Navigating Labels: A Letter to a Potential Lesbian

Dear Shon, I came out as bisexual when I was sixteen. I dated a nonbinary person in college then after we broke up they came out as a trans man which sent me into a sexuality crisis. I ended up deciding to use the terms “gay” and “queer” to describe myself. When using the former it irked me when people assumed I meant I was a lesbian (if I meant lesbian, I would say lesbian). The latter allowed me more flexibility to describe the complexity of my sexuality. Recently, though, I’ve been questioning my identity. I’ve always thought that, even if I liked a man, I wouldn’t want to pursue a relationship with one. In recent years, I’ve seen “lesbian” being used by women and non-binary folks alike with the description of being attracted to non-men. I currently have a girlfriend who I hope to be with for the remainder of my days, and I find myself making lesbian jokes more than I did before. All this led me to reading parts of the , which really spoke to me. Learning about compulsory heterosexuality made me question if any of the crushes I have had on men have been genuine. Then, after reading this doc, I had a horrible thought that reduced me to tears: If I am a lesbian, that would mean I’m truly broken. It seems I have internalized homophobia, but I don’t know why I have this hang-up with “lesbian” when I refer to myself as being gay. I’m also aware that this appears to be a wider issue—the terms “sapphic,” “wlw,” “queer women,” and even the reclaimed slur “dyke” appear to be used more often than “lesbian.” It could be down to lack of positive representation, but I don’t even really know how to describe the way referring to myself as a lesbian makes me feel apart from, to use its other definition—it makes me feel a bit queer. I’m not even sure why this matters so much to me but it does. I know if I start to refer to myself as a lesbian/dyke nothing about my life would change apart from this tiny identifier. No matter the label, I know I prioritize queerness in all aspects of my life (politically, romantically, etc). But ironically, I feel most of my struggle with my queerness has been trying to understand if I even like men. How can I work out if lesbianism is right for me? And if it is, how do I come to accept it? Yours, A Potential Lesbian

Dear Potential Lesbian, Breathe! I could read the spiral in your letter, and so it is incumbent on me to remind you that labels are there to help us, not to panic us. You are in a relationship with a woman you love and who you feel committed to. You are public about your identity and are living in a patriarchal society as an out queer woman. This remains a massive feat in a profoundly misogynist and heteronormative culture, which conditions women and girls to place their value on their ability to cater to straight male desires from childhood onwards. You’re not alone. There is not a single lesbian, bi person, gay man, or trans person I know of who emerged from the struggles of a repressed youth into an adult queer life without some degree of internalized homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia. This is not our fault and is not a moral failing, so please don’t beat yourself up about recognizing you’re still working through this stuff. Let’s talk about the word lesbian. It’s a funny one, right? It’s a noun, for a start. Adjectives like “gay” or ”queer” feel a little more in vogue, or, at the very least, less intense. “Lesbian” is blunt and in-your-face, it’s not fucking around. (I had a similar struggle with the term “transsexual,” though I grew to enjoy its intensity: I now use it as a noun to describe myself pretty regularly.) It would be very understandable for you to have a reflex of shame about the word “lesbian” too, given how it’s used in schools. When I was a kid, at least, “lesbian” was thrown around as a slur: directed at pretty much any girl who did not conform to conventional feminine aesthetics, was not considered pretty by boys, or who simply showed little interest in them. It was employed as a way to tell young women they were becoming women the wrong way. Alongside this, it also had sexualized connotations thanks to the ubiquity of porn that featured women having sex with each other for a male audience. I can imagine that for many young women growing up and coming to realize they are not straight, the initial experience of the term “lesbian” might have been more than a little traumatic. Politically, and has all the glamour of being connected to antiquity, Lesbos being the island home of the classical poet Sappho. (Chic!) However, in recent years the growing visibility of trans people has also complicated the picture a little bit. You describe having dated someone who ultimately transitioned and became a trans man. Some transmasculine and nonbinary people will still identify with the term “lesbian” despite not identifying as women, and some trans women identify with the word. In response, some reactionaries within the lesbian community have attempted to define lesbian in a trans-exclusionary way. I have lesbian friends who have become anxious that the word now has a transphobic connotation. On the contrary, I think for lesbians who are trans-inclusive, using the term proudly and inclusively is all the more beneficial to trans and nonbinary people who see it is open to them, too. Yet I think your main anxiety seems to be less about the word “lesbian” and more about whether adopting it is a final declaration that you are, in fact, not attracted to men. Perhaps there is a sense that the word means kissing goodbye to the last hope of the comparative ease of a heterosexual life? Or it may feel like you are boxing yourself in. To this I would say: Don’t take yourself too seriously! Have a laugh with it! Labels can be fun too, and you can always change your mind. In 10 years you might wake up and realize you’re deeply in lust with a macho cis man. Really, who cares? If that happens, it happens. No one will sue you for having used the word “lesbian.” Any sexuality label is only ever a rough approximation. True queerness is about accepting porous definitions and the inevitability of change. Let’s think about this another way. What do you about the word “lesbian”? Where is its for fun, friendship, and connection? Try to focus on whether that potential offers you something and, if you feel good doing so, use the word as you please—I promise no one is going to angrily snatch your gay card out of your hands if you evolve further in your sexuality. In fact, by embracing frivolity and fluidity, you may become precisely the role model someone else struggling with her lesbian identity so badly needs.

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