Young queer women don’t like Lesbian as a name…here’s why.

I know, this is in fact a dated repost, but with the way the craziness of 2020 has spun out of control, it’s time to look at relevant issues that sometimes get pushed aside during times like this. 

This is a piece from Slate which is actually a reprint of an older OUTWARD article. I have posted several pieces from OUTWARD and they are all top-notch.


For Many Young Queer Women, Lesbian Offers a Fraught Inheritance



Some years ago, a close friend and I developed a not-so-subtle code for queer women too basic for our tastes: We’d make an “L” with our thumbs and forefingers against our foreheads, like the loser sign that was popular when we were in middle school. In this case, the “L” stood for lesbian.

We, too, were lesbians—generally speaking. But the women my friend and I mocked (and trust, I am duly shamed by this memory) were what we’d call “capital-L lesbians.” We were urban-dwelling and queer-identified and in our 20s; the other women came from the suburbs, skewed older, and were, we presumed, unversed in queer politics. We traveled in circles of dapper butches and subversive femmes; the other women either easily passed as straight or dressed generically sporty in cargo shorts and flip-flops. A woman in this category was clearly down with the assimilationist, trans-exclusive politics of the likes of the Human Rights Campaign. She was the kind of dyke for whom the laughable niche Cosmopolitan lesbian-sex tip “tug on her ponytail” might actually apply.

In other words, we shared a common sexual orientation, but little, if any, cultural affiliation. In the space between “lesbian” and “queer,” my friend and I located a world of difference in politics, gender presentation, and cosmopolitanism. Some of our resistance to the term lesbian arose, no doubt, from internalized homophobic notions of lesbians as unfashionable, uncultured homebodies. We were convinced that our cool clothes and enlightened, radical paradigm made us something other than lesbians, a label chosen by progenitors who lived in a simpler time with stricter gender boundaries. But with a time-honored label comes history and meaning; by leaving lesbian behind, we were rejecting, in part, a strong identity and legacy that we might have claimed as our own. While all identities are a product of their respective historical moments, starting from scratch is a daunting prospect. And so we’re left in a gray area of nomenclature, searching for threads of unity in our pluralism, wondering what, if any, role lesbian can play in a future that’s looking queerer by the day.

Cultural connotations aside, the main reason my friend and I felt (and still feel) more comfortable with queer than lesbian was practical: The word lesbian, insofar as it means a woman who is primarily attracted to women, does not correctly describe our reality. My personal queer community comprises cisgender and transgender women; transgender men and transmasculine people; and people who identify as non-binary or genderqueer. One friend told me queer works better for her and her female spouse because lesbian implies a kind of sameness she doesn’t see in her relationship or those of her peers. In her circles, as in mine, most romantic partnerships lean butch-femme or involve at least one trans or genderqueer person. Many of us have had or are currently enmeshed in sexual or romantic relationships with people who aren’t women. Using lesbian to refer to my queer sphere (e.g. “She’s hosting a lesbian potluck!”) excludes many people I consider my peers. In most young, urban queer communities, at least, lesbian, in its implication of a cisgender woman to cisgender woman arrangement, is both inaccurate and gauche.

But then, it’s hard to organize around a community without a name. I co-host monthly queer tea-dance parties in the warmer months, and my partners and I have struggled to promote our event to our desired audience. We called it a “ladies’ tea dance” for the first few years; one of my fellow co-hosts was a well-known trans guy in the community, and we thought his leadership would be enough to make it clear that anyone with social connections to queer women would be welcome, too. When some transgender attendees told us that the “ladies” terminology felt exclusive, we agreed, and started using the word queer on its own. But in D.C., as in most places, queer parties that get labeled without a gender often default to gay men, who crowd the rest of us off the dance floor. And while we’d never turn away cis gay men (one of our favorite guest DJs is one), I believe it’s important to carve out spaces that explicitly focus on women, especially as lesbian bars and publications shutter en masse. Basically, we wanted to promote our party to women—plus all queer or trans people who aren’t cisgender men.

Unfortunately, there’s no word for that. So my peers and I have found ourselves using the phrase not cis men to describe the makeup of our friend groups, political identity groups, and the people we want to come to our dance parties. It’s functional, but a bit hollow: There’s a feeling of being uprooted from time, place, and meaning that comes with defining ourselves by what we are not. Lesbian has a rich political and social history; not cis men establishes our identities quite literally on someone else’s terms. It gives cis men power and presence, assets they already disproportionately control, in conversations that have nothing to do with them. And it reaffirms cis male identity as the norm from which all others deviate. Not cis men is the non-white people to people of color.

That said, non-specificity is part of the appeal. Not cis men and queer are broad enough to include not only transgender and genderqueer people (and those who date them) but bi- and pansexual women who are often sidelined in lesbian society. Still, an increasing number of young people who are more or less straight are identifying as queer as a statement of political worldview rather than sexual orientationLesbian leaves no doubt that a woman’s sexual and romantic affinities run toward other women. In a world that preferences heterosexual pairings, lesbians face a very different reality than queers-in-name-only, giving the term the power of a blunt, plainspoken, unapologetic declaration. Sex and the City, funnily enough, neatly captured this debate way back in 1999. In one episode, a few art-world lesbians reject Charlotte’s attempts to insert herself into their cabal, telling her, “if you’re not going to eat pussy, you’re not a dyke.”

That seductively simple definition of dyke or lesbian would never fly in most circles of queer women today, attuned as we are to multiplicities of gender and genitals. But the male variation—“if you’re not going to suck cock, you’re not a faggot”—is less likely to raise hackles in the average clique of gay men. Where spaces that cater to lesbians and queer women are very likely to accommodate transgender and non-binary people, too, social gatherings of gay men are typically far less diverse, gender-wise. And our femininity-devaluing society leaves far more room for women than men to claim a fluid sexual orientation, meaning queer women are more likely to have current or former partners who aren’t women. That’s why it’s both easy and usually accurate to label circles of gay men as “gay men”—and why gay men are relatively free from the perpetual infighting over labels and politics that seems common among segments of queer women.


5 thoughts on “Young queer women don’t like Lesbian as a name…here’s why.

  1. Nice thought provoking piece. I like to be queer but I also embrace the lesbian identity (I’m a millennial btw). It isn’t a dirty word but like vaginas it gets trashed .


  2. This was a truly fascinating read. I agreed to some and disagreed to others before I could read the writers own development in the subject. Its a moving piece thats alive with the difficulties that is being a woman and holding space on this earth as a woman. Its empowering despite acknowledging that there is still power to be found. Beautiful !


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