Del Martin, left, places a ring on her partner Phyllis Lyon, right, during their wedding ceremony
Del Martin, left, places a ring on her partner Phyllis Lyon, right, during their wedding ceremony in San Francisco, on June 16, 2008. Lyon and Martin became the first officially married same-sex couple in California. Credit: Marcio Jose/AP Photo/ Pool/ Canadian Press; Francesca Roh/Xtra
9 min

Does the death of a lesbian icon mark the end of the lesbian era?

Phyllis Lyon was a U.S. lesbian pioneer. But with fewer self-identified lesbians than ever, what is the future of the term?

When Phyllis Lyon passed away in San Francisco on Apr. 9 at the age of 95, it felt to me like the end of an era. Lyon and her wife Del Martin (who passed in 2008) were the definitive leaders of the lesbian rights movement, but the word “lesbian” itself is potentially disappearing, with fewer and fewer people self-identifying with the term. Did the time of the lesbian die with this consequential couple?

Together, Lyon and Martin founded the first lesbian rights organization in the U.S., the Daughters of Bilitis, in 1952; four years later they started The Ladder, the first nationally-distributed lesbian publication in America and, in 1972, wrote the groundbreaking book Lesbian/Woman. They advocated for the inclusion of lesbians in women’s spaces like the National Organization for Women, and in gay spaces like the Mattachine Society. Lyon and Martin became the first legally married lesbian couple in San Francisco in 2008 (following their historic 2004 wedding authorized by Gavin Newsom that was legally voided months later by the California Supreme Court).

Their activism all started from a place of wanting to build community for themselves. “We just wanted to meet some lesbians,” Lyon told Dianna Lee Johnson in a 2010 interview for her master’s thesis “A Narrative Life Story of Activist Phyllis Lyon and Her Reflections on a Life with Del Martin.” Lyon also told Johnson that she had never heard the word “lesbian” before Martin came out to her. Martin herself had found the label in Radclyffe Hall’s controversial 1928 book The Well of Loneliness, which a British court deemed as “obscene” for promoting “unnatural practices between women.” For each woman, finding the word itself started her self-discovery.

For years now, women who love women have demographically been trending away from using “lesbian” in favour of identifying as queer, bisexual or some other label. “Over the last two decades, we see that lesbian-identified women make up a smaller and smaller group in the LBQ+ women collective,” says Dr. Bianca Wilson, senior scholar of public policy at the Williams Institute at University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. “For example, lesbians made up 25 percent of all the sexual minority women in our current national study on LGBT poverty, but lesbians made up more than 50 percent of the non-heterosexual women in studies from the early 2000s.” It’s not just stats: This year, female public figures from Jameela Jamil to Rebecca Black to Auli’i Cravalho have come out as queer or bisexual—but who is the last celesbian you can remember coming out?

The word “lesbian” comes from the name of the Greek island, Lesbos. In fact, all of the 86,000-plus residents of Lesbos are called Lesbians (note the capital “L”), a point a group of them attempted to sue over in 2008. But who do you even take to court in this type of situation?

One Lesbian man, Dimitris Lambrou, led the group who attempted to sue the Greek LGBTQ rights organization, Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece, for using “lesbian” in their name because it “insults the identity” of the people of Lesbos. The lead plaintiff said he was upset his sister couldn’t even call herself a Lesbian because “our geographical designation has been usurped by certain ladies who have no connection whatsoever with Lesbos.” He lost.

As a lesbian, I feel a deep connection to the Isle of Lesbos. It’s where the famed poet Sappho lived over 2,600 years ago, putting onto papyrus the earliest surviving writing of a woman loving another woman. I took a pilgrimage there in 2007, starry-eyed at the women-only nude beach with a view of Turkey’s coast on the ocean’s horizon. The propeller plane from Athens landed at a tiny airport surrounded by that turquoise water you see on postcards. It was all farmland without a trace of obvious queer culture for the three-hour bus ride to Skala Eressos, on the opposite side of the island. But once there, I met lesbians from around the world as we soaked up Sappho’s hometown surrounded by rainbow flags. I optimistically ordered a Sex on the Beach at a lesbian bar (and did at least end up getting a kiss on the beach).

I had come to self-identify as lesbian six years earlier, as a 14-year-old in Connecticut. I didn’t know then that I was adopting a word that had first evolved from referring to that second century BCE poet to any woman-loving-woman in the 18th century, according to Leila J. Rupp, professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara and author of several books including Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women. Rupp shares that “the only [similar] term with a broader reach is ‘tribadism,’ from Greek and Latin words meaning ‘to rub.’ The concept of rubbing to refer to women’s same-sex sexuality can be found across cultures and languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Urdu, Spanish, and French.” “Lesbian” became more widely used in the 20th century, Lyon’s and Martin’s time, as shown through the founding of organizations like the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) in 1977.

Imani Rupert-Gordon, NCLR’s executive director, told me that the founders of the organization “quickly realized that by focusing on issues of importance to lesbians, [they] were identifying issues that are important to all LGBTQ people.” While NCLR advocates for the entire LGBTQ2 community, not just lesbians, Rupert-Gordon is “absolutely positive that the founders of NCLR knew that centering the needs of lesbians would make the entire movement stronger and we see, over and over, that it has.”

It’s undeniable that fewer and fewer people are raising their hands to be counted as lesbians. A 2018 poll of 880 LGBTQ Americans found that just 16 percent identified as lesbians, compared to 46 percent as bisexual and 32 percent as gay. According to a 2011 Williams Institute research brief that looked at nine U.S. national surveys on how LGBTQ people identify, men are more likely to identify as gay than bisexual and woman are “substantially” more likely to identify as bisexual than lesbian.

While Lyon and Martin had to fight to find a shred of acceptance for lesbians, today it feels like the urgency for lesbian equality has quieted. Gays and lesbians are perceived as the most privileged among the diverse LGBTQ2 community, despite the challenges they still face. Gay and lesbian identities have been the most mainstreamed and prioritized within the movement for decades, to a point where being “lesbian” can almost seem passé now compared to newer identity labels like “queer.”

When Lauren Strapagiel wrote about coming to terms with identifying as lesbian for Xtra in 2019, this idea was part of her hesitation: “The word conjured images of grey-haired women wearing Birkenstocks, using the spelling ‘womyn’ and attending vulva-worship workshops.” It wasn’t a word she wanted to be associated with because she was “too cool” for it, being “young and enlightened and [knowing] that not all women have vaginas and that binaries are for breaking.”

There are other negative connotations associated with the term “lesbian,” as Strapagiel continues—like how anti-trans lesbians have pushed the completely false narrative that trans women can’t be lesbians or that they somehow threaten lesbian spaces. As Strapagiel’s powerful piece concludes, the “threat” to lesbian identity is not bisexuality or trans people or any of our LGBTQ2 community, “it’s what it’s always been: Homophobia and heteronormativity.”

While TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) may cry “lesbian erasure” while pointing the finger at trans and non-binary people, the true risk of lesbian invisibility comes from the straight cis world. Proud queer women’s media outlets DIVA Magazine, Curve, Autostraddle, Lesbians On The Loose (LOTL), Tagg Magazine, Lez Spread the Word, dapperQ, LezWatch.TV and GO Magazine stood up in 2018 to say that they “do not think supporting trans women erases our lesbian identities.”

AJ Guerrero, a cis butch lesbian who is the coordinator for LGBTQ+ programs & services at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, believes “the lesbian identity has never been popular or mainstream as it threatens the patriarchy” (and in a very lesbian way, backed up her assertion with a bell hooks quote from Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics). She continues: “Younger generations are less comfortable naming their experiences around sexuality, and the most dangerous thing a woman can say to men is still ‘no,’ so what happens when your existence says no to men? That’s scary to proclaim, no matter how true it may be. Not being attracted to men in a heteropatriarchy is no small potatoes.”

As you might expect, less people identifying as lesbians likely isn’t because less women are attracted to women. Dr. Wilson of the Williams Institute says it’s more likely that more bisexual women are now identifying themselves in surveys, adding that “this change over time is easiest to see for cisgender women because large random surveys only recently started asking about transgender and other gender identities.”

As our terms for sexuality evolved, so did our terms for gender. While lesbians, bisexual people, trans people and all of the LGBTQ2 spectrum have always existed in some form for the entirety of human history, our identity labels are newer and constantly changing as language evolves. While a definition of “lesbian” tied to the word “woman” might have worked for Martin and Lyon, the construction of the gender binary has been chipped away at in the decades since their time.

Mae Eden, a 22-year-old based in Denver, Colorado, is one of many non-binary lesbians and they believe that “being a lesbian means you are connected to a feminine energy in some way, or you feel your identity is strongly aligned to femininity, and you love people similarly.”

In their piece for Matthew’s Place, they wrote that lesbians have always accepted gender fluidity, like how butch is “a masculine presence without being a man.” Mae thankfully found acceptance in the lesbian community and has “met trans, non-binary and cis lesbians and while all of our journeys are very different, our love for women, femmes and femininity brings us together.”

Ash, another non-binary lesbian, told PinkNews,“It’s not a choice to be non-binary or lesbian, but it is a choice to proudly label myself as non-binary and lesbian. As a lesbian you defy probably one of the biggest gender roles that exists, which is for your life to revolve around a man, so that links into how being non-binary also doesn’t conform to expectations of gender.”

They continued: “Forty years ago, to be a lesbian was to be questioned and persecuted. Today, things are better for cis lesbians, but there are still places where to be a lesbian is impossible. So it is for trans men and women, as well as non-binary people, many of whom identify as lesbian, bisexual, gay or queer. We know something of these struggles. And just as they and other allies have supported us, we must support those among us who are trans, or risk ending up on the wrong side of history.”

So, did the time of the lesbian die with Phyllis Lyon? Words come and go, but this word has more than 150 years of history behind it and a community that loves it fiercely, in large part due to that history. If it’s disappearing, it’ll be decades from now and it won’t go down without a fight. The legacy that Lyon and Martin created is strong enough to outlive them and the LGBTQ2 community is big and inclusive enough to welcome newer words into the fold without losing “lesbian” altogether.

As Guerrero says, “It doesn’t matter if the word lesbian is relevant or popular or ‘up to date,’ because ‘lesbian’ is our lived truth of loving ourselves and each other in the best way we know we can.” She says that even if the word “lesbian” didn’t exist, she’d still be a lesbian. “It’s not a label that limits my choices, it’s shorthand to help me find people who share part of my lived experiences. It’s freedom.”

While remembrances for Lyon poured out from outlets like the New York Times and public figures like U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the best description of this giant of our community naturally comes from the love of her life. Martin described her partner in life and activism in the 2002 book Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context:

“Phyllis Lyon is not afraid of the L-word, whether it be lesbian or liberal—or even lipstick. In fact, L-words best describe her life. She has the largess, pride and roar of a lion. She is distinguished by her laughter. She loves light and bare windows. She is loquacious, but she also listens. She is loving, loyal, learned, logical. She loves literature and she is an avid reader. She is a lover, a leader, a liaison. She lives up to her ideals. She also likes to live it up. Her concerns are limitless, as are her talents.”

Lyon and Martin were icons who make me proud to call myself a lesbian. I try to live by Lyon’s words: “If you got stuff you want to change, you have to get out and work on it. You can’t just sit around and say, ‘I wish this or that was different.’ You have to fight for it.” And the lesbian community is one worth fighting for.

CORRECTION, Apr. 30, 2020: Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin were the first legally wed same-sex couple in San Francisco in 2008. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.