Lesbian Visibility Day Roundtable: Carrying History, Worshipping Women, F*cking Up the Patriarchy

Today is Lesbian Visibility Day, the one day of the year when lesbians everywhere take a corporeal form and walk among mortals. Language and labels are often imprecise and they’re constantly evolving so this year we’ve decided to celebrate with a roundtable to give all of our lesbian writers the chance to talk about why they’ve chosen “lesbian” for themselves and what it means to them to move through the world with that label. We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Heather Hogan, Senior Editor

The first time I heard the word “lesbian” the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I was a child. I didn’t even know what it meant. But, buddy, I knew it was trouble. I came of age at that time in the ’90s when Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and James Dobson (and therefore all white evangelical pastors and Republican politicians) (and therefore literally everyone I knew and their parents) believed lesbians were feminists and feminists were lesbians and lesbians and feminists were witches and bitches who would steal your children in the night and leave behind a pile of burning Bibles. Lesbian terrified me.

When I came out, I referred to myself only as “gay” for the longest time. I was still tip-toeing and “I’m still the same person!” and “I’m just like you!” and lesbian was so loaded. The first time I said it out loud about myself I was driving in my car and I mouthed it and I whispered it and I voiced it and I YELLED YELLED YELLED IT. I didn’t realize that’d become the metaphor for my own personal evolution with the label.

Lesbian is confrontational. The moment I say it, it forces straight people to grapple with things they’d rather not think about or acknowledge. I’m not just like them. I exist — I thrive! — outside of the cultural expectations that trap and define them. I’m Ellen’s friendly dancing, sure, but I’m those Dykes on Bikes too. I’m those topless women marching unabashedly down Manhattan beating my literal drum. I’m the monster under the bed your Sunday School teacher warned you about, the bitchy witch who gives zero thoughts or fucks about male comfort or pleasure. I have sex with another woman and my very existence undermines the systems of oppression that keep women everywhere beaten down.

When I call myself a lesbian, which is every chance I get these days, I feel rooted in a deep, vibrant, pulsing history of women who had no place for men in their lives or their beds or their politics. I feel connected to their rage and their love and their victories and their hope for the life I’m living that they never experienced. I feel tethered to lesbians in the future who will feel the thrum of my power and affection and belligerent expectations that their lives will be even better than mine.

Riese Bernard, Editor-in-Chief

I posted a picture of my middle school diary on Instagram a few years back, just one page, one entry, one sentence: “Like my greatest fear is that one day I will be a lesbian — YUCKO.”

“Lesbian” was such a loaded term, then. Somehow I grew up in a weird liberal bubble where it was cool to be a bisexual girl or a gay guy but not a lesbian, which I think was a result of the very confusing ‘90s girl power and faux-sexual-empowerment culture that claimed to uplift women and increase their choices but only insofar as men were still involved or in charge. I bought it and hung it on my wall and wrapped my whole self-worth up in it. The first time I thought it might be okay to kiss a girl was a scene in the movie “Kids” when a bunch of guys get these girls to kiss in a pool.

In many ways, my choice to call myself a lesbian (as I’ve said here before, I describe myself as ‘bisexual by birth, lesbian by choice’) is my final “fuck you” to the idea that the world only matters if men are in it, and that two women together don’t count.

I don’t really care what anybody calls me, but as for how I feel inside — at first “queer” felt like the thing to do, the thing everybody was doing. I was fine with “bisexual” too, but it stopped feeling like ME because I had no interest in men, even if I once had.

I’ve honestly always loved the word “lesbian.” How it looks and sounds. Even before I identified strongly with it personally, I’d use it sometimes just for that reason, but usually in a group like, “the waiter is ignoring us because we’re lesbians” or “I’m going to start a lesbian camp!” “Lesbian” didn’t feel like me specifically yet, and it’s hard to pinpoint when that changed.

I remember telling a massage therapist that I ran a website for “queer women” and she thought I said “career women” and we had the strangest conversation until I realized what she’d misheard. Somehow, while debating whether or not to correct her and explain, and even though it was in the context of my website and not me personally — I felt a sudden personal detachment from the term altogether. I’m still totally fine with queer or gay, but lesbian is the one that feels like home to me.

This shift happened around when I became obsessed with lesbian history — with the women who fought tirelessly to live in a world without men during a time when that felt nearly impossible. They built their own intentional communities on small plots of land in Central Oregon and the Florida coast, created their own music festivals, led their own parades, wrote their own magazines, started their own herstory archives and political action groups. To me, “lesbian” is an ode to our foremothers, is wanting to be part of that legacy. Also, gay guys don’t have their own noun but we got our own noun, which is rad.

I do think that the association of “lesbian” with trans-exclusionary radical feminists is fake news and I hate it when I hear younger people make that connection. I know lesbian TERFs exist, I see them all over the internet, but I see all kinds of assholes of various identity groups all over the internet! I guess the lesbian TERF thing is that “lesbianism” is an attraction to specific genitals, which doesn’t hold up. You can be attracted to certain physical aspects of any specific woman or not, that’s your business and nobody has to have sex with anybody they’re not attracted to for any reason, but you don’t get to kick people out of your gender based on what physical characteristics you’re personally sexually attracted to? You’re literally just finding a different way to say that you don’t think trans women are women. I hope this association of lesbians with TERFs dies out ‘cause like I said — those foremothers! We’re their legacy.

For me, identifying as a lesbian is the final casting off of the internalized misogyny and homophobia that defined so much of my worldview for so long. Women are the best. I love us.

Vanessa Friedman, Community Editor

I’ve tried to answer this ten million times and I’m having such a fucking hard time and maybe that’s the thing, isn’t it? Like, I’m a lesbian, but explaining why is still so scary and kind of confusing and honestly I feel safe and comfortable in this identity but I feel fearful that other people will judge and police how I use this word to describe myself! Ahhhhhhhhhh!

I’m a lesbian. Duh. I’m also a dyke. I’m also gay and I’m also queer and if we’re rattling off all our identifiers I guess I’ll tell you I’m also Jewish, and short, and bossy, and a Capricorn sun / Gemini moon / Virgo rising.

I just…I really hate the way the word lesbian has been co-opted by TERFs, and I hate that younger queer folks who might be drawn to the word and the identity are scared away from it because of the bigots who have decided they own the word. The rise of TERFs wielding the word as a weapon made me feel even more dedicated to calling myself a lesbian, even if I am editing the word slightly to suit my own needs. That feels okay to me.

I am a lesbian. I date women and I also date all over the gender spectrum and… all of my partners and dates have been totally cool and chill in understanding why the words lesbian and dyke are very important to me and also have understood that doesn’t mean I’m foisting the identity “woman” on everyone I date. Am I making sense? I’m so nervous explaining this to all of you!

Lesbian is my identity, lesbian is my herstory, lesbian is not a dirty word, lesbian is who and what I am. Lesbian elders got me (us) here. (Thank you.)

I know not everyone agrees with this definition. My identity crisis spiral sent me into several extremely helpful and enlightening conversations with various Autostraddle staff members and some people agreed with me and some people did not. I am down to talk about the complexities of identity, even possibly in the comments/on the internet (YIKES) but only if we can all assume good faith before beginning because HAVE I MENTIONED HOW MUCH ANXIETY I HAVE TALKING ABOUT THIS? Cool good talk.

xoxo, a Lesbian

Valerie Anne, Staff Writer

When I was in middle school, the word “gay” was in its peak insult stage. Everything was gay, and not in the fun way we mean it now. Recess is cancelled, that’s gay. I hate that store, it’s gay. You won’t do what I told you to, you’re gay. “Gay” meant bad or dumb and it was used constantly. I hated it. Maybe because I was already starting to have an internal gay panic, Maybe I just hated people being mean. Or the laziness of their lexicon. I don’t know. Either way, one day at lunch, for whatever reason, one of the boys called my friends and I gay. Probably something dumb like we didn’t want to play tag at recess, I honestly don’t remember. In an attempt to handle the situation gracefully, I said, “Well, gay means you like men and lesbian means you like women so yeah, we’re gay!” which resulted in the girls in our class saying they were gay and the boys in our class saying they were lesbians for the rest of the week. It worked, for a while anyway. But I think it cemented “lesbian” as a word that meant “likes women” for me, and oh do I like women. Also when I was growing up “lesbian” and “feminist” were used interchangeably in my community, and while they didn’t mean it to be a compliment back then, and I know the venn diagram of “feminist” and “lesbian” isn’t a circle, I personally identify as both, so it works for me. Plus it’s such a pretty word! It’s long, but not too long. No two letters are alike. And it has that sexy soft z sound in it! I like and use the identity queer, too, but I loooove the word “lesbian.”

Molly Priddy, Staff Writer

When I was in sixth grade, my friend Jose, who also grew up to be gay, had Ellen DeGeneres on his paper-bag-covered textbook and one day he walked up to me and told me in a conspiratorial whisper that Ellen was, in fact, gay.

This was a blow to 11-year-old me who was raised to believe gay people were this abstract idea and wouldn’t ever really be an issue in my world. But now, the funniest lady on television was a LESBIAN? I said, “Oh no, but she’s so funny!”

I finished out middle school trying to have crushes on boys, and assumed it was just not fulfilling and that was OK because I had girls who were friends to make up for it. High school, I dated some boys, but didn’t really entertain the idea that I wanted to be hooking up with girls until college, when I assumed I was bisexual. But making out with a woman for the first time showed me that no, I wasn’t bisexual in the least, that I’m a full-fledged lesbian. That word can be confrontational to people, which shows you how far we have to go, that an identity in and of itself can offend someone.

I date and have sex with women, and femme-presenting non-binary folks. I identify as a lesbian and gay and call myself queer, because those words to me are more permeable and breathable than some people treat them. And that’s OK, because it’s my sexuality, and my terms. Now, if someone wants to discuss the nuances of those terms with me, fine. But I’m gay. I’m a lesbian. Sexuality and gender are fluid and that’s beautiful, and this just happens to be where I fall on those spectrums. A lady who likes ladies. My picture is of the second most-lesbian thing I do, which is show women my tattoos.

Carrie, Staff Writer

Like other folks in this roundtable, I had an early, visceral, strong aversion to the word “lesbian” even after I knew (and had told people!) I was exclusively interested in other women. It felt dirty and I had a hard time saying it without cringing for years. This is after being raised in the most accepting household imaginable, by the way — the only one who had a problem with it was me. But I was in high school and hadn’t shaken the assumption that it was only okay to be not-straight if I didn’t make straight people uncomfortable. So I dismissed “lesbian” as a term for older, more aggressive women who really needed to tone it down a notch.

Surprise! Turns out we call that “internalized homophobia” in the real world. I came out when I was ready to, but still had a lot of catching up to do in terms of what that actually meant and how it would play out in my life. I think it’s because I was so young and (regardless of how it looked from the outside) so scared. I barely knew any other not-straight people — let alone any any self-identified lesbians — so I evaluated my coming out process by the reaction of my straight friends and whether or not they stuck around. “Lesbian” felt like too big of an ask, both for me and for them. But as I settled into my identity and actually got to experience and create it on my own terms, I warmed up to the word. That didn’t happen overnight by any stretch; it took about ten years of being out for me to shed the last bits of self-loathing around it. But now I use “lesbian” as gladly as any other word. I enjoy its specificity, its connection to a movement and a shared history, its ability to stand the test of time and also grow with it (TERFs can step right off thank you very much), and its forwardness. And it’s especially handy when I’m referring to my disability and my sexuality side by side; “disabled lesbian” has a nice ring to it.

Abeni Jones, Staff Writer

I only really identify as a lesbian because it’s easier. There isn’t really a label for what I am, which is fine. Sexual identity labels, in my opinion, are only useful to the degree they build community among folks who experience similar forms of oppression, or express one’s politics. So lesbian works as far as heteronormativity and womanhood being tied to reproduction and such goes, and to express that I value women and femininity and, even though I’m a trans woman who dates people of all gender, I don’t prioritize men or masculinity in any way in my life, especially when it comes to love and romance.

I feel like, since I have the choice, why would I choose to date a dude? I don’t date white people for the same reason, for what it’s worth — like there are some cute white people but like, why bother when there are plenty of wonderful POC to date? Why put myself through the ordeal? I don’t discount white people or masculine people completely (there are some good ones out there) but I don’t go out of my way to seek them out, either.

Like, I would bust it open for The Rock or Terry Crews in like two seconds. But then again they both seem pretty feminine despite their looks, so… I don’t know! There was one man that I was basically in love with but he was in an LTR with a beautiful lady and wanted to do non-monogamous stuff which isn’t my wave. I’ve never met even one other man that I’ve ever wanted to date. So, I guess I’m a lesbian, sort of?

Yvonne, Senior Editor

In high school, my then-girlfriend and I would use the word “lez” a lot in a derogatory way, like when we used “gay,” even though we were gay. I think it was our way of coping with our newfound sexuality and navigating being in the closet and also not knowing how to talk about what we were feeling and doing with each other. We would use “lez” to poke fun of one another; like if one of us picked up a bunch of heavy books, we would be like “what a lez!” We couldn’t even bring ourselves to say the whole word “lesbian” because it was vulgar and it was one step closer to admitting we were actually gay. “Lez” was comfortable for us, so much so that my high school girlfriend’s AOL screen name was “llaalleezz” — like that was such a terrific coverup?? We would write it in notes to each other and in emails; it was the closest we ever got to the truth.

It took a really long time until I could actually call myself a lesbian. When I was first coming out to people in college, I would talk about being gay in a roundabout way and usually when talking about my girlfriend. It wasn’t until my last semester in college when I began feeling more comfortable with myself; not only was I learning about LGBT history and queer theory in a class called Queer Visual Culture but I had come out to my family. Instead of hiding and feeling anxious, I was able to explore and claim my identity.

It wasn’t until joining the Autostraddle team I felt confident in saying I’m a lesbian. It was this community of writers that empowered me to be proud of being a lesbian. For me, “lesbian” fits me best because I love women and want to always center women. “Lesbian” is bold and in your face, the opposite of what I’m capable of as an introvert, and it says I won’t give men the time of day. As a Mexican-American woman, I like demystifying what it means to be a lesbiana, a jota, and what a lesbiana looks like to my community. I like claiming it because I want people to know that lesbians are inclusive and radical in their politics and worldview and want progress for the entire queer community.

Alexis, Staff Writer

I’m a fan of almost any word that lets people know that I’m not straight, but gay is maybe second on the list for me. It’s good for me when I want to mumble what I am, but lesbian? Lesbian requires me to be present and intentional. Lesbian was the word I put into Tumblr when I was still trying to figure myself out in high school. Gay didn’t bring me to the sites I needed (mostly chat rooms that did not help and lots of Brokeback Mountain quotes). Lesbian brought me to Autostraddle and basketball and probably a Urban Dictionary definition of the word that I read too many times. This is gonna sound really corny but it’s true: “Lesbian” brought me home.

It’s especially important for me now as I try to figure out my gender stuff. I was (and am) really scared to even go into that can of worms cause it took so long to get to lesbian and I didn’t want to let go of that yet. I’m nonbinary but it took a long time to get here. Lesbian was an anchor that made looking at gender possible and less scary. Being able to say nonbinary lesbian feels true. I can’t answTer all the questions surrounding that, but it settles most of the doubt in me.

Also this is how my sister and mom say lesbian whenever I bring up lesbian things and it makes me laugh every time.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, Staff Writer

I think the first time I heard the word “lesbian” was on the show Friends. The first gay people I really knew in life were all fictional television characters, so that tracks. For a long time, the word “lesbian” definitely scared me and excited me at the same time. I typed it a lot on tumblr but rarely said it out loud. When I did say it out loud, it was usually to say that I wasn’t one.

So yeah, I was scared of the word “lesbian,” but I also loved it at the same time. I was obsessed with famous lesbians and had writing mentors who were lesbians. I wrestled with internalized homophobia, paradoxically attracted to the word and also repulsed by it.

When starting to come out, I went with “I’m dating a girl.” When that was no longer true, I went with “I dated a girl.” I came out that way to my best college friend Paul, and he gently asked me about labels, and I just sort of threw my hands in the air and said I wasn’t sure yet, which was both true and untrue all at once. I remember thinking “just say it. Just say lesbian!” But that seemed like the hardest thing in the world at the time.

I can’t recall the first time I used “lesbian” to describe myself, but I remember what it felt like. It wasn’t scary. It wasn’t necessarily liberating either. It was that feeling I get when writing and finally figure out exactly how to word the sentence I’ve been trying to crack, the sentence that I can see perfectly in my head but struggle to translate to page. It just felt instantly right, like a code I’d been trying to crack for so long. Then I couldn’t stop saying it. “Lesbian” brought something that had been so unclear and confusing to me for so long into sharp focus, defined something I previously couldn’t. I use “gay” and “queer” to identify myself a lot, but neither fit as well as “lesbian.” I don’t know quite how to explain this, but I literally like how the word feels in my mouth.

Laneia Jones, Executive Editor

When I first realized I wasn’t straight in my mid-twenties, I went with “gay” to describe myself because it was just the fastest way to say I wasn’t straight. I mean literally it’s one syllable. You say it, it’s quick, it’s done. Gay is like the verbal equivalent of shooing a fly away from the book you’re reading, and it’s also vaguely sanitized. Like gay had saturated the market in the 90s to the point that it was almost boring. (Almost.) It was just cleaner.

Then I grew into queer because it implied not just gayness but also this unidentifiable otherness. It intentionally situated me further away from whatever the hell everyone else had always been doing, which had been annoying me since the first time someone said “well boys will be boys!”

I grew up with conflicting ideas of my own existence, stop me if you’ve heard/lived through this: I was being encouraged to be my own person — be weird! do what I want and follow those dreams! — all alongside learning how to be wholly consumed with tailoring and presenting myself to be whatever version of a girl the boys would be most interested in. And listen, I’m not blaming this on where I grew up or my mother or even Seventeen magazine, but I am saying that a lifetime of being worried about how boys and men felt about women, about me, made me very fucking angry, because I didn’t want to have to care about it! But I didn’t have the tools to interrogate why I felt this way. I was doing this song and dance for men, simultaneously hating them for requiring it and hating myself for giving it to them.

ANYWAY I swore I had nothing to say about this topic and YET.

Lesbian eventually hit me, like when the woman in the movie picks the broken glass out of her palms and her hair and looks around to realize just exactly what the fuck is going on. I’d skipped over that particular descriptor all this time because wasn’t it antiquated? Didn’t it say the same thing as queer but with less of a nod toward what it had been like for me before I knew I wasn’t straight? Lol babe nope.

For me, lesbian completely casts aside the idea of men. It puts me and the people I love ahead of the patriarchy. It relieves me of even pretending that I give a shit what any of them have ever thought. It thankfully gives me space to center women (and other people who aren’t men), which is all I’ve ever wanted to do.

Sarah Sarwar, Design Director + Business Lesbian

There’s nothing prolific I can say that hasn’t already been waxed poetic by my preceding lesbians, so all I really want to say is thank you for being so lesbian. Here’s a picture of me in a thrift store in Portland, wearing a pocketed dress. If that doesn’t say everything about why I ID as a lesbian, I don’t know what to tell you.

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  1. “For me, lesbian completely casts aside the idea of men. It puts me and the people I love ahead of the patriarchy. It relieves me of even pretending that I give a shit what any of them have ever thought. It thankfully gives me space to center women (and other people who aren’t men), which is all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

    LANEIA. My heart. You always just say what’s in it.

  2. “I grew up with conflicting ideas of my own existence, stop me if you’ve heard/lived through this: I was being encouraged to be my own person — be weird! do what I want and follow those dreams! — all alongside learning how to be wholly consumed with tailoring and presenting myself to be whatever version of a girl the boys would be most interested in.”

    OMG Laneia, thank you for putting that experience so succinctly.

    And sending lots of <3 to everyone in the roundtable! I love lesbians and I love you.

      • As someone who came out as gay ( my words at the time) at age 30 just about a year ago I carried a lot of guilt for feeling like I was courageous or proud enough to say and call myself a lesbian. I’ve had trouble owning up to my identity but I’ve been working on it. Reading these
        helped me feel like I wasn’t alone in the journey. It’s nice to feel like it’s okay to struggle and still be on that road to feeling empowered about my identity. I’m a lesbian! I couldn’t be happier! Thank you for the stories!

  3. “It’s especially important for me now as I try to figure out my gender stuff. I was (and am) really scared to even go into that can of worms cause it took so long to get to lesbian and I didn’t want to let go of that yet. I’m nonbinary but it took a long time to get here. Lesbian was an anchor that made looking at gender possible and less scary. Being able to say nonbinary lesbian feels true.”

    Alexis!!! I spend so much time beating myself up with “OK well you can’t be a lesbian AND nonbinary, sooo better keep avoiding ‘nonbinary’ if you don’t want to let go of ‘lesbian'” so I LOVE this. Thank you!

    “A lifetime of being worried about how boys and men felt about women, about me, made me very fucking angry, because I didn’t want to have to care about it!”

    Laneia, this accuracy.

    “I feel connected to their rage and their love and their victories and their hope for the life I’m living that they never experienced.”


    • YES!!!! It takes a lot to get to this point and stuff BUT YES WE CAN BE NONBINARY LESBIANS YES!!!! I’m out here with you!!

      • Honestly just seeing your thoughts and reasoning onscreen in front of me and knowing they came from a different human outside of myself really meant a lot! <3 <3 <3

  4. This is so beautiful and so epic. OMG. I’ll be keeping it in my heart all day. Thank you all for sharing this.

  5. I specifically did not choose the all-girl dorm at my college because I was afraid I might be called a lesbian.

    I was hesitant to make English my major because (for some still unknown reason?) I thought that might make me a feminist, which would mean I was a lesbian.

    In college, I would clarify that I “support equality, but I’m not a feminist” because I thought that would mean I was a lesbian.

    When I finally started to come out to myself (and others) at 22, I remember Googling “why is lesbian so hard to say”.

    A few years after I came out, another (lesbian) friend asked how I felt about “lesbian” being part of my identity, and I was able to (honestly) answer that some days, it was my favorite thing about myself. It took a long time to get here, but it feels really good to feel fully comfortable in my skin with a word that I spent so much time trying to avoid.

    • “Why is lesbian so hard to say” !!! *a million crying face emojis* I feel this so hard. I don’t think this is an exact thing that my past self googled, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you thrust my 2010 google search history in my face and it’s just pages and pages of variations on that.

    • i didn’t want to attend an all-girls college or take a women’s studies class or intern at bitch or bust because i was afraid it would make people think i was a lesbian. i didn’t even identify as a feminist for that same reason! which is just to say “i feel you” and also : LOOK AT ME NOW.

  6. First of all, this is wonderful and I love you all.

    I also had a lot of trouble using the word lesbian to describe my sexuality. And I know it’s rooted in internalized homophobia and it’s rooted my misguided desire to avoid imposing anything on anyone, even if what I’m “imposing” is my entire being.

    But as I keep developing my identity, I’m realizing that it’s kind of amazing to take up space and live my life without apology. And reading these roundtables and immersing myself in queer culture via Autostraddle has been so important in that realization. So, thank you!

    • “And I know it’s rooted in internalized homophobia and it’s rooted my misguided desire to avoid imposing anything on anyone, even if what I’m “imposing” is my entire being.”

      this resonates with me so much — thank you for sharing and thank you for taking up space and thank you for being here! <3

  7. WOW wait i thought i was excluded from being a lesbian because i’ve had partners that pass as men but maybe… i see here that others also have dated non-binary/genderqueer/trans folks and they still use “lesbian”… and non-binary lesbians… hold up

    i mean i haven’t dated anyone who identifies as a man since college and men are very uninteresting to me but my partner passes as one, this is so complicated.

    thanks for sharing and getting me thinking. i love lesbians!

    • it is complicated and it took me so long to get comfortable/figure out this identity (sounds like i had a lot of the same concerns as you do) but i am so glad to have landed here, as a lesbian, and i love that this roundtable helps you think about it even if you don’t decide to ID as one. in short: love you bb <3

  8. Thank you very much for this round table and for celebrating Lesbian Day of Visibility. Visibility matters, as the old AfterEllen would say.

  9. This is so much! This is everything! Having an identity connected to history and power is everything! Vanessa – “Lesbian is my identity, lesbian is my herstory, lesbian is not a dirty word, lesbian is who and what I am. Lesbian elders got me (us) here. (Thank you.)” yes. thank you.

    Laneia: I cried! This is so beautiful!

    Riese: I am in love with you, that’s all.

  10. I ID as lesbian because I am a woman who is exclusively attracted, sexually and romantically, to women. Lesbian means there’s no beating around the bush about my disinterest in men. To me, it’s just shorthand for “No Boys Allowed,” and it’s incredibly effective at communicating that
    Although I dislike that ‘lesbian’ is a noun. For a while I preferred gay because my brain classifies gay as an adjective and lesbian as primarily a noun and my personal label being an adjective fits better for me
    I think women-specific language is very important, which is why I think words like lesbian and sapphic are so fucking important. Sapphic women are so often subsumed under the experiences and issues of gay and bi men. Heck, even queer was originally a word to describe gay and bi men; I like using words specific to my own community and not being subsumed under men’s.

  11. Heather, beautiful writing as usual
    Vanessa, applause: “Lesbian is my identity, lesbian is my herstory, lesbian is not a dirty word, lesbian is who and what I am. Lesbian elders got me (us) here. (Thank you.)”
    Yes, elders, thank you!
    And once again thank you for this roundtable and for celebrating Lesbian Day of Visibility

  12. This is really beautiful. Sometimes I feel like y’all are my wise aunts (even though a bunch of you are my same age/younger??), gently pushing me towards a more feminist and aware and confident and, yes, lesbian self.

    I identify with so much that you said here. I didn’t know/know of many lesbians growing up, and the few I did (like a math teacher at my high school) fit the stereotypes to the letter and made me so so scared to be associated with that. You know what’s funny, actually, is I wonder if I would still even think that? My mental picture of that high school math teacher is so colored by the stuff that students said about her behind her back that I genuinely can’t conjure an accurate or even non-blurry image. Like Laneia, I don’t want to blame Seventeen magazine completely, but I think it’s fair to give it about 50% of the blame (the other 50% going to Cosmo…kidding. Sort of) for the way that my brain completely centered men and what they wanted, even as I was trying to be a cool weird individual. It was like, “men actually like weird girls! Check out all these manic pixie dream girls!”

    I came out to my parents as “gay,” even though I wasn’t 100% sure that was even the right word. I was terrified that I’d still fall in love with a man and have to “take it back,” but it was just the word that popped out of my mouth. It seemed easy and least confrontational. I think I was still scared I’d end up with a man not because I actually felt *attracted* to them, but because I still subconsciously turned my face towards men when they walked in the room like they were the sun, still assessed the reputable bachelors in any space/group even though I *knew* I didn’t want to date one. It was just what you did. It was just how you were a woman, even a modern, feminist one.

    This conditioning has now…*almost* completely gone away. I feel my strongest best self when in a room with other queer & lesbian-identifying women and non-binary people, and sometimes I don’t talk to a cis man all weekend and don’t even notice. I still sometimes feel dependent on that strength of a group, though? When I’m at A-Camp, or watching bad lesbian movies with a gaggle of queer women, I feel like we could take on the whole patriarchy together! But then I find myself in a room full of straight acquaintances and their straight friends and find myself mumbling something about my girlfriend instead of using any specific word to describe myself, or, worse, not saying anything at all about myself and letting them make assumptions.

    I do believe I’ll fully get there one day! And I’m so so grateful to have all of you as my…whatever the word is for contemporaneous foremothers?

    • Yessssss to all of this! Well said.

      Also, kind of related, my math teacher from my junior year of high school always gave off gay vibes and my little closeted self was like, “I like her. There’s just something about her…” (lol) and THEN when I was in college I learned that not only was that math teacher gay, but she married another math teacher from the school. It warmed my baby gay heart so much!

  13. Ive realized before, thinking about identity and attraction, how I grew up never questioning or being pressured to doubt my attraction and love for women but it’s because I wasn’t cis and people saw me as something I’m not. So while my life has many other problems and issues identifying as lesbian was easy. So I really do dream that it will be the same some day for every young women trying to live her truth.

  14. What a wonderful roundtable.

    Here’s my wife and I last month, lesbianing (v.) at our lesbian (adj.) wedding ?

  15. I googled how to be a lesbian and that’s how I got here?

    I feel like I needed less help to be gay than to lesbian properly

  16. I went to an all-girls college and majored in Women’s Studies, so I think I win at lesbianing.

  17. Reading this brought back memory.

    I’m not a native english speaker, but lesbienne in french carries a lot of the same stigma as lesbian.
    I remember hating that word when I was 15, I was fascinated by it but I hated it because I couldn’t possibly use it to describe me.
    I thought that because it was used so much in porn that was meant for straight men I couldn’t use it with my family. I used to wish I could use gay to describe (you can’t really do that in French).

    Nowadays I love it, even if I prefer gouine, which is a rough equivalent of dyke, lesbienne is a cherished term.

    • I wish I learned the French words for LGBT identities when I studied the language in college. At least now I can say, “Je suis une lesbienne”!

      But really, can we make LGBT+ labels a requirement of foreign language curriculum???? Seems important!

  18. Heather. I love you! The rest of you? I love all of you as well.

    My lesbian-visability resolution will be to say that ‘I’m a lesbian’ more and say ‘I’m queer’ less.

  19. So though I frequently post lgbt content regularly, I’ve never full on come out on facebook, and am out to many but not all of the people in my life. I noticed it was lesbian visibility day yesterday, and did a post on facebook and instagram. Though I’ve had a very neutral response (noone has said anything since) it still did and continues to feel like a big deal. It’s a hard word to say.

  20. First, all you lovely lesbians, I see you. Thanks for putting yourself out there to be seen. It’s everything.

    Second, as someone who grew up in a family with religious baggage for days and a firm belief in gender essentialism, I still struggle not to see my body as a trap that I was born into. A trap that tells me what I’m allowed to want. How I can identify. What I can and cannot be. In that zero sum game, my body was the box that defined me.

    Flipping that equation is something I work hard at, sometimes pushing all that baggage uphill in order to claim the thing inside me and home it in a body I’ve been trained to think can’t hold x-identity. For everyone on the panel who claimed identity and nuance and uncertainty, thank you thank you thank you.

    When I don’t know what to say to, for, or about myself, I’ll be thinking of you and knowing that there’s space to be me and people who will meet me there, wherever that is.

    • I like what you said here: When I don’t know what to say to, for, or about myself, I’ll be thinking of you and knowing that there’s space to be me and people who will meet me there, wherever that is.

      That’s sort of how I feel about gender which is a bit more murky for me to navigate than sexual orientation. Everything is confusing!

      • I was thinking about gender too when I wrote it! I’m down to get murky about it if you ever want to chat.

  21. I know lots of non-binary lesbians and my girlfriend is a non-binary lesbian! I’ve heard a lot of nb lesbians say that they only feel a connection to womanhood through their lesbianism, and in my communities dating someone who is nb and aligned with or connected to womanhood in some way can absolutely be a part of lesbianism.

    • “Aligned with or connected to womanhood in some way” is such a great descriptor. I feel like it leaves a lot of room for people’s different identities and feelings without establishing anything as the default.

  22. “Also, gay guys don’t have their own noun but we got our own noun, which is rad.”

    I resisted calling myself a lesbian for a long time because it was a noun and not an adjective. It felt like saying “I am A lesbian’ vs “I am gay” meant that being a lesbian was everything that I am, where as being gay was an aspect of who I am and I didn’t know how to rumble with that.

    But now, I feel that being a lesbian IS everything I am. It’s not ONLY what I am, or ALL that I am, but it is everything that I am. It seeps into every aspect of my being. I am a lesbian at work and at home and in my bed and in my politics and waiting for the train and reading books and watching tv. I am a lesbian the way I am a woman the way I am an introvert the way I am a super short person and a person who loves stories more than real life. It informs everything else about my life. It cannot be separated out from the rest of me like picking onions off a salad.

    My lesbianism is not an adjective. It is a noun.
    I am a lesbian.

  23. I’m a lesbian because I’ll be damned if a bunch of uterus-truthing pissants with their hearts full of hate are taking that word away from me and my friends and loved ones.

  24. I have never identified as a lesbian, though it’s been the easiest label for other people to use for me. It just never felt right, which, in hindsight, rings clearly of internalized homophobia.

    When the topic comes up, gay or queer are a quick way for me to say “just not straight” and leave the details up for interpretation.

    Lesbian takes time to say. That word takes up space in a conversation that gay doesn’t. My identity deserves to take up space. My identity is allowed to make other people uncomfortable.

    This round table made me take a closer look at what felt “wrong” about it. It is a word that immediately labels you as someone who doesn’t center your looks, life or love on men. That is powerful. I’m bathing in the concept of an identity that isn’t centered on men!

    It’s making me wonder how much of my “openness” to dating men is to make men comfortable.

  25. Five years ago, when I first swung by Autostraddle as a casual observer, I assumed this space would not be for me, and my bisexual, dating-a-guy, femme-presenting self. And yet! It felt like it was for me, the writing, the politics, the fandoms, the incredible women. I gradually assumed that using lesbian as an adjective was ‘permeable and breathable’, as Molly says, and that there was space for me in it. So I’m not going to apologise for bringing my bisexual butt onto a lesbian visibility thread, but I will say thank you, so much. Keep doing what you’re doing to centre and celebrate women, (because, duh), and I love you all so much!

    And Riese I totally agree sometimes a noun is what is needed.

      • Please read the content of my comment and understand that it isn’t something that needs to be reported to a mod and silenced. Thank you.

    • Calling the word TERF a “slur” is the same as accusing minorities of being intolerant of the intolerance displayed towards them, and nobody is fooled by your ensuing semantic acrobatics.

      If you’re really so concerned about injustice in our community, please explain to me why the potential misuse of the word TERF is clearly so much more important to you than the actual harm inflicted against trans people by actual transphobic TERFs?

        • And yet it’s the only issue you ever pop up to comment on. And your comments draw a distinction between “trans people” and “women”. And imply that slogans expressing anger against transmisogynistic people are attacking “women”.

          Again, you’re not fooling anybody.

        • If someone is making comments online about raping and killing other people, then THAT PERSON needs to be held accountable. Find us an example of anyone talking about raping and killing anyone else ON THIS WEBSITE.

          Do you flood articles about racism with panicked comments about that time Richard Spencer got punched?

    • What is it that compels you to challenge the mere use of the term ‘TERF’?

      -Do you deny the existence of Janice Raymond and her peers? Are we not allowed to acknowledge them or the effects of their ideology?

      – “Questioning the medicalization of transgenderism” is not a neutral act when it impacts other people’s ability to access health care or social services, never mind their legitimate existence and self definition. If you’re not trans, transgender identity has nothing to do with you and there is no need for you to comment on its validity. How would you feel if people decided to “question the identities of women who call themselves lesbians” and showed up on articles about lesbians to say “some of us question the validity of lesbianism and we are tired of being harassed by them with the label ‘homophobe”?

      -I don’t doubt that people have been mislabeled as TERFS when TUMF would be a more appropriate label. And yet this also happens on the internet with people accused of other types of bigotry, and we don’t take this as evidence that those forms of bigotry don’t exist.

      -Autostraddle has not EVER encouraged violence or harassment against TERFs, people perceived as TERFs, or anyone. They are not accountable for the bad behavior of other people who have nothing to do with them. They have every right to exclude those who are hostile to trans people just as they would exclude those who are actively hostile to women, lesbians, bisexuals, people of color, people with disabilities etc.

  26. One of the challenges of the use of lesbian for me isn’t so much that I think it needs to be confined to a polar, end of spectrum identity, but that it is recieved that way generally. So if I have identified as lesbian and then later reference an ex-boyfriend there are implications read into that ‘story’ that are not accurate and are cumbersome to explain/disclaim constantly. Similarly, when I started being definitely-not-straight, one of my anxieties was that I would not be taken seriously or have to continually come-out cyclically if I dated men. And/or any of my relationships were treated as suspect because I hadn’t ‘made my mind up.’ At the same time, bisexual didn’t feel any more accurate than lesbian, because I certainly tend towards non-men. The part of me that contextualizes that tendency as a political choice wants to use “lesbian” as some writers described (I am sure there are men out there I could be happy with, but why go for men when women and others exist?). But I continue to feel uncomfortable with the way it erases other true aspects of my identity and choices.
    Also, in my experience, at some point a certain idea of what a lesbian is was politically mainstreamed in the GLB/ marriage movement. It has a tone of born-this-way and other marriage equality political rhetoric that I do not identify with or prioritize. In this context, queer was the term you use when you want to politicize your identity. I know this comes from a place of real privilege– I was in a progressive, early marriage equality state and definitely knew lesbians. But, that is the context of queer for me. I distinct choice to politicize my identity, embrace being outside of heteronormativity, and have a deeper political investment in liberatation from those norms (for all people) than a specific right to inclusion based on essentializing attraction/orientation. Reading these reflections, it seems like theres a shift to lesbian for some of the same, politicized reasons. I have really appreciated this sharing and framing of identity terminology and will definitely be spending some time interrogating my own word choices and their external meanings. Thanks!

    • thanks for this. same. this shift towards ‘lesbian’ for some of the same reasons we shifted away from it and towards ‘queer’ a decade ago has been interesting to observe. i struggle sometimes with the generational markers of language and the lack of intergenerational spaces in queer community to trouble these things out. perhaps it was my naiivete to think once i found my people that would be it, but i suppose it’s a continual growing away and towards the communities i belong to and want to build with. as ever, more than the word, im interested in what people mean by it.

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