It has come to my attention that many homosexual women— myself included— struggle to identify with the label “lesbian” and prefer the all-encompassing terms “queer” or “gay.” As I reflect on my own coming-out experience, I recall an instant desire to distance myself from the word entirely. In my head, I made up excuses to justify my dislike: it sounds “old-fashioned” and “ugly,” I concluded. Looking back on this notion, I find myself to have been naive and foolish to think so little of a term with such deep roots.
In a heteronormative society where the straight cis male controls the norm, it is hard to adhere to a term that ultimately otherizes you. Yet, for some reason, homosexual men of our generation seem to embrace the term “gay” with open arms. So much so that it overpowers the usage of “lesbian” in mainstream media and society at large. After speaking with fellow queer folk, I have come to learn more about why people like myself desperately cling to alternative language.
Film and pop culture
Film and pop culture are notorious actors for excluding minorities from popularized rhetoric. Growing up, I yearned for a strong independent character to validate my conflicting sexual feelings. Instead, I got small nuanced appearances of women who might be lesbian— but sure as hell knew how to hide it. It wasn’t until I got to college and began researching the crippling history of gay and lesbian representation in films that I came to understand that such characters provide a glimpse into the values and beliefs of American culture throughout history.
Due to the Motion Picture Production Code, or the Hays Code, of 1930, the representation of queer activity was illegal, categorized under the “depiction of sexual perversion.” Far after this rule was retracted, queer characters remained taboo and almost always suffered a gruesome death.
Early queer films, such as Gilda, Tea and Sympathy, and The Children’s Hour showcase the outward disapproval of same-sex couples through stereotyped personas and exploitation of the character’s sexuality. Though more modern films no longer portray the lesbian as outright “evil,” they continue to sexualize the character to conform to modern gender roles and rarely provide a “happy ending.” It is no secret that our generation relies heavily on the media to form our opinions and, ultimately, our stereotypes. With immense misrepresentation — if any representation at all— lesbians are left to form their identities around heterosexual cis-gendered norms. Unfortunately, this regularly results in internalized homophobia and shame.
The label “lesbian” carries a plethora of excess baggage. Insulting titles such as “dyke,” “bitch” and “butch” are frequently associated with lesbians. With the help of media and conservative political or religious outlets, lesbians are pegged as a danger to society, often referred to as “perverted,” “diseased,” and “disordered.” According to the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Gay and Lesbian Concerns, the most prevalent stereotypes include the “seduction of heterosexual women, lesbian ‘boasting,’ and the ‘masculine aura’ of lesbians.” This rhetoric portrays lesbians as lesser than the straight cis-gendered person and creates a rather unattractive stigma around the term.
Not only is the term lesbian often used as an insult, but it is also highly fetishized. According to a modern queer woman, Kirstin Halliday: “Most searches on platforms like Twitter or Instagram will lead you to NSFW content. Much of the cis male heterosexual part of society treats lesbianism as more of a porn category than as a sexual orientation.” This type of over-sexualization often overpowers the conversation surrounding lesbians and belittles women to mere sex objects. With data reported from Pornhub it is evident that in most states, men are searching for lesbian porn the most.
Even without porn, we have all heard the narrative of a straight man eagerly begging two females to perform sexual acts (regardless of their sexual orientation— what does it matter to them?). The notion that women cannot fulfill their sexual needs without the help of a man is constantly reinforced by these stereotypes, revealing the underlying message that lesbianism only exists for male gain.
So, where did the term “lesbian” come from anyway? And why is it still weighed down by unappealing stereotypes? Etymology, or the study of words, is often overlooked but immensely important. As portrayed in Betty Friedan’s “the problem that has no name” from The Feminine Mystique, words have the ability to connect a marginalized group experiencing similar struggles and phenomena. Friedan gives a name to the unspoken, yet the universal feeling of hopelessness and dissatisfaction shared between housewives of the 1960s.
The word “lesbian” literally translates to “from the Island of Lesbos,” a Greek island in the Aegean Sea. In Ancient Greece, homosexuality was not considered strange or weird— in fact, it was quite the opposite. Unfortunately, this wave of acceptance has not carried over to present-day America. Even with the negative stigma surrounding the term, it is important to discuss the power of the word to bring together people with a shared sexual orientation.
The term specifically does not include people who identify as transgender, non-binary, or genderqueer. Using the label “gay” does not differentiate between men and women and originally meant “cheerful” or “carefree.” Similarly, the term “queer” encompasses all gender and sexual minorities and originally meant “peculiar” and “strange.” These words are vital, yet purposefully broad and generic. According to Sam Macler, a fellow Women’s Republic writer, “We would rather hide under the terms coined for men rather than stand proud with our own unique label. This does not go for all women, obviously, but I know so many people, along with myself, who have always shielded away from the term lesbian.”
The future of the “lesbian”
The very idea of the lesbian in and of itself is a threat to modern-day gender norms— after all— how could women survive in a functional household, let alone on their own, without a man to save them? Numerous factors, such as false media representation, negative stereotypes, and fetishization, have resulted in the rejection of the term lesbian by today’s queer women. So, I pose the question: with such a tainted image of the lesbian persona, is the word worth saving and reclaiming? As the modern queer women reject their pre-determined submissive gender roles, is it time for a new term to take the stage?