When I was 23, I attended a magazine launch party at a sticky venue in midtown Toronto, red and blue lights dancing around the room. My body was riddled with anxiety. With several beers sloshing inside me, I began fretting to my friend that I guess I’m queer, but bisexual doesn’t sound right, neither does pansexual. So maybe I’m gay?
This was about the 20th time I’d had such a conversation with my friend. The word “lesbian” represented a commitment I was terrifed to make, and I’d been struggling with embracing my new identity — not the liking women bit (that I had down pat), but the uprooting-my-entire-sense-of-self bit. Would my friends be weird? Would I break my mom’s heart? Would women even want to date me? What if I was wrong?
“Say it!” my friend yelled at me over the crowd. She didn’t need to express exactly what it was I was supposed to say, because I already knew. It was a little game she’d started weeks prior, a call to vocalize the truth about the identity I’d stashed deep within myself.
I rolled my eyes, then threw my head back and shouted: “I AM A LESBIAN.”
I don’t think many of the people pressed around us heard the declaration, but that was fine because it was just for me. As I lowered my chin, my anxiety reached a pinnacle and then dissipated. For a hot second, I was free. Because what my friend knew, and what I knew, is that I was a huge, undeniable, painfully obvious lesbian.
I don’t necessarily recommend that method of declaration. Identities are individual, after all, and claiming and expressing them is a process. But it was what I needed and what finally gave me both the comfort and the confidence to claim the word. The game my friend started gave me permission to accept that life was about to change — something I had long denied myself, but that I realized was a good thing. It was awkward at first, but after months of practice, the word “lesbian” now glides so comfortably from my lips.
“Lesbian” is a word I had to work for. There were a multitude of reasons for my hesitation to use it. First, my history with men, when held up alongside my scant experience with women, made me feel it was a word I hadn’t earned. Somewhere in the depths of the lesbian internet, which I’d been secretly scouring at night, I’d come across the term “gold star” — a lesbian who’d never been with a man. You know, real lesbians, or so I let myself believe. I started calculating the point at which the number of women I’d slept with would outnumber the men. Would I earn my gay stripes then?
The word also conjured images of grey-haired women wearing Birkenstocks, using the spelling “womyn” and attending vulva-worship workshops. In my until-then hetero world, my only reference points for lesbianism were steeped in stereotypes that I now realize were fed to me by the hetero world itself. It was the image of the activist-lesbian prototype, those who’d risen up in the decades before I was even born. Anti-porn, man-hating, joyless creatures intent on destroying a femininity I identified with. Was that the kind of lesbian I wanted to be? No, I thought. I was young and enlightened and knew that not all women have vaginas and that binaries are for breaking. I was too cool to be a lesbian as I understood the term, with all its baggage and syllables.
More than that, though, the word “lesbian,” and lesbianism itself, scared me. I’d accepted that I wasn’t straight, but it was more difficult to embrace what that meant for me personally. Women and femininity are so culturally defined by heteronormativity. To be a woman, we learn, is to be a soft and supple complement to men; we are not meant to stand on our own. If our value lies in our fuckability as defined by cishet men, what is our worth when we remove ourselves entirely from that dynamic? It felt too radical of a departure and too bold a statement to say “lesbian,” even if my desires matched the label.
But deep down that made me want it even more. I’d wanted it when I was a teenager secretly watching The L Word in my parents’ basement on the lowest possible volume. I’d wanted it when I joined my high school gay-straight alliance as an ally. I’d wanted it when I attended queer events at my university. I’d always been toeing the line, afraid of crossing while gazing longingly at the other side.
Knowing how deeply I fought to feel comfortable using it, it’s with sadness that I hear rumours that the word “lesbian” is dying. Lesbians, compared to gay men as well as bisexual and pansexual queers, are a small slice of the LGBTQ2 pie — just 16 percent, according to one poll, compared to 46 percent who identify as bisexual and 32 percent who identify as gay. Other surveys show that Generation Z and millennials are more likely to eschew such concrete labels in favour of more fluid ones. And we can all name a queer female celebrity who declines to declare a label of any kind — think Cara Delevingne or Demi Lovato.
There’s no one to fault here, since I want a bright, queer future for all of us. I want us to be seen, safe and feel valid, no matter how we identify. There are people out there who fret that our so-called “alphabet soup” of a community acronym will get so big that it will dominate every sentence and take 10 minutes to say. I want our rainbow to grow, not shrink. Yet it nags at me, this idea of lesbianism disappearing.
I feel fiercely protective of the identity I worked so hard for. Not just because of its accuracy, but for the history, culture and community it represents. The distinction of “lesbian,” as opposed to a more fluid sexuality, matters. We certainly have common cause with other women who love women: we share experiences, dates and inside jokes. But in the end, we’re different. Beyond the basic definitions, there’s a particular magic in being a straight-up dyke — like the glint of a silver thumb ring, Janelle Monáe’s vulva pants and Fiona Apple in a suit of armour (as captured in Mikaella Clements’ excellent essay, “Notes on dyke camp”) — that I feel in my bones. It’s the woman on the dance floor in a lacey bralette with two tufts of hair anchoring her swaying arms and the way you melt when she smiles at you. It’s that Vanity Fair cover with Cindy Crawford shaving kd lang, who has the explicit look of dyke pleasure on her face. It’s those archival photos of French women in 1930s dyke bars, decked out in tuxes and sailor outfits. It’s crying at a femme poetry reading because, for the first damn time, you’ve felt seen. It’s your butch friend proudly inviting you to feel how soft her fresh fade feels. It’s being covered in chunky craft glitter after hugging friends at the Dyke March. To me, lesbian culture, even where it overlaps with other queer women, is every bit as distinct, flamboyant and rich as what the boys get to claim.
To be completely divorced from the safety of heterosexuality is very real, and very life-altering. I’ve been on both sides, and it is the radical departure I imagined it would be.
We make jokes about lesbian culture being about plaid, snapbacks and freshly trimmed nails (which are cute and often true, to be fair). But beyond that, it’s a shared feeling of invisibility. Advertisers ignore us, our bars are gone and straight girls give us side-eye while embracing their gay (male) best friend. It’s how, if we’re not the butt of a joke, an object to fetishize or a target for harassment and violence, straight men don’t see us at all. I once attended the media kick-off for Toronto Pride, and not once did anyone utter the word “lesbian.” The reality is that “gay culture” is so often synonymous with gay men. If we didn’t intentionally carve out our own spaces, like the annual Dyke March, you would never see us. With all that at stake, I crave community. I crave time and space with my fellow lesbians. I need us not to disappear.
There’s a phrase I’m dancing around here. Maybe it’s been blaring in suspicious minds while reading this: “lesbian erasure.” I’m avoiding that term for good reason. That phrase, like lesbian identity itself, is too often used as a dog whistle for transgender and polysexual exclusion. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that, in turn, has turned other women like me away from the label.
Trans-exclusionary lesbians have been speaking out with renewed gusto. They’re at Pride events, including the 2018 Dyke Marches in London and Vancouver. They’re on the now dumpster-quality lesbian website AfterEllen, once a go-to online publication for queer women that now publishes articles claiming trans-inclusive sex education harms women. They’re in Twitter threads where they sniff out trans inclusion like sharks sensing blood in the water, ready to play a bad-faith devil’s advocate to anyone who affirms it. I see them when I report a story affirming trans rights and identities, and trans activists face them daily. These are women fixated on the idea that trans women are somehow a threat to lesbians and who are convinced that someone (they can’t seem to name who) is forcing us to have sex with specific genital configurations. They refuse to believe that trans women can be women, let alone lesbians.
They’re assholes, is what they are. But we can’t afford to ignore them. They’re finding friends in right-wing media and gaining mainstream mentions at an alarming rate, especially in the UK. It’s the job of cis lesbians, like me, to push back if we want to stop them from warping “lesbian” into an identity grounded in bigotry. Some work is being done here — like the people who tear down anti-trans signs at dyke marches, and the queer media organizations that signed a letter decrying trans-exclusion in lesbian spaces.
And there are still others some lesbians are eager to exclude. We have earned a reputation for turning up our noses at bisexual, pansexual and queer-identified people, especially as potential dates. There’s the fear of being left for a man, as if that’s somehow worse than being left for a woman or non-binary person. I’d like to think the bogeyman of the lesbian who won’t date bi women on principle is just a tired stereotype, but I fear I’d be wrong.
Frankly, these things weren’t on my baby dyke brain back when I was reciting my “I am a lesbian” mantra. These tensions are ones I’ve learned as I’ve grown in the community; and they have, at times, made me question my own identity. Did I want to associate myself with trans-exclusionary “feminists”? Would I forever have to explain to dates that, no, I don’t have a problem being with a woman who also dates men? Perhaps “queer” is enough for me? And just as I’m never going to let TERFs gatekeep lesbianism, I’m not going to let them scare me away from it, either.
I’m stubborn. I worked for “lesbian,” and I’m keeping it. And I want others to feel that, if they choose to, they can keep it too.
If there is a threat to the existence of lesbians, it’s not trans folks (and certainly not trans lesbians), or sexual fluidity or relaxed binaries. It’s what it’s always been: homophobia and heteronormativity. Remember those grey-haired, Lilith Fair-attending lesbians I mentioned earlier? The only reason I was made to believe they were bad, or ugly or scary, was because heteronormativity doesn’t want us to be gay. At a time when the stakes were much higher, the dykes who came before me built a culture I now adore and a world I can feel safe in. Their screams, sweat and blood carved out our space with force. Because of them I can kiss my girlfriend in the street. (Sure, I sometimes hesitate — but I still do it.) The truth now is that the older I get, the more like those women I want to be.
In fact, the first time I introduced myself as a lesbian to a new person, a colleague, it felt like taking off a too-tight bra with wonky underwire after a long day. For the first time, I knew I was being honest about who I am.
My own internalized homophobia is what scared me away from saying the word, and from seeing myself for who I am until I was an adult. And now, it’s those external factors that make me feel like I have to justify myself. It’s the straight world that’s questioning my validity, far more than any fellow queers.
I don’t need a good reason to be a lesbian. I have them, of course, but I don’t need them or owe them to anyone. And if the day comes when someone tries to take that away from me, be it a TERF or a straight dude — or my own anxieties coming back to haunt me — I’ll tell them where to shove it.