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.
In high school, I had a crush on a girl that religiously wore safety-pins as earrings, skinny jeans, band t-shirts, and leather jackets. Her name was Max and she had buzzed platinum hair and the biggest and bluest eyes I had ever seen. I was practically Alice-obsessed-with-Dana from The L Word status with my all-consuming crush. I would doodle I love *** on my notebooks. (Had to blank out the name cause I wasn’t trying to get shoved into lockers.) I would later go on to match with her on Tinder, but that’s another story.
Max sang in a band (of course she did) and used to perform at this weird open mic at a bowling alley. I would bribe my friends who had absolutely zero interest in bowling or punk music to come with me to East Islip Lanes. Pleaseeee, I’d beg, I’ll buy you a Frappuccino. Eventually, I would get my way, and my gaggle of Guidette friends would pile into my mom’s car, mixing scents of Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret Body Mist, and spray tan. They’d sing along to “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga while my mom instructed us not to talk to strangers and my heart pounded with anxiety and excitement. It was worth putting on those smelly ass bowling shoes and choking down dry, salty soft pretzels just for the moment of seeing Max perform. I’d admire her from afar, pouring her voice into the microphone, stomping her Dr. Martens on the makeshift stage. My heart would skip a beat.
I knew that I had ~feelings~ for her. I knew that I loved to secretly watch “The L Word” with the remote firmly planted in my hand. I knew that I was different. But was I thinking about the difference between identifying as queer vs lesbian at that time? F*ck no. In my blissful naiveté, I didn’t intellectualize my gayness. All I knew was the flip-in-stomach-over-heating-oh-my-god-what-is-happening feeling that I always got when I feasted my eyes on Max, or whenever I’d shakily Google ‘girls kissing.’ And how damn excited and happy I was to finally kiss a girl (it wasn’t Max, sad!), even if it was followed by some anxiety and confusion. I knew that I liked girls. I didn’t know that finding a word for it could be daunting.
We were all baby queers once. We were all once united by that excitement, confusion, and love.
But now we’re adults. And adults really f*cking love arguing semantics over the internet. It seems like everyday in the dark corners of the LGBTQ internet, there are people arguing in the comments section of an essay over the words “queer” and “lesbian.” And as much as I want to stay in that childlike state of everything-is-fine!, semantics are important, otherwise, we wouldn’t be fighting or fiercely defending our identities. I want to prioritize feelings and experiences, but they need to be characterized by language — and that’s where the arguing starts.
When these conversations come up, my impulse is to be like that girl in “Mean Girls” and just want to bake a cake out of sunshine and rainbows. But because these conversations, arguments, and very real discriminations are happening, I know that I can’t only rely on the emotional side of my brain. I know that words are necessary and important. I know that labels can be both a lifeline and a death sentence.
It was fine that we didn’t intellectualize or politicize our identities back then because we were baby queers. But now we’re adults and dealing with more than our feelings. We’re dealing with discrimination, fighting within our own community, lesbophobia, transphobia, and more.
And that’s exactly why the word lesbian is important to me. That’s exactly why I don’t identify as queer — because I’m a woman that only likes other women — so why shouldn’t I be specific about that? When my very identity is under attack, I felt the need to reclaim it. When I only identified a certain way to fit in with the times, I felt the need to return to it. But I think queer identity is amazing. And I would NEVER criticize someone for identifying as queer. Just like I’d hope that no one would criticize me for identifying as a lesbian.
I identified as a lesbian since I was about 16. It wasn’t until I started taking feminism classes in college and hanging with what I call Judith Butler lesbians, that I felt inclined to identify as queer. Queer felt intellectual. It felt cool.
Then I started publishing essays on sex and dating. I wrote for popular, mostly straight publications. From my first published essay, I was upfront about my queerness, but was hesitant to use the word lesbian. I didn’t realize it at the time, but something about it didn’t seem as palatable. I was nervous that mainstream publications wouldn’t want my stories unless they could be related to by straight women. So I used “queer;” to connote that I definitely liked girls, but left some room for projection.
But I’m a woman that only f*cks and falls in love with other women — so why wouldn’t I be honest about that? *Cough, internalized lesbophobia, cough*
Though lesbophobia exists in a very real way, my stance on reclaiming the word lesbian isn’t to be confused with TERFs or people that hate the word queer. It literally gives me anxiety when I get supportive messages from TERFs for using the word ‘lesbian’ in my essays. I am NOT supportive of those people. I love my trans and queer family.
When the fabulous Zara Barrie featured me as Lesbian Fashion Icon, she emailed me to ask if I identified as queer or lesbian. I felt ecstatic and confirmed. Lesbian! I enthusiastically replied and was thrilled to be in a publication that is focused on LGBT women. I didn’t have to “sanitize” my queerness — I could just be me. I began proudly using the word lesbian again because, well, that’s what I am.
Sometimes I use the word queer to describe myself, and I get some angry lesbians in the comments. And I get it. Erasure hurts. Being unnecessarily coy or unspecific about sexual orientation can be damaging. But at the same time, we’re all free to identify how we please. To me, both queer and lesbian mean that I have same-sex attraction, so I have no problem using them interchangeably.
I can understand older LGBT people’s frustration when younger folks use the word queer. I imagine a world where queer people can identify however they please, while still acknowledging the very real fight their LGBT ancestors had to fight to show that this isn’t a choice. I can see why older generations are hesitant about this sort of menu of identities because it seems as if identity is malleable or choosable and they know otherwise.
But is it really so bad that people have options for experimentation and self-expression?
Yeah, it annoys me to see women sex and dating writers declaring themselves queer when they never had a relationship with another woman. Obviously, a queer identity is valid whether you’ve been with a member of the same sex or not, but at the end of the day, I can’t fight the visceral feeling of annoyance. That’s the thing about feelings for me, they will always trump intellectual argument. It does frustrate me when queerness is co-opted by people who are kinky and have tattoos. What queer means to me is same-sex attraction — not “subverting norms.”
I went through a brief period where I said if I was alone in a room I couldn’t be a lesbian so I can’t define myself through other people. Yeah, I had taken one too many women’s studies courses and followed too many new wave feminist twitter accounts. I thought sexuality wasn’t an interesting or defining part of me… But it is. Even when I don’t have a girlfriend, being gay informs my life. The music I listen to. The bars I go to. The sex I have. The friends I make. Queer culture is sacred to me.
When people ask what I do and I say I work for a lesbian magazine and they recoil, I know that we are still marginalized. When I tell a guy at a bar that I’m gay, and he insists he can f*ck me straight, I know that we are still marginalized. I know how important it is to give language to myself. I want to scream LESBIAN from the rooftops in these situations, but it usually comes out a dull whisper.
Last week, I went on a date with a sexy AF girl (that I met through Lesbian Herstory Personals!) and I told her about this essay series. She identifies as queer and we had the most fab, open conversation about the differences between the two words and identities. It felt amazing to have an honest dialogue with someone who identities differently than me. She said that finally being with a woman felt like she was “coming home to herself.” Beautiful, no? Then she gave me the most intense orgasms of my entire life. But that’s for a different essay.
When I see LGBT people arguing semantics in the comments section of essays, I just want to yell “we were all baby gays once!!!” I want them to remember the first moments where they gleefully, tearfully, anxiously acknowledged their feelings. I want them to remember the first time they kissed another woman and felt their hearts flutter. I want them to remember the ~feelings~.
But giving language to those feelings is powerful and necessary. Language is an important part of society. Labels are real and marginalization is real. We don’t live in a post-sexuality or post-gender society, and frankly, I don’t want to. I’m okay with a difference defining me in some way, as it has the millions of brave queer people that have come before me. So we need labels. And I’m damn proud of those labels and the variety of labels that exist in the LGBTQ+ community.
When you’re about to eviscerate someone on the internet, I want to you to think of little gay you. Little gay you is feeling their heart explode while they listen to Tegan and Sara, or you’re secretly journaling about how the girl in your dance class makes your heart flutter, or maybe you discovered your queer identity later in life, and you were embraced with love, and you finally felt like you were coming home to yourself the first time you kissed a woman.
My lesbian identity is important to me. My lesbian identity informs my life, my writing, my interactions with the world, my interactions with women, and my interactions with myself. I’m proud to be in a community that fearlessly lives their truths everyday. I’m proud to share a community with badass queers, gender benders, dykes, daddies, and beautiful gays. I feel lucky that we live in a time where we have the luxury of arguing semantics over the internet. I’m happy we’re smart enough to know why these arguments are important, but emotional enough to know when to stop. I really love being gay. I really love my community. And I really love f*cking women.