwoman living in West Yorkshire in the early 1800s. Lister kept a very comprehensive diary of her life, a significant amount of which was written in a code that she herself had created!! Along with banal details about her finances and meals, she wrote things like: “I love, & only love, the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.” Lister is a complicated figure – the diary is rife with classism, for one thing – but I find knowing that she loved an astoundingly lesbian life before that sexual identity was really even conceived of in the western world so fascinating and inspiring.

Cheryl Dunye is playing with her hat while posing for the camera. She's in front of a pink background. In front of the background is the following text: “The fact is most mainstream lesbian stories do not include me, but, like Cheryl Dunye, I get to include myself.” (Photo by Michael Tran/Getty Images)

Graphic: Autostraddle // Photo: Michael Tran/Getty Images

My first thought was Cay Rivvers, the fictional cowgirl from Desert Hearts played by Patricia Charbonneau. When I was a baby dyke, I looked to her the way futches in 2004 looked to Shane. There was just something about her combination of confidence, silliness, vulnerability, and ability to rock a pair of jean shorts. But then I thought no, no, I should pick a trans lesbian. Maybe Shirley Wood whose Glen or Glenda is a misunderstood classic or Beth Elliott, folk singer and writer who I think of as a sort of Lou Sullivan for the girls.

But the more I thought about it the more I knew my answer could only be Cheryl Dunye. While we may have less in common on the surface, Dunye was the lesbian I looked to before I’d even come out. I knew that I wanted to be — and was — a filmmaker long before I knew that I wanted to be — and was — a lesbian. And I responded to Dunye’s independent, artistic spirit and her quest to put her stories on screen — before I even knew my own stories I’d need to tell. The Watermelon Woman ends with the statement, “Sometimes you have to create your own history.” It was a sort of thesis for Dunye’s body of work and it’s a sentiment I cherish. The fact is most mainstream lesbian stories do not include me, but, like Dunye, I get to include myself. With every essay and every film, with every story I tell and every work of art I make, I’m inspired to broaden the lesbian and queer woman experience. With sheer will and creativity and whatever resources I can muster, I get to make my own history.

Vanessa Friedman, Community Editor

The author Vanessa Friedman is being hugged by two friends. They are in front of a pink background. In front of the background is the following text: “Barb and Susie, I love you. You’re my inspiration for the way I want to be a dyke in this world, today and every day, forever and ever and ever, blessed be.”  — Vanessa Friedman, Culture Editor

Like several of my colleagues have mentioned in this roundtable, I am inspired by so many lesbians every single day. I am inspired by all the lesbians in my life, by the fat femme lesbians who made me feel comfy wearing bodycon dresses because they looked so fucking good wearing bodycon dresses, by the genius writer lesbians who make me reimagine the possibilities of my world through their words and brains, by the activist lesbians who worked and continue to work tirelessly to make the world better for all of us, by the lesbian moms who give me a peek at my future… yes, I am lucky to be fucking saturated with brilliant lesbians in my world, and they all inspire me every day.

But for the purposes of this roundtable, I’m going to shout out the Land Dykes of Southern Oregon, yes, the very same ones I proclaimed Saved My Life (they did) in an essay I published on this very website! Barb and Susie, I love you. Thank you for everything. I can never say it enough. You’re my inspiration for the way I want to be a dyke in this world, today and every day, forever and ever and ever, blessed be.

Carmen Phillips, Editor-in-Chief

Audre Lorde stands with strong purpose in a black and white photo with her her hands in her pockets. She's in front of a purple background. In front of the background is the following text: “Audre Lorde’s ‘Without community, there is no liberation’ is a core principal from which I define pretty much everything.” (Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

Graphic: Autostraddle // Photo: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

This is probably cliché, but I can only be who I am and my answer to this question (and so many more!) will always be Audre Lorde.

Reading Sister Outsider in my early 20s was one of those lightning bolt moments that sharpened and realigned how I saw the world around me on a molecular level, and yes it’s that serious. “Without community, there is no liberation” is a core principal from which I define pretty much everything, from forcing myself outside of my self-isolating anxiety to actually spend time with my family and friends to the work I do at this website, and it has never steered me wrong.

Sure, there are the parts that most of us already know when we think of her, the famous “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” of it all. That Audre Lorde implored that we look at the metaphorical table with a focus on who’s not sitting there, that “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives” and that to build a queer community we have to humble ourselves to not be in the center of it. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also found myself reaching for her words in unexpected ways. Being single and self-sufficient for most of my adult life (arguably, to a fault), I’ve found more and more that after turning 35 last summer I’ve been asking what partnership will look like for me. I’m a life long member of team #LoveIsALie, but quietly I wonder: What kinds of romance would even be possible?

“Each time you love, love as deeply as if it were forever / Only, nothing is eternal.”

It’s as cynical and pragmatic as it is hopeful that maybe, even for us Black queer girls and lesbians who are probably too nerdy and book-ish for our own good, that it’s not over yet. And on this Lesbian Visibility Day in particular, I couldn’t be more grateful.

Nico Hall, A+ & Fundraising Director

Kayla Kumari takes a poutie selfie in a pink dress in front of an orange background. In front of the background is this text: “I’m lucky that I get to be inspired by Kristen Arnett EVERY DAY. And in fact, I’m probably out somewhere being a visible lesbian with her right now as you read this.” — Nicole Hall

First of all, I’m going to lightly, ever-so-lightly like just a wisp of a spring breeze, touch on the fact that I deeply admire my partner, Sadie, who is a lesbian — but Mya the dog recently reviewed her for this very site, and so Sadie politely declined to be written about in depth again so soon. BUT THERE ARE SO MANY LESBIANS TO ADMIRE IN THIS WORLD!!! I love lesbians and love to work among them, and so, today, I’d like to shout out my colleague, our Managing Editor, Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, as a lesbian who is an endless source of inspiration and who is deserving of your eyeballs and attention on Lesbian Visibility Day. Kayla joined the full-time team last year, and from the start, has exemplified what it looks like to be a lesbian writer and editor simply doing the most!

Kayla brings some of my favorite qualities of lesbian community and culture to this workplace — she’s a consummate team player, pitches in when she’s needed, fearlessly takes the lead on projects when that’s what’s needed, brings her creativity and humor and spirit into everything she touches, and she shows in words and actions both that she knows that lifting up others doesn’t detract from her success — that doing so only makes our community stronger.

Whenever I’ve worked with Kayla as an editor, she’s given the most thoughtful, thorough, generous edits that have made every piece far better than it would have been without her work. She never shies away from doing a piece justice, even when I can see the way her workload is piling up in any given week. Every time she’s edited a series, I’ve gotten to see her delightfully madcap ability to take a theme that could honestly be anything (dinner parties, time zones) and then publish some of the most poignant, heart-rending, thought-inspiring work from that. Her recaps are a master class in how to do pop culture criticism, how to engage readers as intelligent viewers and critics in their own right, and how to use criticism to make a show actually more fun to watch. (I’ve enjoyed her fiction when I’ve found it published, too, and so, if you were thinking of checking it out, you should.) I think her vision for what she’s bringing to Autostraddle has already and will continue to make us a better publication. Kayla makes me excited about the future just by virtue of being in the same workplace as her — and if that isn’t really, truly special, I don’t know what to say. I am truly grateful to know Kayla, who, as you know by now, is also a lesbian.

Valerie Anne, Writer

In a photoshopped collage, Ali Adler stands in a white button down and tight fitting black pants, while Noelle Carbone gives a thumbs up while sitting with the Author. They are in front of a pink aground. The pink background has the following text in front of it: “Two lesbian writers put words in the mouths of four of my all-time favorite lesbian characters between them.” — Valerie Anne, Writer

Graphic: Autostraddle // Photo of Ali Adler: Amanda Edwards/WireImage

Okay so my knee-jerk answer to this question was Heather Hogan but since I see that topic has been well-covered, I’ll tell you who else inspire me every single day: queer TV writers creating queer stories. For example, two lesbian writers put words in the mouths of four of my all-time favorite lesbian characters between them: Ali Adler with Santana Lopez and Alex Danvers; and Noelle Carbone with Gail Peck and Nicole Haught. And it’s just so… obvious to me when TV characters are written by own-voices, and it makes such a difference in their well-roundedness and dimensionality, and I have no doubt that this is a huge factor in how they ended up being on my list of favorites.

And okay I’ll be honest I don’t know which of my favorite queer TV writers use the word lesbian specifically to describe themselves (I will admit to making an assumption based on Google about Ali Adler; I asked Noelle directly haha) so instead I’ll pivot to other lesbian characters I love that I know were at least written with queer people in the room: Sophie and Ryan from Batwoman, Ava Sharpe from Legends of Tomorrow, and most recently Lilly from Astrid & Lilly Save the World… actually this is going to get way too long if I start listing them all. Especially because what I’m realizing is that even though I identify as a lesbian, my ability to relate to queer characters has nothing to do with their labels, which I acknowledge is a privilege. My MAIN point here is that lesbian writers creating (and oftentimes fighting for) lesbian stories is inspiring and amazing and I hope to emulate that in my life and career.

Shelli Nicole, Culture Editor

A very young Shelli Nicole with braids and pigtails smiles at the camera in front of a hot pink background. In front of the background is the following text: “The answer I am going to give is me. I inspire the shit out of myself, more specifically, younger me.” — Shelli Nicole, Culture Editor

My immediate response was going to be Khadijah James but I know she was not queer in the show. I think when I was younger I conflated “lesbian” and “tomboy” because that is what was happening in the world around me? Anytime my family thought a girl or a woman dressed masc, they would often say that they were a dyke (YIKES!). Anyway, enough about that and on to the question, I honestly can’t think of a celesbian that I want to say inspires me. That is such a big word and lowkey, probably one that can have some pressure attached to it. I thought a lot on this question — which is why I answered so late, so the answer I am going to give is me. I inspire the shit out of myself, more specifically, younger me. Preteen Shelli Nicole inspires me beyond belief. When I am at my window, in my dope ass apartment, drinking my cute coffee and typing out my little words I think of her. If it wasn’t for her — with her big imagination, her hopes that she was going to work hard for, her wishes she made everyday — I wouldn’t be here.

If it weren’t for her, escaping into the movies she rented every week, spending all her allowance on notebooks and floppy disks, putting all her emotions into words… I wouldn’t be here. If it weren’t for her crying into pillows, staying up late at night wondering if she would ever figure out why the world was so cruel to her, wondering if she should stop trying to move through it and instead just give up… I wouldn’t be here. If it weren’t for her waking up and giving it one more try, for her knowing that even on her worst days eventually things just had to get better… I wouldn’t be here. If it weren’t for her listening to her father about her smile and her heart, if it weren’t for her listening to her mother about her quirkiness and creativity… I wouldn’t be here.

She is my hero, she is my inspiration and I dunno if we live in a world with parallel universes or whatever but I hope shes proud of me. I hope she is proud that we are finally happy, that we figured out what was “wrong” with us, that we got that cool apartment like the cool grown-up girls on TV, that we sit around restaurants and laugh with friends like they did in all the movies, that we got the girl, that we got the closet, that we got the job, that we’ve been in magazines, that we’ve helped people, that damn near everything we wrote about in those diaries with the keys we always lost has come true. So yeah… little Shelli is my Lesbian Inspiration and I think that’s pretty fucking cool.


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13 Comments

  1. I had totally forgotten about Annie on My Mind, but I now realize I read it in middle school before I knew I was gay, in maybe 2007, and don’t know if I even clocked it after the fact. Thanks for the reminder, Ro! I gave a little telepathic thank you to Nancy Garden just now.

  2. Carmen – I needed to hear Lorde’s words today. These lines rocked my world, shifted my plane of existence 90°: “Each time you love, love as deeply as if it were forever / Only, nothing is eternal.” As someone going through a breakup yet feeling grateful for the deep connection we shared for almost 10 years, and who felt the same way about the previous partner of 5 years, and all who came before that: YES. THIS.

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