Will Lesbian ever stop being a dirty word?

Posted on January 6, 2012


This article features two friends: Friend 1 self-identifies as a straight  woman who occasionally falls for the odd woman. She is OK with kissing men  but she hates penis. Friend 2 identifies as a gay woman or lesbian who loves  vajayjay and all things lesbian feminist but prefers to ‘come out’ by saying  she is gay. She has recently become more attached to ‘queer’ and will  identify that way to someone but only after coming out as gay.

Lesbian is one of those words that provokes irksome emotions in people. Such strong reactions are curious therefore in this piece I use mine and two other friends’ experiences to explore why in 2012  Lesbian is still a word many gay and non-gay people are shy of. I also relate these experiences to wider issues and discussions in gender identity and sexuality. Often times, when people use the word lesbian, they depict the relationships in a derogatory manner that fails to acknowledge other central elements such as desire, companionship,  and gender constructions such as femininity and masculinity in addition to the sexual element. The Lesbian identity appears to be caught in a rhetoric that measures our sexual behaviours with our identities being measured against this. For those people who apply sexual orientation labels to their identity, it is worth questioning the processes of social construction and application of these labels, and being conscious of the changes they undergo with time.

Many of my WSW (women who have sex with women) friends substitute the L word with  gay. Lesbian is rarely used and in cases when it is, it’s often because gay fails as a substitute (e.g. in describing a lesbian sex  scene). In family circles, my mother has been the only one brave  enough to use the word, and when she does, it is others and not I that  are the L- “I hope she hasn‟t gone to her lesbian friends‟ house  again?!” In a conversation with a friend months ago she asked me if I had a word that I hated to be called. Hers was lazy. Mine was lesbian but I lied and said I didn’t have word. Although, I proudly told people of how I’m into women, date women, sleep with women and feel emotionally connected with women; only on equal opportunities monitoring forms would I refer to myself using the L word. 

Friend 1 exhibited a deep-set discomfort to using Lesbian as a descriptor so as a challenge I asked her to use the L word in conversations with me at least once a day for the next week. I told her she could call me up on the phone and say “good morning lesbian”, “good night lesbian” or “how was your day lesbian?” and when she was starting to feel sick from doing so, she could say “fuck off lesbian” or “can you stop asking me to say so much lesbian, you lesbian?” Her response: I had asked for the impossible. Probing further into Friend 1’s distaste for the L word at a later date, she revealed that she had attended a Girl’s High School where it was a stigma to be a lesbian, perceived to be or be associated with one. She told me that the most stunning girl in the school had taken to her. She also liked this girl but she was very young and did not understand why. Friend 1 “stupidly told [her] classmates and the gist spread like hot sauce”. People started calling her the word. She eventually told her mum and had to leave the school. Because of that very traumatic experience, she cannot bring herself to associate that word with anything good “It was the most depressing part of my life”. She reiterates that she is not ashamed of her actions with her high school sweetheart but looking back she regrets not being able to live the way she wanted.

“I still wish I could go back and replay those scenes and not have been afraid of anything. I regret leaving that school the way I did. I just wish there was no stigma with that sort of relationship”.

Friend 2 did not share as dramatic a story with me. I asked her what she felt about the word Lesbian and she replied that she likes it now- “I didn‟t used to. It used to sound so unnatural”. My experience can be placed somewhere along these two Friends‟ trajectory. In the past, if someone had called me the big bad L world, I would have been deeply offended because I felt like I was being stripped of my individuality and being cast into a pile with the unutterable. Using the L word left me feeling that I had to explain that I was better
than society and the media depicts lesbians -horny and insatiable. But, I am only a victim of the current stance on female sexuality. Female sexuality has concurrently been manipulated by taboo, glorification and degradation. We live in a culture that remains inhospitable to critical analyses of female sexual agency therefore being lesbian typically confound matters. To speak at all, and then to speak in opposition to those manipulative traditions, is to invite strong reactions.

My impression is that when someone says she is gay or finds other ways of alluding to her female homosexuality without involving the L word, she is accepted without sexual behavior playing a defining role in establishing her identity as it would have if the word Lesbian had been employed.

This is perplexing since whatever the descriptor being employed, female homosexuality, defined as lesbianism in the Oxford dictionary is what is being described. The big question here is what does acceptance as a gay woman reveal about the ways mainstream culture is thinking about sexual orientation and gender identity issues?

I asked Friend 2 why she thinks many women would rather identify as gay than as lesbian and her answer was “because of the sexualization of the word lesbian by men and porn. Female sexuality in many respects continues to be dictated by heterosexual men but there is a double standard of morality. The idea of lesbian sex excites men but women who indulge in it and in fact proclaim it as important to their identities are considered revolting. I was once having a drink with a man, when my then-girlfriend passed through for a few minutes. I went over to handle business and when I got back he asked me who she was. I replied “my girlfriend” and added-“I hope you do not mind that I’m into women” (translated in my head as: I hope you aren’t homophobic). He replied that he liked it. When I asked what he meant -“do you mean you are OK with it or you actively like it?” He stated that he actively liked it. When he tried to sneak a kiss at the end of the night and I moved away, I never heard from him again.

Today, we take for granted the struggles that ensued prior to it being acknowledged that sex has functions distinct from, and equal in
importance to the reproductive. Lesbian sex boldly asserts the possibility of sex between two women and exclusive of men i.e. that
women are capable of giving themselves the same (or more) sexual pleasure that men can. Feminists have and continue to acknowledge that lesbians and gay men both face hatred for rejecting heterosexuality, and that a commonality of struggle exists but they also argue that the needs of lesbians and gay men are very different and that when they politically become a homogenous group, that the needs will default to gay men, because as men, gay men have more economic and societal power.

The debate up till now has concentrated understandably of the oppressive nature of social relations between men and women but many women continue to live in unabashed sexual repression. Foucault(1978) points out that sexuality is identity and that it is necessary for one’s sexual orientation to be “stable” in order for one’s sense of self to be stable. If lesbians have to identify differently in order to appease another person’s sense of self, is that not oppression?

Identifying as a gay woman or straight-for reasons similar to those mentioned above- rather than lesbian arguably incorporates acceptance by individuals within that oppressed group of the prejudices against them. This is sexual repression. Furthermore, substituting gay with lesbian depletes any authentic culture of female homosexuality that exists in the mainstream and prevents lesbians from being able to develop their own sexualities in order to gain true agency. Lesbian identity should be a function of what we are(positively and actively) and not what we are not i.e. insatiable, threesomeseeking, loo-fucking, monstrously philandering and only-good-for-porn women. Friend 2 and I vote that LESBIAN needs to be rescued from being used derogatorily. It is a unique and powerful word and it deserves to be preserved.

If you have any suggestion on how LESBIAN can be preserved or views on why women would rather identify as gay than as lesbian please write us.

Visit again next week. Friend 2 and I will be discussing the place of Queer in the lesbian identity. 

Posted in: Opinion