How to make lesbians cool (and inclusive) again

A small but vocal movement is threatening to permanently associate lesbians with exclusion and transphobia. We can't let them.
Gay Pride Parade
Placards advocating for "Lesbian Rights" from the National Organization for Women (NOW) at the 1994 Pride Parade in New York City.Barbara Alper / Getty Images file
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By Trish Bendix

The spring and summer of 1993 was heralded as the peak of lesbian chic. Eleven years before “The L Word” would premiere on Showtime, New York magazine proclaimed a "brave, bold new world of gay women!" citing Madonna and Sandra Bernhard's high-profile albeit short-lived relationship, k.d. Lang's coming out and Susan going Sapphic on “Seinfeld” as proof that lesbians were finally visible — and finally cool. This was followed by Newsweek's June cover story proclaiming lesbians were "coming out strong!" and Lang's getting a clean shave from a bodysuited Cindy Crawford on the cover of Vanity Fair.

Lesbians were having a cultural moment — that much was clear — but it was also pretty clear what the media thought being a lesbian meant. Though Madonna never identified as one and Bernhard has gone to great lengths to say she doesn't identify as such since, lesbianism (like feminism, riot grrrl, among other women-specific topics) was co-opted by the mainstream media and, therefore, redefined as au courant. Forget about the separatist stereotypes of the 1970s, the “lesbians” of Vanity Fair and Newsweek were uber-femme women (sometimes known as "lipstick lesbians") and a few brave white celebrities (lang, Martina Navratilova, Lea DeLaria) who dared to identify as gay in public.

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Several decades later the lesbian label has become at once more diverse and decidedly less cool. While articles and cultural conversations have posed the idea that "lesbianism sells" ("America, come say hello to lesbians — they're hot! sexy! out there!"), the lesbian identity is viewed as increasingly outdated and exclusionary; a label that many lesbians don't even use for themselves. Both Ellen DeGeneres and Ellen Page, coming out 17 years apart, referred to themselves publicly as gay. Visibility is integral to lesbian livelihood, to be sure, but the idea of what a lesbian is seems to be getting lost or misconstrued. If lesbians are considered en vogue because some are seen as fitting into heteronormative standards of conventional beauty and family-building, where does that leave all of the other lesbians who don't fit into that general public-pleasing paradigm?

Lesbian Visibility Day may be an unofficial celebration, but it's a heartening one for lesbians who are still dealing with many of the same problems described by lesbians in the aforementioned 1993 articles.

Lesbian Visibility Day may be an unofficial celebration, but it's a heartening one for lesbians who are still dealing with many of the same problems described by lesbians in the aforementioned 1993 articles. "When a lesbian walks into a room of gay men, it's the same as when she walks into a room of heterosexual men. You're listened to and then politely ignored," an anonymous activist told Newsweek at the time. And in women-focused organizations like NOW, lesbians were seen as detracting from the movement, asked to leave or shut up and act straight.

Today, lesbian politicians like Lori Lightfoot and Tammy Baldwin are respected and electable; their sexual identities are widely known and accepted. But they are among the few public figures who will proudly — and positively — use the term lesbian.

Such positivity is important because a small but vocal movement is threatening to permanently associate lesbians with intolerance, which is not at all the case. A growing contingent of lesbian-identifying women oft-referred to as TERFs — Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists — have been working to redefine "lesbian" as a term that only refers to cisgender women who are sexually attracted to other cisgender women. In other words, these women believe transgender women cannot be lesbians. Those who hold these views are also often biphobic, believing women who identify as bisexual are either confused straight women or lesbians too timid to be fully gay.

And it's not just an older contingent of former Michigan Womyn's Fest attendees who believe in this ideology — now younger lesbians confronted with warring factions of lesbianism are feeling the pressure to take sides. Take the Lesbian Rights Alliance, a group that seeks to separate and alienate itself from the rest of the GBTQ acronym. Given such examples, it's not surprising that those who may be lesbian by the most basic of its definition — women who love women — would forgo the lesbian identity in favor or something that seems less sinister.

But as someone who is a proud lesbian (and dyke and queer and gay person), I refuse to give my lesbian identity up. And I know I'm not alone. There are still many of us to be found on social media and around the country, dedicated to our corners of counter-culture. The frustration is in our still having to fight for that identification — for visibility as lesbians who deserve to be named as such just like our gay, bisexual, trans, queer and otherwise identified family members whose specificities do not make them exclusive or exclusionary by nature.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights fights for lesbians, but not exclusively — they fight for queer and trans and intersex people, too. Lesbians Who Tech was named as such by its lesbian-identified founder, but includes anyone who identifies with the tagline "Queer. Inclusive. Badass." And despite gay men being given free rein to make their venues largely male-centric, queer women have generally bent over backward to accommodate every identity by name should that name have something to do with lesbians. (A friend who ran an event in Los Angeles called The Lesbian Culture Club used to welcome attendees by saying "It's like French club — you don't have to be French to join.")

If we don't use "lesbian," if those of us who feel strongly about it as our own don't reclaim it, then it will certainly be redefined as something erroneously villainous and untoward; something that has nothing to do with who we are or what we are proud to be. Lesbian visibility is about being seen for who we are, and not for the transphobic comments of Alix Dobkin, who first wore the famous "The Future is Female" T-shirt in the 1970s or Martina Navratilova in 2019. It's not about white feminism and vagina centricity and communes and potlucks — at least, not anymore. Lesbianism is not and will never be tethered to ill-contrived beliefs about transgender people.

Being a lesbian is about being a woman who supports, loves, cares about and has relationships with other women in the face of a patriarchal, racist, homophobic, classist society that detests our communal power and seeks to divide us. Any other definition of lesbianism is definitely not chic.