What’s a label? What is the L word, specifically? No, not the TV show, the actual word. “Lesbian.” It’s a term commonly used as an identifier for gay women, a label many embrace.
I, personally, do not like this word. Or, rather, I don’t identify with it, as a gay woman, a “lesbian.” Every time I hear someone say lesbian, I cringe internally and for a long time, I didn’t quite understand why. It felt gross to me for some reason, though I knew that it was a term I should embrace and answer to. I am, in fact, a lesbian. I like women. But there are so many other labels out there for queer folks and I always preferred “gay” and “queer” to “lesbian.”
“Lesbian” has simply never felt right to me and as time has passed, I’ve realized why the word feels so gross in my head. In the simplest terms: it’s because “lesbian” is, to me, a word for guys to use to sexualize and objectify women-loving women. It’s because the “male gaze” has created a society where women are judged based on their appearance and sexuality, their worth dependent on their beauty in the eyes of cisgender heterosexual (cis-het) men.
Women are already hyper-sexualized by men and society — lesbian women even more so. Two women kissing is seen as a turn on, whether they’re gay or not, but two men kissing is hardly ever sexualized for straight cis men (nor for straight cis women either). There is no gay male porn category on a straight porn site, but there is always a lesbian one, designed to titillate men and their fantasies. The funny thing is that actual gay women, actual lesbians, don’t usually watch “lesbian” porn because it is so manufactured for men that it is not a turn on for the actual people whom it’s about.
Everything is made for men. Every ad, movie, magazine — the male gaze is ever-present and dictates women’s lives, whether overtly or more subtly. There are so many ways in which women are trained to cater to what men want that often they don’t even realize the affect the male gaze has on their lives until it becomes toxic. When I was coming to terms with my sexuality, I struggled to comprehend the reasoning behind what I thought I wanted and what my brain was telling me I wanted: if I was gay, shouldn’t I not care what men think when they look at me? Why was I still so shy around guys and why did I care if they thought I was pretty or not? I couldn’t seem to escape the internalized significance of the male gaze that society trained me to care about, even though I knew, rationally, that it shouldn’t matter. I wasn’t interested in men, so I shouldn’t care what they think. However, I still can’t seem to escape it because of how I was socialized growing up. Society continues to value the objectification and sexualization of women.
While I struggled internally with this battle against the male gaze, I continued to observe its negative effects on queer women in the real world. In seemingly every aspect of the media and pop culture, I witnessed how men fantasize about lesbians, asking for threesomes and thinking they can change the women, make them “like dick.” It infuriates me how much power cis-het men are given in society over women and that they have turned my sexuality into an erotic fantasy, something for them to watch and enjoy for themselves. “Lesbian,” to me, has become their word, to reign over queer women and think they’re better than us because they have penises and male privilege. It’s a word that makes me squirm a little on the inside every time someone (particularly cis-het men and women) says it.
This is why I choose to identify myself as gay, or a queer woman. I will still answer to lesbian, if someone I know calls me that or if I am with a fellow gay woman and we use the term in solidarity, but I think I will always prefer “gay” to “lesbian.” Maybe someday we can desexualize the term “lesbian” and make cis-het men realize how problematic and toxic their views of us are. I understand, of course, that not all cis-het men view gay women in this way. However, these views are often internalized, whether we like it or not and while not everyone is terrible, there is an overarching problem that needs to be dealt with here.