“I just don’t think the word lesbian is sexy. Can’t I call myself gay? A gay woman?”
“You can call yourself whatever the hell you want to call yourself.”
“I know, but—”
“But aren’t I, like, a lesbian?”
“Why do I feel like the word ‘lesbian’ sounds like something you’re going to have removed from your gums at the goddamn dentist? I hate the dentist.”
“I don’t know why you feel that way, Zara. I’m not your shrink. I’m just your reflection in the bathroom mirror.”
These are the conversations I used to have with myself endlessly when I first came stumbling out of the ol’ closet. Once I peeled past the first few grimy layers of shame regarding my irrepressible, all-consuming attraction toward women, I was still too weak to jump over one small hurdle: I detested the word “lesbian.”
I was angry that I detested the word “lesbian.” WHY CAN’T YOU JUST OWN IT, BITCH, I would scream to myself inside of my head. I DON’T KNOW! I would wail back to myself. MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE I HATE THE DENTIST. MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE I HATE MYSELF.
All the gay men I knew loved calling themselves gay. Actually, correction — most of them didn’t seem to waste their time grappling with words and labels; they were to busy living their best lives partying it up on Fire Island, having guilt-free sex, jetting off to Aspen for Gay Ski Week, and eating burgers without buns at fabulous bistros in the West Village. I never really heard them having conversations about whether they liked the word “gay” because they were having too much fun basking in the glorious freedom of finally being out!
One time I asked one of my (many) gay boy best friends about how he felt about the word “gay.”
“It’s cute. Want to see Logan Hardcore perform at Drag Brunch this Sunday?”
“Sure,” I answered, wishing I was as sure of myself as all these gay boys seemed to be.
In 2015, I found myself having drinks with a bunch of straight coworkers before the company holiday party.
“Don’t you think the word lesbian is sort of unsexy?” a girl, we’ll call Matilda, asked me. She drew out the word “unsexy” so it bore multiple y’s. She was the kind of girl who spoke through her nose instead of her mouth.
“I think the way you say ‘unsexy’ is unsexy,” I bit back.
“That was mean,” Matilda snorted as she grabbed a handful of bar nuts (we were at an old school bar on the Upper East Side, the kind of place that still has bar nuts) and shoved them into her mouth. “You on your period or something?” Her voice sounded like a foghorn. I decided in that moment I didn’t like Matilda. Not one. Fucking. Bit.
That night when I was laying in bed, I came to a dramatic realization. I began to say the word lesbian out loud. My cat looked at me with big judgemental eyes. I ignored her (she’s a bitch). The more I said the word lesbian out loud alone, the sexier it sounded. Screw Matilda. What, is the word “straight” sexy? (Straight is actually the most asexual word I’ve ever heard).
But the word “lesbian” isn’t just sexy, it’s pretty. Maybe we don’t think it’s pretty because we as women always have to criticize what we are. We find it hard to own that a word used to identify us — especially one that’s connected to us being fueled with the desire to sex it up with other women — could, possibly, be pretty. I mean, say it right now, I dare you. Doesn’t lesbian roll off the tongue beautifully? And it has that sneaky z. I love a word that is spelled differently than it sounds. As a femme-presenting top, I can relate.
I began to imagine how lovely it would be to name a girl Lesbian. I began to wonder how it would feel if my name was Lesbian. Lesbian Barrie. I liked it. The word starts out soft, Le — very french — and then it hits you with an aggressive Z sound, then adds a bit of humanity at the end with the bian. Which is sort of like “being.” A pretty french slightly aggressive being. How cool?
And just like that, I began to not just own my lesbian identity; I began to love it! If I overheard people at a party talk about how vile the word “lesbian” was, I spoke up. “You think it’s an ugly word because you’re a misogynist. You only think it’s ugly because it describes women loving women and that’s threatening to you,” I would smugly tell any straight man who happened to be in the room, as I made bedroom eyes at his girlfriend. That usually shut ’em right down.
If I overheard another self-identified lesbian declare she hated the word “lesbian,” I would tell her that was her right. If I had a few glasses of wine in my system, I might attempt to encourage her to dig a little deeper. Maybe insist she plays with the word inside of her mouth a little. I would describe the pretty, French, slightly aggressive being I felt embodied the word and then I would go on my way. Sometimes my little rant resonated with them, sometimes they rolled their eyes at me. Both reactions are fine, babe. I don’t try and control women’s feelings. I’m not a straight, white, anti-abortion, middle-aged male. Ha!
Anyway, on this beautiful day, the International Day of The Lesbian, I felt wildly compelled to share my journey with all of you. Not because I’m trying to recruit you into loving the word lesbian, but really, I’m trying to tell you, from the deepest pit of my Sapphic heart, to love who you are. And for some of us, learning to love the word that we feel best describes us helps us learn to love ourselves. When I stopped having negative conversations with myself about how UNFAIR it was that we dykes had been doomed with such a sexless word to describe our sexuality, my life got much better. I became a bit like a gay man who just lives her life and doesn’t apologize for being her flamboyant self (I even went to Aspen Gay Ski Week).
Most pressingly, I realized I hated the word “lesbian” because deep down inside I still hated myself a little bit. And learning to love the way my lips twisted around that utterly gorgeous word really set me free. I don’t even think about any of it anymore. LESBIAN sounds pretty and sexy, but I’ve also got better things to do with my time than hate my identity these days. In fact, I love my identity. And when you love your identity you have so much more space in your brain! Self-hate takes up so much damn space. It’s like having a roommate who doesn’t pay the rent, eats all your food, treats you like shit, and leaves dirty socks everywhere. Each day you get up and all you can think about is how awful your roommate is. And then when you kick the roommate out, you’re like, “Oh shit. I have this really big apartment and it has a really pretty view and I don’t even want to think about this toxic person anymore. I just want to buy flowers and host dinner parties and hang up beautiful works of art!”
And just for today, to honor how far I’ve come in my homosexual voyage, I’m going to go by the name Lesbian Barrie. For the rest of the day! I will not answer to Zara. I’ll answer to Lesbian (extra emphasis on the “z” sound please). Purr.