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Stop Using Lesbians Like Me To Justify Your Transphobia

Photographed by J Houston.
Don’t Use Me is a series of articles and social media posts which has a simple message: there is no excuse for transphobia
Coming out at 19 was, in 2012, the most obvious fact about myself I’d never thought of. Loving and sharing my life with my wife now, and being able to celebrate that fact publicly, is a gift that I hope I never take for granted. (I’ll be honest, I’m a wife guy). And it’s the label lesbian – not queer woman, not gay woman – that I feel fits me best, so I use it with pride.
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But recent years have marred this label, with transphobes asserting that lesbians are a ‘dying population’. Transphobes like to claim they speak for me when they rile against trans people, as though the fact of who I love means they know my heart. The headline claim? That we are being ‘erased’ by trans people.
These myths take two forms – that lesbians are being ‘coerced’ into sex with trans women and that young lesbians, among others, are being ‘peer pressured into transitioning’.
The first myth, that trans women are coercing lesbians into sex, has gotten its most significant upswing in recent years on social media and in publications publishing poor-quality data and anecdotal evidence. For example American writer Katie Herzog penned an article for conservative gay pundit Andrew Sullivan ‘Where Have All The Lesbians Gone?’ in which she herself states that “there’s been no clear polling on the shift from 'lesbian' to 'nonbinary', and so my sense that the lesbian is endangered is purely anecdotal.”
More troublingly, last year the BBC published a widely panned article that claimed lesbians are being coerced into having sex with trans women. The article is bolstered by a survey that claims 56% of lesbian respondents reported being pressured or coerced into accepting a trans woman as a sexual partner. But that survey only had a sample size of 80 people and was from Get the L Out, a group who are actively working to separate lesbians from the rest of the LGBTQ acronym. This makes the questionnaire self-selecting and therefore a shoddy form of data, with the act of publishing it going against the BBC’s own guidelines.
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Both are an example of a pervasive problem when it comes to pieces about (and not by) trans people – it takes individual instances and claims they represent an entire population. Harassment and abuse is never excusable. It should not happen. But claims like this do nothing to help protect lesbians from abuse or fight back against abuse more broadly. Instead it buys into the disproven idea that being trans is a mental illness and that it is a choice made to exploit women, of which there is no evidence.
And yet it is a myth that lives on, largely because it plays into explicitly transmisogynistic tropes that trans women’s desire or sexuality is inherently suspect and threatening, and therefore must be motivated by something exploitative. 
On the other hand, the belief that trans men are being coerced into transitioning from lesbians has found the most traction because of statistics showing the increased number of girls referring themselves to gender clinics. This is a claim that can be backed up. In 2009-10, 58% of 12- to 18-year olds referred to GIDS were male at birth with 42% female; by 2016-2017 this has shifted to 31% and 69% respectively. The thinking goes that this shows transitioning is being pushed onto gender nonconforming children as that is the preferred solution to being a tomboy. The most far-reaching version of this argument came from the children’s author JK Rowling in her viral 2020 essay.
As Charlie Kiss writes for The Economist, trans men have only recently been afforded any visibility. Put simply, it’s harder to tell people you are a trans man when you’ve only ever heard about (and seen demonised) trans women. “Nowadays, trans men can work out much earlier that they are trans men, rather than trying to conform to a woman’s lifestyle, whether lesbian or heterosexual,” he writes. With all this in mind, it is fatuous to argue that there would be pressure put on those children and young people to transition. 
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Any claim that to be trans or non-binary is glamourised is undercut by the sad reality that life is often significantly worse for trans people. Bullying is rife, the negative impact from other people is constant and the news will regularly remind you that you are not afforded the same equality as cis people in society. There’s a reason why headlines like ‘trans people’s mental health is at a crisis point’ are so common in 2022.
To my mind, a lot of this anger (at least from other lesbians) stems not only from fear of trans people but a fear about the word lesbian being less popular than ‘queer’. Trans people are then blamed for this. On top of that, I sense frustration that reads an increased visibility of trans and non-binary identities as a kind of glamourising, one that many don’t feel has been afforded lesbians (especially those of us who aren’t thin and femme).
But it is worth remembering that lesbian has always been a term that has been argued over. As Leslie Feinberg documents in their cult classic Stone Butch Blues, the butch and femme labels which are now held as the epitome of lesbian culture were actually rejected in the '70s. Feminist lesbians in higher education believed these labels were apeing heteronormativity and were therefore setting lesbians back.

You can’t say someone isn’t a lesbian just because you don’t like them I’m afraid.

Lesbianism has never been monolithic. Suggesting that all lesbians are being forced to change their identity, or that they love women for the exact same reasons and in the exact same way should be recognised for the ridiculous claim it is. Lesbians are as multifaceted as women are – they fancy and fall in love with different women for different reasons, and to pretend otherwise for the sake of transphobia is small-minded and, frankly, annoying.
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In any case, there are still plenty fighting the good lesbian fight if you cared to pay attention. There are lesbian fashion historians and public figures and people calling out biphobia, butch erasure and hyper-sexualisation in every corner both on and offline. They are young and old, cis and trans and non-binary. And expanding the definition of lesbian to include these expressions doesn’t dilute the meaning, but bring ever more flavour to the label. 
You can’t say someone isn’t a lesbian just because you don’t like them I’m afraid.
If you really want to talk about lesbian erasure, look at the fact that spaces for queer women in the UK are shrinking. She Soho, a bar in London, is the only permanent space left in the city after the pandemic, with the number decreasing long before. There’s been an estimated 60% decrease in LGBT+ spaces between 2006 and 2016 which disproportionately affects spaces for lesbians, queer women and non-binary people.
In fact, if you want to talk about lesbian erasure look at what you are doing to drive it by attempting to define lesbianism with strict boundaries. Instead of spurring on the division that will come for us as it dismantles protections for trans people, why not invest in your community properly. Reclaim those spaces that are lost to us, and open your hearts to the queer people who have not only lost these spaces but also been rejected by you. Trying to do otherwise is just fighting a hateful and, if we're honest, losing battle.

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