Lavender MenacedIs “lesbian” going out of fashion?

After the National Equality March wended its way through the nation's capital this past October, the New York Times ran coverage of the event under the headline “Gay Rights Marchers Press Cause in Washington.” A year earlier, in the midst of California's Prop 8 battle, American Apparel debuted its “Legalize Gay” t-shirts, which were scooped up by supporters of gay rights, gay marriage, gay adoption, and gays in the military. After Prop 8 passed, comedienne Wanda Sykes came out. She was very proud, she said, to be “gay.” At the risk of seeming pedantic or quibbling, one might pause to wonder what ever happened to the word that once seemed to march so firmly hand-in-hand with “gay.” Whither “lesbian”? It makes sense that the straight public and mass media have latched onto “gay” as their go-to term; it's short, largely inoffensive, and widely understood, making it ideal for headlines, soundbites, and voluble public discourse. While “homosexual” is overly formal (not to mention long) and “queer” strikes some as harsh, “gay” is perky, conveniently monosyllabic, purportedly gender-neutral, and certainly less racy-sounding than “lesbian,” with its silky “zzz” sound. But why exactly has the nonstraight population allowed “gay” to slide so comfortably into ubiquity? Surely the lesbian—scratch that—gay female community could put up a fight if it wanted to. But it doesn't seem to want to. Are women bored with the word? Do they dislike it? Have labels simply become less relevant? Consult the sapphic elite, and you'll hardly get a clear consensus on the issue. Asking women to reflect on the word “lesbian” is a bit like administering a smeary Rorschach test: You get little sense of the literal blob in question, but a good sense of where the blob-watcher is coming from. Many agree, however, that women's increasing use of the word “gay” is in part a reflection of the lgbt population's efforts to present a united, palatable front as they make the case that they're “normal” enough to merit the freedoms taken for granted by the hetero mainstream. Buy into a widely accepted term, the thinking seems to go, and things will go a lot more smoothly. As cultural critic Camille Paglia observes, “There's been a real suppression of anything that makes gays different…. The new thing is normalcy.” Paglia, notorious for her acclaimed (and often contentious) writing on feminism, queerness, and sexuality, stands firm on this particular linguistic issue: Despite the word's ebbing popularity, she's a self-described lesbian. Speculating on reasons for the ascension of “gay,” Paglia cites the streamlining of interests within the queer community. She recalls the radical activism and lesbian separatism of the 1970s, the aggressive partying and aids crisis of the '80s, and the New York drag scene of the '90s, all of which frequently placed LGBT men and women at odds, if not with each other, then certainly with social norms. Now, though, “We're kind of post-aids, post-hedonism, post-everything, and I think it could be that gay men and lesbians have more common ground.” And the past four decades have witnessed a shifting in terms as well as politics. In 1970, for instance, the New York Times reported on “Thousands of Homosexuals” gathering for Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day on the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots. In the mid-'70s, womyn-lovin' folksinger Alix Dobkin was dropping tracks like “The Lesbian Power Authority” around the same time that women were leaving the Gay Liberation Front to found the Lavender Menace (later the Radicalesbians), which famously issued the document “The Woman-Identified Woman.” In 1983, cartoonist Alison Bechdel's “Dykes To Watch Out For” debuted, and in 1987, the category listing homosexuality as a psychological disorder was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres appeared on the cover of Time, announcing, “Yep, I'm Gay.” So now “gay” is the umbrella word, the common ground. Candace Walsh, editor of the forthcoming Seal Press anthology Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women, views that common ground as tremendously important. “The party line,” Walsh says, “has been that we all need to identify with the word 'lesbian' because there is strength in numbers. There are more numbers, however, if we identify as 'gay,' or 'queer,' and throw in our lot with gay men.” But by throwing in one's lot with the group one runs the risk of sacrificing individual concerns, as prominent queer theorist Judith “Jack” Halberstam points out. A professor at the University of Southern California, Halberstam recalls that in decades past, “you had to say 'gay and lesbian' just to recognize that women had different issues [than] men. But when everyone is just 'gay,' all the issues surrounding feminism in gay and lesbian communities go out the window.” As does race. With its strong connection to (and history of usage by) the white male community, “gay” glosses over gender and race differences. Does its growing popularity signal an implicit waning of sensitivity to those differences? And what is the queer community based on, if not difference? But back to Halberstam: The author of Female Masculinity considers “gay” a “cop-out word” and speculates that the term has proven attractive to queer women for its associations with the glammier side of gay male nightlife and its distance from whatever images of Birkenstocked stridency the word “lesbian” conjures up. Still, Halberstam doesn't rush to the defense of “lesbian,” either, pointing to the limited scope of the word and its exclusion of transgendered, transsexual, and genderqueer people. Halberstam initially came out as a lesbian, but now identifies as “transgender butch.” Halberstam's preferred all-inclusive term is “queer,” a word that the author admits might be difficult for a larger audience to understand, given its other, less-savory meanings. But Halberstam doesn't mind those other meanings. “When I see [queer] used in literature, it doesn't mean 'perverse' so much as 'odd' or 'strange.' And I don't mind having that association. I prefer it to the associations that 'lesbian' has, which are always sort of dowdy and unsexy. 'Odd' and 'strange' seem appealing after that.” “Lesbian” is a word with a lot of cultural baggage—lesbians as lumberjacks, lesbians as granola-eaters, lesbians as porn stars, Catholic schoolgirls, gym teachers, cat owners, commune dwellers, braless separatists, goddess worshippers. For some women, that's been enough to turn them off the word entirely. Trish Bendix, a writer for, identifies as a lesbian, though she's careful to use more inclusive descriptors like “out” and “sapphic” when writing. Some AfterEllen readers, she says, object to the use of certain words that have a history of negative associations, like “queer” and “dyke” (the James Dean, one might say, of lesbian terminology—definitely troublesome but totally dishy). “Because 'lesbian' has served as such a specific term over time, it has almost become a dirty word, following in the sad footsteps of how 'feminism' has garnered a negative connotation,” observes Bendix. “That's why so many lgbt women—especially younger ones—prefer to give themselves a different label, or no label at all.” Those who've stuck with “lesbian” despite its disadvantages are, it seems, attracted by the word's clarity and origins, or even a sense of loyalty to its history. Paglia, for one, connects her embrace of the word to her age. When she first learned the word “lesbian”—a term she describes as having a gratifyingly “militant edge”—Paglia was a high-school student in 1960s Syracuse, New York, who'd managed to get her hands on some issues of The Ladder, a newsletter distributed by the nation's first lesbian-rights group, the Daughters of Bilitis. Founded in California in 1955, the group took its name from Les Chansons de Bilitis, a collection of verse, first published in 1894, that was supposedly the long-lost work of a Greek poetess who'd been a lady-loving contemporary of Sappho. (It eventually transpired that the Chansons were competent fakes; Belgian poet Pierre Louÿs, who claimed to be the poems' translator, was in fact their author.) Paglia points out that the invocation of Greek names such as Lesbos, Sappho, and the faux-Greek Bilitis to describe same-sex attraction once served as a significant bid for legitimacy, a reminder that same-sex love was centuries old and had been practiced by some pretty illustrious folks. “I always loved the historical associations of the word 'lesbian' with Sappho and that whole circle, the highly cultivated artistic center of early Greece,” Paglia says. “So to me, there's a great historical loss in [the word's decline], but what can one do?” But perhaps the aesthetic merits of, say, Sappho's Fragment 31 aren't enough to convince some women that “lesbian” is a label worth hanging on to. Not that labels seem to mean very much these days. Look at erstwhile gal pals Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson—words weren't too important to describe their relationship; people mostly wanted the tabloid pictures. Major media outlets blithely refer to Rachel Maddow as “gay” and move on to more pressing issues. When Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi got married, more ink was spent describing Ellen's tux than on what the newlyweds called themselves. Marriage, authority, kids, coming out, breaking up—not language or diagnosis or imprisonment in Reading Gaol—seem to be (if media coverage is anything to judge by) the primary concerns of 21st-century queerness. It remains to be seen whether “lesbian” will become as truly unfashionable and functionally dead as prior terms (“sex-variant,” anyone?). As femmes, bois, transmen, queers, gay ladies, and the like step forward into a new decade armed with fresh terms—or no terms at all—it's understandable that many of us will mourn the faltering word and fading history. (Gertrude and Alice! The little Ladies of Llangollen! Rita Mae Brown!) But how much real loss will ensue? And are we forever doomed to be preoccupied with labels? After all, decades ago some verbophilic ladies may have wrung their hands about the death of the word “invert,” lamenting the loss of a word that certainly wasn't perfect, but had meant so much to so many. R.F. McCann has written for the Washington Post, the Village Voice, and Radclyffe Hall continues to be her all-time favorite invert.

This article was published in Action Issue #47 | Summer 2010

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11 Comments Have Been Posted

Adjective vs. Noun

For me, I prefer to identify as a "gay girl" as opposed to a lesbian because I don't feel like the fact that I'm gay defines me. Lesbian is a noun, suggesting that it is me and encompasses my entire being. Gay, on the other hand, is just an adjective, which demonstrates that it is only one facet of my identity. I don't object to the word lesbian and I'm not self-hating, I just feel like the word lesbian doesn't suit me as much as gay.


I'm 48 yrs old, from Nebr., and certainly a lesbian though I describe myself as gay. Gay is short and to the point it is almost friendly. I've always been comfortable with the word gay. Lesbian is mysterious sounding and I like it but atleast in conservative Republican Nebr. lesbian also has a man-hating/eating aftertaste. Men are great, we have something in common, we both love women.
What I hate are the labels society tries to use to define people. I suppose some labelling is necessary and useful (as in conservative Republican Nebr-lol). However labels more often are used to highlight peoples differences, divide them, and politically marginalize them. I wish society would allow consenting adults to form legal life partnerships. I've never been a fan of "Gay Marriage". I am not Christian, I do not wish to make a vow before their god, but I would like the United States of America to allow me and my partner the same rights, privileges, and obligations as the heterosexual majority that avails itself of marriage.
Lesbian or Gay are terms that without legal equality or protections just serve to marginalize me and in the state I live in an amendment was passed outlawing same sex marriage and same sex contracts.
So if adopting "Gay" as an umbrella term helps unite homosexuals and that in turn increases our political clout and increases our social acceptance, and those things afford me the opportunity to enjoy a legal life partnership with my lover of 15 years then certainly call me gay.
So yes I think "lesbian" may be going out of fashion. How clumsy does it sound to say, "That's SO lesbian!" or "That's so homosexual!"? I'm just saying.

Approval, thoughts, and a wee bit of rant

Great article! The lessened popularity of "lesbian" is something I've wondered about myself. I've heard people claim the word sounds clinical; personally, I think "lesbian" sounds pretty and sexy, but often find myself using "gay" instead. I guess it just feels friendly and perky, like you say -- the word *does* mean something close to that, after all -- and also inclusive. "Queer" may be even more inclusive, but you're right that it comes off as harsh, especially since people distanced from the LGBT community may not have a grasp on the way in which it is reclaimed. Like "dyke," it still has the aura of insult about it, whereas lots of people, even in the community, don't know that "gay" was originally used as a pejorative too. I guess my main concern is, are we allowing ourselves to be absorbed into male-coded language? I'm not sure.

As for labels not meaning much...I'd like to believe it (in most aspects, at least) but I'm not convinced. I've heard lots of people have the "gay or bi" conversation about Lohan and de addition to countless women who have identities, or just a sense, of queerness. That's another reason I enjoy the inclusion of "gay" or "queer;" I find that conversation tedious and loathsome. Sure, we've got Anastasia Higginbotham's "bisexual lesbian," but for whatever reason, "lesbian" seems not to be assumed to include the less-than-6 ladies. Obviously people should be free to identify as bisexual if that's how they feel they'd best describe themselves, but I find that in these discussions a hard line gets drawn, and it's often not drawn by the way one self-identifies but by the Court of Public Opinion. For example: " dated/are dating/can imagine yourself dating a particular male? Sweetie, you're not lesbian; you're bi!"

So, yeah, that was a bit of a tangent. I guess in the end, all of these words are problematic in some way, but largely essential until the mainstream mindset gets revolutionized. It's an issue to watch, to be sure, and maybe in 10 years "lesbian" will seem as bizarre as "invert"...or maybe "invert" will be back.

Have you seen this?

The new issue of <i>Curve</i> has a piece on this topic also. I found McCann's more thorough and insightful, but they're interesting to compare.

Adding on something I didn't

Adding on something I didn't see in the article or comments. Another reason imo that the word lesbian is not as well accepted(has it ever really been though?) is because when one says it (although not always) it can draw up connotations of two self identified womyn making love not for the male gaze, womyn loving eachother instead of tearing eachother down as the patriachy so wants, womyn living their lives and being independant of men, male culture, and masculinity-which are things usually priveleged over things associated with being womyn.....just some thoughts.

Not inclusive enough?

You are right to think that erasure of the difference between lesbians and gays could be problematic, but I believe this issue has become increasingly complex as different groups (trans & bis for instance) want to be recognized: as a bisexual woman I don't identify as a lesbian at all, and the bi milieu I'm a part of tends to be mixed. While "gay" would not include me either (though I might joke that "I'm so gay!" in certain situations) I really like the term "queer", precisely because it sets us so-called "deviants" apart. If "gay" as an umbrella term is meant to make assimilation into white middle-class values then I'm very resistant to that. I like the power that "queer" has to remind people that we have our own set of interest and represent a certain resistance to normativity.

Times, they are a-changin

I agree that the changing face of the words we use represents the changing face of "gay women" entirely.

I identify as queer. I never felt comfortable using the term "lesbian" to describe myself, but did always love "dyke."

My reasoning: Queer is a catchall. It gives me the freedom to keep my identity even if I fall for a trans-person and it works well with the ever-changing gender identities and sexual identities of my lovers.

I felt like lesbian was a dishonest descriptor for me, because I felt like it dishonored the love I felt for the men I dated back when I dated men. I felt that if I identified as a lesbian, it would mean that I never really liked the sex I had with those men or the relationships I had with them. It also meant that I could never fall in love with a man again or risk becoming a "has-bian"

Dyke is a great word, because it's a political identity as much as a sexual one. It still implies a strong leaning towards women (which I have), but for some reason, because of the informality of the term, it doesn't seem to indicate the militant exclusivity that I perceive in the term lesbian. To mean, lesbian seems like a term defined by that which it doesn't include (relationships with men), while dyke seems like a term created by what it does include (love for women).

Lesbian still seems like a very clear and effective label for women who are at the farthest end of the gay spectrum. In my generation (late 20's) women who call themselves lesbians are nearly always those who are "gold-stars" or eschew relationships with non-women identified people full-stop. For this reason, lesbian seems to be a less-common term, because as time goes by, everyone, including queer women, seem to be growing more accepting of their own sexual fluidity. Queer is the most common, because it gives us permission to fall for whomever we fall for, regardless of genitalia or gender-identity.

I personally like 'queer' as

I personally like 'queer' as it encompasses a certain fluidity, and includes trangender, intersex, androgynous, bisexual and pansexual members of the LGBTIQP community. I feel like it unites the community, and communicates the many levels of gender and sexuality, and that queer people and queer love is beautiful.

I do not feel that the word is offensive, I use it with much affection. I identify as a young women that loves and is attracted primarily to other women, but feel as though the term 'lesbian' implies that I could never fall in love with a male or find the male body beautiful in its own way.

The word lesbian also has many connotations, and often people automatically think of an ultra-butch, man-hating kind of figure. Some people also feel that the word is emotionless, and loving women, being attracted to women, being a full-bodied, passionate woman who loves other womyn is definately not emotionless or sterile.

I feel very much like a 'lipstick'/slightly androgynous women on the feminine side. And although I am definately a feminist, I don't like that the word lesbian for some people, makes them assume I think men are inferior or somehow repellant. 'Lesbian' can also be used as an offensive by-word or insult, and in high school it was most certainly an intensely negative word.

I also think there is power in the word lesbian though. It has so much history, and it sounds kind of brave to me - it has ownership, and throws off those negative associations when people refer to themselves as lesbians in a positive, affirming way. So I often end up using it, but mostly when I am with my gay, lesbian, queer and trans friends, because I think they have a greater understanding of the multiple meanings of the word.

Amongst most people, I refer to myself as queer or gay. I love saying 'queer community', especially because I know many womyn who love womyn but also fall for men, identify as both male or female sometimes, or as genderless or androgynous people. Transwomyn and transmen who identify using the word queer, and bisexual women who have stronger preferences for other womyn and feel like the term 'bisexual' implies that the don't have a sway towards being with other womyn, but that the word lesbian implies that they feel no attraction for men.

I have pansexual friends that also identify with the queer community, and feel as though they are recognised when the term 'queer' is used :)

I love thinking of how diverse, fluid and beautiful the queer community is, and I feel like the word 'queer' sums that up for me.

But I also happily use the terms gay, les, lesbian, and dyke with affection.

How on earth did Camille

How on earth did Camille Paglia make it into Bitch magazine as a trusted source of cultural criticism? She's a troll: you aren't supposed to feed her. Or perhaps rape apologists with fucked up race politics are back in fashion?

A few choice quotes

"I reject the idea that the “birther” campaign is motivated by racism. There may be racism among it, but there are legitimate questions about the documentation of Obama’s birth certificate. I’m sorry, I’ve been following this closely from the start. To assume that all those signs about the birth controversy were motivated by racism, that is simply wrong."

"If civilization had been left in female hands we would still be living in grass huts."

"Leaving sex to the feminists is like letting your dog vacation at the taxidermist."

"Sotomayor's vainglorious lecture bromide about herself as "a wise Latina" trumping white men is a vulgar embarrassment - a vestige of the bad old days of male-bashing feminism."

“In the theory of gender I began from zero. There is no masculine power or privilege I did not covet. But slowly, step by step, decade by decade, I was forced to acknowledge that even a woman of abnormal will cannot escape her hormonal identity.”

"Let's get rid of Infirmary Feminism, with its bedlam of bellyachers, anorexics, bulimics, depressives, rape victims, and incest survivors. Feminism has become a catch-all vegetable drawer where bunches of clingy sob sisters can store their moldy neuroses."

"Patriarchy, routinely blamed for everything, produced the birth control pill, which did more to free contemporary women than feminism itself."

It's one syllable

It's one syllable and easier to say, I think that's all there really is to it, people will generally be lazy and do things as simply as possible. Nothing in your article speaks more strongly people being lazy and people disliking 'hard' polysyllabic words.

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