"Gay"? "Lesbian"? "Queer"?: Label Challenges for Gay Girls in Straight Spaces

I have recently developed a slight discomfort when referring to myself as a “lesbian.”

Though I have been out since I was a sophomore in high school -- and I went to that rare high school where being gay was the hip thing to be or pretend to be -- it was only after a women’s studies minor in college, after learning in depth the history of that word and of people like me that I started to wonder if associations with "lesbian" hurt the gay women’s cause.

That cause, in my opinion, is being able to relate to others and have others relate to us as whole people, not just as representatives of a certain sexuality.I get the sense that whatever word I choose in the moment to self-identify leads to different word associations in the minds of straight people. I single them out only because, while we all inhabit the same mental environment, with the same words constantly thrown into our faces and minds, the words “gay,” “lesbian,” and “queer” will understandably mean different things to different types of people with varying levels of awareness and acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ population.

And, let's be real: Straight people do not think about us the way we think about ourselves. To them, how they live is “normal” and how we live is “abnormal,” since it is not how they live, et cetera.

...This probably *isn't* what most people think when they hear the word lesbian. [photo credit: Gretchen Blair]

...This probably *isn't* what most people think when they hear the word lesbian. [photo credit: Gretchen Blair]

OK, so: “lesbian.” According to me, Amanda Reilly, who proudly identifies as a lesbian but now only in certain contexts, this word simply means a female person who is primarily attracted to other female people. I will gently remind my readers that a female person need not be a female-bodied person (i.e. transgender women can also identify as lesbians).

So a lesbian in simple terms is a girl who likes other girls...alas, if only it were that simple! According to Google Image Search, “lesbian” beyond the Wiki blurb is a genre of pornography. And that’s about it. I will not link to this search because honestly, young queer gals do not need to see such harmful, base, objectifying depictions of what apparently many straight people think are “lesbians.”

And this is why I do not like calling myself a “lesbian” in front of straight people.

Perhaps it is prejudiced of me to assume that doing so will forever link in their minds the ideas of “Amanda Reilly” and “two blonde chicks doing it,” but I have my reasons to be wary. Google usually finishes search queries for its users -- except, I found, not for the word “lesbian,” since it knows that the next words have the potential to be NSFW (not safe for work). 

This phenomenon demonstrates, to me at least, that many people do not understand the reality of lesbian existence, and would rather understand lesbians as walking peep shows. Lesbians are things to be watched, not people to be understood, and I blame both straight men and women for perpetuating this.

I do not feel okay calling myself a lesbian in front of straight men and women because I fear they will only see me as my sexuality and not as a human with a complex and layered existence. They might think to themselves,

Oh, she’s a lesbian. What does that look like?

What does she do?

Ew, is she going to flirt with me? Does she hate men? 

And all those other bizarre questions that I have indeed been asked.


I have started to refer to myself, to straight people, as queer or gay. When a woman says she's gay, that obscures her sexual practices but reaffirms that she is not straight. Perhaps, I imagine, in the minds of many straight people, only men are "gay" and women are "lesbian," therefore if a woman calls herself “gay” she is a mystery.

As for the word queer, I use it to flatly tell the person in shorthand that no, I am not straight, nor do I conform to cisgender (non-trans) femininity. Not everyone in the LGBTQIA+ demographic wishes to identify with this word, so I use it to refer to myself and to more abstract things like queer theory and queer culture, but not to other people. 

Credit: www.trouble-x.info

Credit: www.trouble-x.info

For me, I feel that using the words gay and queer is a defensive move, a way to throw up a wall that the other person is not allowed to cross. They say, I am not straight but you don’t get to word-associate me with gross and demeaning representations of so-called “lesbians.”  But I'm sad that I feel I must be this defensive.

What is a gay girl/lesbian/homosexual female to do in this situation? If you call yourself a lesbian to whomever and forget the consequences, more power to you. But if you share my discomfort with using the word to straight audiences, we need to put our heads together and find a solution to this word problem. Equivocation, or when one word is used for very different purposes by different people, is a huge problem for historically oppressed communities.

One need look no further than the n-word, or the lovely synonym for “female dog” that has divided the feminist movement for decades, or any other slur that some people use positively and others use negatively. I cannot be alone in my issues with the equivocation around the word “lesbian.” It used to be an insult, especially before the queer rights movement of the 1960s-70s, and it used to be capitalized: a Lesbian. Not a lesbian woman, mind you, but this separate breed of female human: a sexual deviant who seduced straight wives right out of their husbands’ arms.

I have countless reasons for not wanting to equate “lesbian” with the big bad Lesbian of bygone days or with two blonde chicks doing it, but the main reason is because I want to be treated as a whole person. I do not want to be reduced to whom I sleep with, and I am frustrated that I need to use my orientation as an identifier at all.

Omg, how about we all quit defining ourselves in opposition to each other and find a better way to define ourselves instead!

ancient "lesbians."

ancient "lesbians."

In the meantime, I will continue to call myself "queer" or "gay" and hopefully do so in a way that stops rather than starts conversations. How obnoxious that straight women especially use their hetero privilege to interview me about my orientation. I have had this happen one too many times and have learned to use queer or gay so that I will not have to escalate the exchange into, “No offense ma’am, but do you hear me asking you about how you have sex? Didn’t think so.”

I do not want to impede questions coming from a place of empathy and desire to understand, but I also do want to drop a boundary that holds back those questions coming from a place of rude curiosity, objectification, and that whole “You’re one of them so you can speak for all of them” nonsense. This requires balance.

For me, this requires the more balanced, more opaque, less sexual word “queer.” This requires the initial confusion resulting from a woman calling herself “gay.”

To be fair, the majority of my self-outing interactions with straight people have not been problematic, but to be fair this may be because I avoid “lesbian.” I have not yet figured out how to reconcile my pride in being a lesbian with my discomfort in using the word indiscriminately.

My advice to myself and to any gay girl wishing to call herself a "lesbian" is to keep in mind that whatever you think about yourself is much more important than what others think about you, and if the idea of telling a straight person that you are a lesbian makes your skin crawl like it does mine, that’s okay.

yep, that's what you can call me.

yep, that's what you can call me.

Being a lesbian does not mean rioting in the streets with your lezzed-out army of braless gangbanger pals, holding up bystanders with pink pistols and recruiting young girls (Fox News would say otherwise but whatever, Fox News, whatever). Being a lesbian does not mean bursting into homeroom one morning after an all-nighter L Word binge, dramatic rainbows painted all over your face, and loudly declaring that you have gone over the rainbow never to return (although that would be pretty epic). Finally, being a lesbian does NOT mean that your life is basically two blonde chicks doing it and you have nothing more to offer the world. But people may or may not word-associate these things with you after you say “lesbian.”  

But being a lesbian definitely is something: It's being a person, female-identified in some way or another, and loving and being attracted to other such persons. That's it, and at once so much more. No matter what others associate with you, what you associate with yourself is what counts.

  • Tip 1: Call yourself whatever you please.
  • Tip 2: BUT be prepared to explain, and please do, that you do not wish to discuss what “that is like” unless you trust the person asking and know they are honestly trying to understand your experience. DO NOT ever feel obligated to discuss very personal matters with anyone. You have personal rights to not reveal that which you do not want to reveal.
  • Tip 3: Go to this site: http://www.autostraddle.com/ if you want to read affirming and entertaining articles written by actual gay-in-some-way women. Hint: sex is not the only topic addressed, because lesbians are not sex robots. Unless you want to be a sex robot. That’s cool too.

Header photo courtesy of DesiFCK / Flickr.