Lesbian, Lesbian, Lesbian: Why I Love The L Word (Not The Show)

I used to hate it. Now I’m obsessed.

Photo by istock

For the next week, GO will be running a series of essays written by different LBTQ women, describing what lesbian, bisexual, trans, and queer means to them.

When I was first coming to terms with my sexuality, I was repelled by the L word (not the show, I love the show).

“The word lesbian sounds so strange and eery… It sounds like something dental,” I once said to my friend Ruba, feeling a cold shiver run down my spine the very moment the word “lesbian” escaped my lips. “I can’t come into work today. I have to go get a lesbian removed from my tooth,” I darkly continued, looking into the dismal future.

Ruba looked at me with bored, tired eyes. “Yeah, I guess.” She lit up a cigarette and began to casually scroll through her Instagram.

Whatever, I thought to myself. Of course, she doesn’t get it. She’s straight. She doesn’t have to worry about having her identity attached to a vile word like I do. God, straight girls are so utterly clueless sometimes. 

Later that night, I was all alone in my bed, tucked tightly beneath the sheets, eyes slammed shut, gazing into the blackness of my brain, as I visualized the word lesbian. In my mind’s eye “lesbian” looked like one those pictures of blown up infected genitals that health teacher’s would show us in sex ed class in an attempt to scare us away from engaging in “intercourse.” Lesbian looked like an STI. A foreign growth festering somewhere obscure on the body. (It didn’t help that at the time, my cell phone would auto-correct “lesbian” to “lesion.” Even my iPhone loathed the word.)

My mother didn’t love the word lesbian either. “It’s just not a ‘pretty’ word,” she drunkenly confessed to me after downing her fifth glass of champagne. I was well into my sixth glass. “No, it’s an UGLY WORD!” I shouted loudly. The waiter of the tiny bistro we were slugging drinks back in suddenly came rushing over, his plush brows furrowed in concern. “Everything is fine darling. Just top up our Champagne, will you love?” My mother sweetly purred in her pretty English accent, as she clumsily clinked her glass with mine.

The first editor I ever worked with when I was 20, didn’t want to use the word “lesbian” in titles either. “Maybe we should say ‘girl on girl’ instead of lesbian?” She nervously offered, when brainstorming an article. “It’s just such a, uh, ‘unappealing’ word.” Straight is such a basic word, I thought to myself feeling strangely offended. I stuffed my irritation down (I self-medicated a lot at the time) and agreed with her, like the sweet little staff writer I was.

After that, the jury was out. The jury had confirmed everything I had secretly suspected since I was a closeted baby dyke trying not to gag whilst feeling Andrew G’s erection pressed up against me as we grinded on the dance floor of a Bat Mitzvah. The word lesbian was ugly. I was a lesbian. Therefore, I was ugly. Too unappealing to sit with the masses.

“Zara as a baby lesbian circa 2004” Photo by Owen Gould

So what’s a baby gay to do? I had finally mustered up the courage to fling my frozen limbs out of that dark, suffocating closet only to realize, once I landed on the other side, that I didn’t like the label I was draped in. Was it too late to venture back into the dark and scary closet and search for a different designer? One that better suited my taste? I decided it wasn’t. I fearlessly went back inside and stared at the colorful rack.

I slipped out of my lesbian dress and pulled a handsome looking, slim-fitted gay teeshirt over my head. “Who are you wearing?” I imaged the LGBTQ jury asking me as I confidently twirled into Stonewall Inn on a Friday night. “I’m wearing gay. I’m a gay girl.” I fantasized saying, smiling a sparkly-white super-smile, finally feeling pleased with myself.

I liked gay.

Gay was short and simple and used by the confident/fierce gay men I would watch strutting around the mean streets of Chelsea in short-shorts and sleeveless-shirts without apology. Gay meant being comfortable with your body. Gay meant having a good time! Gay was campy. Gay was happy. As a life-long depression sufferer, I could get ~down and dirty~ with happy. 

But after enduring a few short rinse cycles in my shitty Manhattan washing machine, my gay shirt didn’t seem to fit quite right. I mean I loved women with such a fervent ferocity, and there was something inherently male about “gay.” You type the words “gay dating” into Google and I promise you: The search results will consist of everything m-a-l-e. Gay-boy-on-gay-boy. And while I’m a famously a gay-boy loving lezzie, I was (and still am) a woman who has sex with, and falls in love with, w-o-m-e-n.

I was rendered vague and labeless until I found myself in Israel of all places, sitting on the floor of a large, wooden cabin enclosed in a colorful circle of my fellow Hebrew queers. We were on a group LGBTQ+ trip to Israel (yes, they do indeed offer gay birthright trips), and it was the first night of our 12-day journey into the motherland. Our leader asked us to go around in a circle and share with the group our names, where we are from and how we identify. I was prepped to mumble “lesbian” when a girl with dark short hair and snow white skin and one of those recklessly unapologetic auras, piped up. “My name is Lee* and I identify as a dyke.” She proudly stated, picking at the scabs on her skinned knees.

Oh, I liked dyke.

The next night when we were all drinking at a tiny gay club in the heart of Jerusalem, I asked Lee why she identified as a dyke, not a lesbian. “Dyke is a power word,” she said cooly blowing a grey stream of smoke out of her chapped mouth. “Dyke is a power word,” I repeated to no one in particular. I turned to Lee. “You’re right. Dyke is a power word. I’m a dyke.” Lee* grinned. “Yes, you are, Zara. Yes, you are.” She paused for a moment. “Let me buy you a shot.”

When my plane finally descended into the great state of New York and my dusty-desert scuffed Dr. Marten boots landed on the over-sanitized American soil, I started saying dyke all the time.

It made my mother gasp.”That’s a terrible, terrible, word! A slur!” she yelped, her clear eyes filled with flames. “Nah, mom. Dyke is a power word,” I said, channelling Lee.

Truth be told, I still love the word dyke. I love the powerful reactions it invokes in all kinds of people. I love the way stoic lesbians raise their eyebrows at me when I refer to myself as a “dyke.” As if to say “Woah, little femme-bot thinks she’s a dyke.” I enjoy meeting their gaze with my ice-cold eyes and telepathically telling them, “Yes. This little femme thinks she’s a dyke, bitch.” I loved reclaiming the word that was once used with the intent to hurt me. Boys in middle school used to call me “dyke” when I was going through my skater phase (this was back in the 90s when skaters wore pants so giant you could house an infant inside of them, not the skinnies they wear now). I was all about the dyke. Still am.

However. As much as I’m all about fearlessly reclaiming words, I wasn’t about to say “dyke” in a job interview. I wasn’t about to tell the Editor-In-Chief of a major mainstream publication that I was interested in writing about “dyke” issues. I’m not that guy. I’m not that cool.

In fact, I wasn’t exactly comfortable twisting my tongue around the word “dyke” when I wasn’t swaddled in the safety of gay-culture. Calling myself a “dyke” in front of a straight audience didn’t sit right. Their ears didn’t earn the right to hear the word “dyke” reclaimed! And most annoyingly, when I called myself a “dyke” at work or in front of the slew other hetero cohorts that exist in my life, they felt they could call me a “dyke” too.

And that just didn’t fly with me, babes.

So I tried on the queer coat for a minute. After all, the intellects and the cool kids and the internet writers I admired all seemed to call themselves “queer.” But queer didn’t look good on me. Queer (to me) felt like it there was a certain “fluidity” suggested within the word.

I’m fluid about many things: My style, my career, the places in which I’ve chosen to live, but I’m not fluid in my sexuality. It is the only black and white thing about me. I’ve never been attracted to men. Ever.

And as a girly AF looking creature, people often find the fact that I’m a strict lady-lover hard to believe. Lesbian women have rolled their eyes at me in gay bars, and treated me as if I’m a freshly-broken hearted straight girl who is trying on women for her own amusement (meanwhile I’ve likely slept with far more women than most of these judgmental creatures, but that’s neither here nor there). Straight men have asked me if I’m “a little bit bi” after a few drinks, their eyes flirtatiously flickering at me, as if it’s impossible that my slutty attire isn’t to attract them, but solely to attract women. Straight women have grown bitchy and hyper-protective toward me when I’ve engaged in friendly banter with their husbands or boyfriends, even if I’m holding hands with my girlfriend the entire time.

Calling myself “queer” seemed to only fuel the notion that high femme, mascara adorned, lipstick wearing ZARA, isn’t really gay. She’s bi. She’s fluid. She’s progressive in her sexuality. None of these things are bad. In fact, they’re all positive, cool identities. But they don’t define me. They don’t fit on my specific body-type. I’m rigid in my sexuality, fixed, like a math equation that can’t be debated.

You know when you put an outfit on, decide you hate it, and toss it onto the floor of your bedroom in anger? And then you change your clothes and think “damn I look good.” Only to decide fifteen minutes later that the fit is wildly unflattering so you rip that outfit off and toss it on top of your first outfit? And then you try on another outfit, and after a few minutes of gazing at your reflection in the mirror, you realize that while it’s trendy and hip, it just doesn’t feel like you? So you unbutton your pants and slide them off your hips and toss them on top of both outfits? And then you’re standing around your room, naked and vulnerable and exposed, not sure what to try on next? Like, you’re running out clothes, you know?

And for some reason unbeknownst to you, you dig into the bottom of the pile of clothes holding court smack in the middle of your bedroom floor and you put on the first outfit you tried on and suddenly it feels oh-so-right? And you laugh at the irony of it all. You laugh at the time you wasted trying shit on when you were wearing the perfect outfit all along. And you confidently walk out the door of your room feeling perhaps not hip or cool or badass, but so unabashedly yourself that you feel like you could do anything?

That’s what happened to me with the word lesbian.

Suddenly the word felt right as it slipped off my tongue and penetrated the air. Instead of looking like an STI or a lesion or a dental catastrophe, it began to look really appealing. Lesbian. It looked like a crazy plant found in a crazy part of the world. It looked like a cool girl in high school who does her own thing. It didn’t look or sound traditionally pretty, but it sounded like me.

“Zara as a grown-up lesbian circa 2017” Photo by Celine Rahmen

I don’t look or sound traditionally pretty. And when I really think about it, when I dig deep into my truths, I realize I don’t care for pretty. I like sexy. And the word lesbian is sexy. It’s decisive. It’s shameless in its love for women and only women. Maybe the reason we frame the word as “ugly” is that it’s a word that has nothing to do with having sexual attraction towards men.

It doesn’t give a f*ck about being hot for men. And the reason I didn’t like it at first, is probably that I’ve been conditioned by society, by my family, by my own damn devices, to think that what dismisses the attraction of men is ugly and pointless.

So now I own the word lesbian and love it. Sometimes I still call myself a dyke, too. I’ll never stop loving the ultimate power word, reclaimed to me by my fierce friend Lee in the state of Israel.

The current LGBTQ culture seems to be into pressuring others into identifying themselves in a specific way. As if some kind of militant LGBTQ hierarchy exists within the confinements of semantics. As if one identity is more evolved than another. And I happen to think that’s alarmingly dangerous and embarrassingly hypocritical.

Didn’t our elders spend all that time fighting against the notion of homophobia because we fundamentally believe that sexuality is NOT a choice? That every single entity in existence should possess the absolute freedom to love whoever the hell they want to love without fear or judgment?

So here’s how this lesbian feels: If you’re queer, own it, be proud of it, it’s a beautiful thing to be queer. If you’re a lesbian, own it without shame, and stop thinking it’s an ugly, aging word, you hear? If you’re trans, know that those of us in our community who stand with you are on the right side of history and we are proud that you’re a part of our world. If you’re bisexual, hell yes. This your space too. In fact, I think we need more bisexuals to take up more space, and we should leave less space for the villains who think you don’t belong here. If you’re a gay boy or a gay girl or just a gay person, I love it. Do you. I’m not here to control your sexual identity. I’m not here to define it for you. And most of all, I’m not offended by your sexual orientation.

Why would I be? There is nothing offensive about being unabashedly yourself.