Many people are uncomfortable saying the word ‘lesbian’, and some lesbians are uncomfortable identifying as such, preferring other terms such as ‘gay’. But why is it the case that there is still such a sense of discomfort and awkwardness around a mainstream label?
A survey of 120 women-loving women found that, while just 33% felt “very comfortable” with calling themselves lesbian, a far more significant 70% were “very comfortable” being labelled gay. One woman commented that ‘lesbian’ sounds “a bit slimy”, while multiple wrote that the word evoked “disgust”. Even though the two words have the same meaning, they evoke very different feelings in a lot of people.
The negative feelings that are associated with the word lesbian come down to the negative representation and othering of lesbians in society and the LGBTQ+ community. Lesbian has long been used as a word to insult women who did not fit into societal norms. At the peak of Second Wave Feminism, campaigners were demonized as man-hating, bra-burning, communist lesbians; and what’s more, these “lesbians” were vilified as being so ugly that no man would want to have a relationship with them anyway.
Nowadays there are still many negative tropes and stereotypes associated with the word lesbian. For example, that they are predatory, that all of them are masculine, and that they are just waiting for the right man – all of which are clearly untrue. Women who present themselves in a more masculine way are often assumed to be lesbians, even if they are not, purely based on society’s assumptions of what a lesbian looks like.
However, there is also another side to this as over the past decade, ‘lesbian’ has been Pornhub’s top category. This has sexualized lesbians and many people now associate the word with porn, rather than with the normal and loving relationships that most lesbians have or dream of. This has made identifying as ‘gay’ seem like a safer option, as it carries fewer negative connotations than the word ‘lesbian’.
While the modern-day connotations may provide reasons as to why only 33% of women in the survey felt “very comfortable” with calling themselves lesbian, if we look at the history of the word we can see its beautiful heritage. The word lesbian literally means resident of the Isle of Lesbos, the Greek Island. The term came to describe women who love women after the island’s most famous resident, the poet Sappho, whose poems expressed her love for women. In order to reclaim the word “lesbian” for what it should be, a word that represents something beautiful, we must normalize its usage. The best way to do this is by saying it. If you feel comfortable using the word to describe yourself, do it! It’s time we shake off the negative connotations and reclaim the “L” in LGBTQ+! It’s time we must rise and make this word a part of our vocabulary without being cringe about it. Freeing the emotions connected to the term, this pride month be proud about being lesbian as well as being called one.