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.