Why Do So Many Young Queer Women Refuse to Call Themselves Lesbian?

I’m — My mouth stalled for a second. Come on, push it through. Get the word out from your still lips even if you have to drag it. It started with an l; it should have been beautiful and affirming but — I gave in. “I’m gay.”

Now, when I first came out at the age of fourteen, I couldn’t care less about what word I described myself with as long as it conveyed the message that had been rattling between my skull and brain for over six months: I liked girls, girls only, as a girl myself. Gay seemed more accessible, so I went with it, but lesbian, well, that was unchartered territory. Why couldn’t I say it? It was just a word, after all, and yet as a linguistics enthusiast I knew there was something a bit more complex behind my relationship with this word than it simply feeling ugly in my mouth.

I am not here to dictate how people identify and describe themselves, but I know I am not alone in having had this experience. This experience I write of here does not speak for all queer women, as some are attracted to multiple genders and therefore lesbian would not describe them accurately, nor do I speak for all lesbians, nor do I speak of an uncommon experience. I have spoken to women who have the same issue, knowing the word lesbian describes them perfectly but feeling so utterly disgusted with it. 

The textbook answer to why do I feel weird saying lesbian? being “internalised homophobia” does not give the full picture, though it nonetheless contributes. Using gay to describe oneself as a woman runs in the same vein of meaning as using lesbian would, so why did I feel relatively at peace with the former? Nor is it an issue of the morphology, that is, the make-up, of the word, acting as something jarring against the rules of the English language. The word comes from the island on which Sappho, the renowned Greek poet, resided. How could that be ugly?

Society has churned the word lesbian through the mud, and young lesbians are hit hardest by the repercussions. To be lesbian, and proudly so in this society, is something we are told to be ashamed of. It is too sexualized (think: it’s porn, “you haven’t met the right guy yet,” it’s dirty). Singer Hayley Kiyoko, whose debut album Expectations was released last month, had a multitude of articles written about her navigation of sexuality, and with only a few calling her a lesbian. She was either written to be queer or gay, neither of the two being inaccurate or unwanted by any means, but a sign nonetheless that mainstream media cannot handle the usage of lesbian in a non-sexualized context.

But it doesn’t stop there. The queer community has played its part in discouraging young lesbians from identifying who they are with the terms they want. Lesbianism is seen as too exclusive, too out of touch with today’s intersectional realities, as a mono-sexual sexuality, and it is for this reason that lesbians are at risk of being labelled “closed-minded — or worse, harmful.” We are steered towards labels which don’t presuppose gender essentialism in their contexts, when lesbianism, and more specifically the labels of butch and femme, have inherently fought against having defined boxes of what it means to be man and woman.  I have been told it’s a shame that, due to my identifying as lesbian, I exclude everyone else, most particularly men, from my dating pool. This new age of valuing sexual fluidity in queer spaces is not wrong in itself, but when lesbians are consistently told their identity is too restrictive, I start to see a problem. We are queer, if we choose to call ourselves in such a way, but for many, their queerness is a direct result of their being lesbian.

This analysis of the label lesbian has been of great comfort to me, and gives me more reason to label myself as one all the more proudly and unapologetically. It makes me unbelievably happy to be able to use a term I never thought I would be able to deem mine. Labels can mean nothing to some people, and everything to others, but neither camp can deny that having and choice and ability to label yourself in a way which feels right, perhaps even in spite of what you have been conditioned to think, is a truly powerful thing.

Photo: Phillip Potter

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