Don’t Call Me a Lesbian
February 26th, 2016
by Sarah Smith
Until recently, I was a closeted gay lady.
After years of repressing my emotions, trying to convince myself that I was straight, and getting past my fear of social rejection—thanks conservative small town—I had a very important conversation with someone I trust and was finally able to utter the words “I’m gay.”
What I am not, though, is a lesbian.
The LGBTQIA+ community has fought long for the acceptance and equality of its members. In fact, the establishment of the word “lesbian” as a label was crucial for the recognition of the female homosexual community. For the larger part of history, sexual and/or romantic relationships between women were rendered invisible. Rather, the attention was on queer relationships between men, thanks to both homophobia and misogyny. Therefore, while male homosexuality was receiving overwhelming volumes of harsh criticism, female homosexuality wasn’t talked about at all. While this may seem positive insofar as it avoided criticism, the erasure of female homosexuality from history has made it increasingly difficult for modern “lesbian” relationships to be seen as legitimate, and the struggles of homosexual or bisexual women validated on a level equal of that of gay men. It was precisely because men’s sexual relationships were perceived as more legitimate that they were seen as a greater threat to our inherently patriarchal society. Since women were seen as less threatening to the patriarchal order, as they were easier to control, female homosexuality was termed illegitimate, and rather, categorized as a type of sickness. Therefore, it has been important for contemporary gay women, particularly in Western cultures, to create the lesbian subculture that would give them a sense of identity as both individuals and as a group. Finally, gay women were able to accept themselves and find acceptance among others. For me, however, a huge part of accepting my sexuality was actually rejecting the label itself.
Allow me to explain. If you identify with the LGBTQIA+ community, you’ll find that the rest of the words are all adjectives. Gay, bisexual, asexual, intersex, queer, pansexual, trans*; all of these words are attributive adjectives. They are words used to describe the sexual orientation or gender identity of a person, which is a mere part of who they are. That’s what intersectional feminism is all about; recognizing that each and every person has their own unique intersection of identities. Individuals get to choose which labels are important to them, and which ones aren’t.
The word “lesbian” is a noun, but it can also be used as an adjective. However, it is more commonly used in reference to identifying a homosexual woman. For me, calling myself a lesbian meant that when I met new people, they would automatically assume my likes and interests, rather than getting to know me. I associated coming out with a loss of identity. I would no longer be “Sarah”; I would be a “lesbian”. What did that even mean? I fought with my own prejudices around the term, thinking I needed to fit into some sort of stereotype in order for people to take me seriously. Should I conform, the rest of my identity would be lost.
Then, I had a crucial moment with a close colleague. When I came out to her, she said eleven simple words that changed my outlook on coming out and self-acceptance; “Your sexuality is only one great part of the whole you.” I remember telling her that if I were to come out, people would only focus on my sexuality, that it would change their perceptions of me. That the person I was, when I was in the closet, was a lie. This moment turned my life around. This is when I realized I had been defining myself. It is important to recognize that identification within a community, especially the queer community, holds a certain level of importance. We have been marginalized for so long that labels are important, and I do identify with my LGBTQIA+ folks. As a feminist, identifying with the queer community is very important to me. Feminism has been historically dominated by straight women’s perspectives, yet queer women experience patriarchy differently than straight women. It is crucial that all feminist voices and opinions are heard in order to achieve real social justice. Therefore, labels like gay, lesbian, or trans* can be very empowering, but they can also be the opposite. Reducing someone to their sexuality is objectification at its finest. Men will call me a lesbian when they can’t get what they want out of me. Homophobes will call me a lesbian to separate me from themselves; establishing a superior designation of “otherness.”
When we start labelling other people for our own comfort, we become oppressive. Labels are simply social constructs that we have created to help us to simplify our complex realities. They are not ultimatums. They are not inclusive.
And please don’t misunderstand me; I am out and proud to be out. I am extremely thankful for those who have paved the way for me, and it is because of them that my life is easier to live happily. I know that we still have a long way to go in order to feel truly authentic and empowered, but we first need to be able to define ourselves without oppressive labelling.
Employees practice protecting the vault of a strong room at a bank. Via tumblr.