Understanding lesbian identities

Moira Armstrong Fusion Managing Editor , Managing Editor - Fusion Magazine

According to the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s Guide to Gender and Sexuality Terms, lesbians are defined as “non-men attracted to non-men.” It seems natural that any person who is described by that definition would utilize that term.

However, that is not always the case. The term “lesbian” is at the center of many debates, both outside of and within the queer community, leading some people to re-evaluate what it means to be a lesbian and whether they want to use the term as an identifier.

One of the major obstacles that lesbians face is sexualization, particularly from straight, cisgender men. According to Kristin Puhl, a master’s student at Western Washington University, “the perception of lesbianism as erotic extends throughout mainstream society, with images of lesbianism targeted to heterosexual men in advertising, film, and pornography.”

The word lesbian is the third most popular search term on Pornhub, according to the porn streaming site’s annual report for 2019, and the majority of streaming within this category comes from heterosexual men.

Lauren Montler, a senior speech pathology major at Baldwin Wallace University, has been in a relationship with their girlfriend, Celia Martin, for about a year and a half. They describe that they have experienced “a lot of sexualization from cis, heterosexual men trying to understand what we do in the bedroom,” mostly from people they know, “which stings even more.”

“I definitely try to distance myself from them more because I know that they’re trying to understand,” Montler said, “but the internet exists and I’m not here to answer questions about that.”

Martin said she adopted code-switching to avoid situations in which she might face these systemic problems. Code-switching, according to Maricopa Community College, involves “changing from one way of speaking to another between or within interactions.”

“I feel like I’m always kind of changing my behavior regarding being a lesbian kind of depending on the situation I’m in because I’m never quite sure how I’m going to be treated, whether it’s being sexualized by straight men or being ostracized by straight women,” she said.

These pressures for lesbians to adhere to certain standards is not just a problem coming from outside of the queer community. Lesbians face a massive gatekeeping problem from other lesbians, whether for their gender identity, past sexual experiences or views on trans people.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines gatekeeping as “the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something” — in these cases, the label of lesbian, or lesbian spaces, community or relationships.

Not all lesbians use she/her/hers pronouns. This is often written off by exclusionists as a new concept. Admittedly, it is difficult to assign contemporary labels to historical figures, and is considered irresponsible to do so by most historians.

However, performers Stormé DeLarverie and Maxine Feldman along with writer Leslie Feinberg are several figures from the past who had known relationships with women and referred to themselves or were referred to with a variety of pronouns, including he/him, they/them, she/her and zie/hir.

These lesbians also face the obstacle that pronouns are often seen as directly correlated with gender. However, according to Reimagine Gender, “Although our pronouns are informed by and reflect our gender, pronouns alone can’t tell you someone’s gender. All someone’s pronouns tell you are really that – what pronouns that person uses.”

For example, lesbians may identify as women and use they/them, he/him, neopronouns, or a combination of pronouns or they may not identify as women at all.

Sam Zaborowski, a senior at Kent State double majoring in psychology and neuroscience, describes herself as “gender agnostic,” identifying equally with she/her and they/them pronouns. They know many current or former lesbians who identify under the gender-nonconforming umbrella and finds that being a lesbian has completely changed her ideas about gender.

“Personally, I think so much of gender plays off of the gender roles that we’ve been given and so once you go outside of those roles even a little bit, especially in something that’s so important to gender like a sexual or intimate relationship, it kind of flips your entire worldview of your gender upside down,” they said. “I almost view being a lesbian as a different gender because you interact and process things so differently.”

They theorize that as visibility and acceptance for gender nonconforming lesbians increases, more and more people will come out as these identities, and they note that the expectation for lesbians to feel secure in both lesbianism and womanhood is damaging.

Compulsory heterosexuality, a theory proposed by Adrienne Rich (who likely would be deemed a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF, today for her transphobic views), states that women are taught to prioritize their relationships with men and devalue relationships with women.

In combination with internalized homophobia from a homophobic society, compulsory heterosexuality may make lesbians feel pressured into relationships with men, but then come out later in life and begin pursuing relationships with women.

Unfortunately, despite the prevalence of this experience, “gold star” lesbians, or lesbians who have never slept with men, are sometimes valued over lesbians who have slept with men. An article from Pride outlines that this term can be utilized to justify bi and panphobia, transphobia and prejudice against survivors of rape, particularly when “gold star” status is wielded by TERFs who do not consider trans women to be real lesbians.

In a medium.com post, Laurie Penny traced the modern TERF movement back to the early 2010s, when there was an uptick in trans and nonbinary visibility. In tandem with the social media boom, this made many people refine their ideas about gender, aiming for increased inclusivity. Many, especially establishment liberals, struggled to adjust to the change, and a group of already anti-trans feminists took advantage of the cultural moment to springboard their ideas into broader acceptance.

This ideology, as Penny described, includes the belief that “if anyone can ‘become’ a woman, then the word ‘woman’ means nothing, and therefore, apparently, trans people are out to destroy the entire concept of womanhood by their very existence.”

While TERFs can be men or women, queer or straight, young lesbians in online spaces are a particular target of the TERF movement. As a part of their recruitment process, TERFs impress upon young lesbians that the issues they face as lesbians and as women, largely perpetuated through patriarchy, are the problems that should be prioritized, and as result, activism and even conversation around other topics is equivalent to silencing lesbians and lesbian concerns.

Additionally, TERFs frame backlash against TERF ideology and rhetoric, orientations that overlap with lesbianism (bisexuality, pansexuality, asexuality, etc.) and trans lesbians as an attack on the lesbian community and lesbianism.

As Evan Urquhart and Parker Marie Molloy write in an article for Slate, “TERFs are small in number, but they make up for that in visibility (and obnoxiousness). Their existence puts a strain on relations between trans women and cisgender lesbians,” leading non-TERF lesbians to try and distance themselves from TERFs.

“TERFs have set the movement back a long time…lesbianism is and should always be a safe place for trans people,” Martin said. “Lesbians should make a point to invite trans women, whether they’re lesbians or not, into queer spaces and make it known that they are safe.”

Moira Armstrong is managing editor for Fusion Magazine. Contact them at [email protected]