Once upon a time (about seven years ago), I was a tiny, baby gay excitedly coming out to everyone I knew. I jumped at openings to tell people that I had a girlfriend and loaded my backpack with rainbow pins so everyone who walked by me would know that I was not straight. But, I never used the word “lesbian” to describe myself, even though it’s the most accurate descriptor.
To be clear, as a woman who’s sexually and romantically attracted solely to other women, I am a lesbian. But for some reason, “lesbian” has always felt too harsh. Even now, I find myself hesitating every time I type the word.
In these moments of hesitation, my mind often drifts back to a memory of my grandfather. I was 10 years old and sitting in the backseat of his car as we drove to a Mexican restaurant for dinner. I watched as he leaned out the car window, his face twisted in anger, and shouted “fucking dykes” at a pair of queer women who dared to hold hands on the street. It was the first time I learned that two women could love each other in the same way that my mom loved my dad, and the memory is tinged with his hatred.
While that might seem like a pretty solid root for my fear, I’m not so sure. My grandfather never connected the word “lesbian” with his anti-gay vitriol. In fact, nobody ever told me outright that being a lesbian is bad, but internalized homophobia is tricky in that way. No one has to literally say, "being gay is bad" for the message to burrow into queer people's brains.
Those messages subtly form a queer person's sense of self, and the negative thoughts that result manifest in many different ways. It can make someone deny their feelings for years. It can make them avoid being affectionate with partners in public or around family. And, as in my case, it can make them feel weird about naming their identities. (Internalized homophobia is so widespread, in fact, that the extremely open queer women and gender non-conforming folk who run the popular queer website, Autostraddle, did a whole roundtable about their experiences.)
While we traditionally think of words like “fag” or “dyke” as LGBTQ+ slurs, even “gay” is a slur when it’s said with malice.
Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with my sexuality. I haven't stopped being that excited baby gay who goes out of her way to say “my girlfriend” in conversation. But, I’m still more likely to call myself "gay" or "a queer woman" than I am to drop the "L" word.
"Gay" and "queer" might feel less controversial to me, but those words have homophobic histories as well. "Queer" was a slur long before it was a word that describes a sexual orientation, and while we traditionally think of words like “fag” or “dyke” as LGBTQ+ slurs, even “gay” is a slur when it’s said with malice. So while "gay" and "queer" feel safer than “lesbian” to me, that may be a result of successful movements to reclaim both of those words.
In 2012 GLSEN ran a series of PSAs to help young people see why it’s offensive to call something “so gay” when they really mean that it’s stupid. They were hilarious, poignant, and so popular that they were chosen to air during the 2o12 Super Bowl. That means that an estimated 111 million people heard Wanda Sykes call a pepper shaker “...16 year old boy with a cheesy mustache” during the country's most popular football game. I'm willing to bet a whole bunch of 16 year old boys were watching, and so were a bunch of gay people who were able to hear a negative framing of the word "gay" flipped on its head. Through campaigns like that, along with activists who chanted, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” the LGBTQ+ community has given new, empowering meanings to words like “gay” and “queer.” Even the slur my grandfather shouted has had its moment — lots of young queer women now proudly call themselves dykes. But, there hasn’t been any major effort to reclaim the word “lesbian.”
When it comes to lesbians, there are two stereotypical images that usually come to mind: The overly sexualized (usually thin, white, and femme) women you’ll see if you type “lesbian” into a Google image search or the unkempt and unattractive woman who’s only a lesbian because she’d supposedly never attract a man. It’s obvious to me that both of these stereotypical images benefit straight men. The overtly sexualized idea of a lesbian serves men’s sexual interests, and the frumpy, unattractive version helps men cope with the fact that some women just don’t want to sleep with them. But even though I’m aware that these images aren’t real, that didn’t stop them and other lesbian stereotypes from sinking into my brain.
Those stereotypes are part of the reason that I (and many people like me) actively avoid calling ourselves lesbians. At Slate, Christina Cauterucci writes about feeling so disassociated with the word “lesbian” that she and other lesbian friends would mock “queer women too basic for [their] tastes,” by calling them “capital-L lesbians.” At The Brag, Arca Bayburt writes Eight Reasons Why I Hate The Word “Lesbian,” including that “it’s difficult to divorce the word from its stereotypical baggage.” And at Go Magazine, Zara Barrie writes about her journey from avoiding the word at all costs to embracing it. “The word lesbian sounds so strange and eerie… It sounds like something dental,” she recalls telling a friend.
Many of these women attribute their distaste of the word “lesbian” at least partially to internalized homophobia. But, like me, they can’t quite put their finger on why the word feels so wrong. And that’s a perfect explanation of what internalized homophobia is like; it wraps itself around you so tightly that it's difficult to see where your negative thoughts start to unravel.
"When we begin to see those ties all around us, it can be a sudden and sometimes crippling blow; you are now realizing that you can be more, and that the things and people and words and thoughts that surround you are not true," Kristin Russo, co-founder of the advice site Everyone Is Gay, wrote to a reader in 2015.
I'm finally starting to see my strings. Maybe if I, and other women like me, started to embrace the word, other lesbians might see their strings, too.
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