This article defines the word “lesbian”, as proposed by the UC Davis LGBTQIA Glossary, as “a woman whose primary sexual and affectional orientation is toward people of the same gender. However, some nonbinary people also identify as lesbians, often because they have some connection to womanhood and are primarily attracted to women.” The word “queer” is also used here as an inclusive term to define all members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
In the sixth century B.C., the female poet Sappho sat on the devastatingly picturesque island of Lesbos. I picture her in a flowy, bright dress, looking into the transparent water of the Mediterranean, the smell of olive trees filling the summer air. Writing with a dramatic feather quill, I see her slender fingers scribbling the words: “Sweet mother, I cannot weave — slender Aphrodite has overcome me with longing for a girl.” For us lovers of women, drama and olive oil, there could not be a better inception for the word describing female love. Why then, do I wince as if awoken from a sensual Greek dream when someone calls me a lesbian?
Coming into one’s sexual orientation and identity is a heart wrenching, tumultuous and disillusioning experience, to say the least. When I had first come out, I was in a bar. A man came to me to buy me a drink; while he wrapped his arm around me, I told him that I had a girlfriend. To this, his drunken lips slurred the words: “I love that you’re a lesbian.” Ever since then, I have been referred to as a lesbian in many other contexts: by friends, by family and by strangers. Despite the countless hours that I have spent whispering and yelling about it to my friends, the gratitude I feel for my partner’s support through the process and the pride that I now feel for being part of the queer community, my stomach sometimes still sinks in the same way as in that bar.
I found myself confiding in a close friend about this. Finely chopping mozzarella cheese, I propelled my fingers into the raw and visceral texture of pizza dough like a judge with a gavel. I exclaimed: “I think I figured it out! The word just sounds gross. Why does it sound so Slytherin-like? Why is there a z-sound? And why does it seem to only really rhyme with thespian, out of all words?” My friend sighed, not even lifting her eyes from the rhythmic motion of her fingers cutting into basil. As the aroma of the viridescent herb and olive oil wafted into the room, she calmly answered me: “Misia, you just don’t like that it’s a noun. You wouldn’t call someone a gay, would you? Why would you call them a lesbian?”
This is how I came to first understand my distance from the word. Although I feel somewhat content to state that I am part of the lesbian experience, I occasionally find myself irrationally offended when some people, especially straight people, call me a lesbian. I initially blamed this feeling on my personal biases; I am still trying to dismantle my internal systems of marginalization. Internalized homophobia, as defined by the Rainbow Project, affects queer people who have learned and been taught that heterosexuality is the norm and the “correct way to be.” Even if a queer person is in an environment that allows them to express their queerness safely, an internalized moral code of heteronormativity can still seep into the way that they view themselves. This goes hand in hand with self doubt, guilt and shame. I would be lying if I said that owning my queerness is easy for me at all times. There are still situations in which I wish that I could be straight-passing and moments in which I doubt the labels surrounding my identity. Learning about these internalized systems gives me the power to rise above them and to fully accept my pride. When I say that I love myself, I love all the shame, too.
This, however, stands separately from the distance that I feel from the word lesbian, used as a noun. When I took a closer look at the grammar of insults and slurs, it became abundantly clear that nouns are used in order to create distance between you and I. There is a difference between calling someone an x-person versus calling someone an x. Using a noun, grammatically speaking, makes people into a separate entity that can be dehumanized. This is why the term “dyke” was originally used to insult lesbian people and distance them from the heteronormative standard of sexuality and gender. It is also why the queer community, in retaliation, calls heterosexual people “str8s.” It’s easy to create distance from “the str8s” and less easy from “straight people.”
Within this discussion, it is essential to note that many people have reappropriated these terms for empowerment and reinvention. Following on the “dyke” example, many queer people take pride and joy in exclaiming that they are, indeed, dykes. By writing this article, I do not take away from this power. In fact, I write to reiterate that understanding the intricacies of language is empowering.
I encourage people to interrogate why they call someone a lesbian and in what circumstances. The power of the word is double-edged: it has the ability to unify marginalized groups or to make them feel further marginalized. Whether it ends up doing one or the other depends on context. A good starting point is to question who is calling someone a lesbian? Is the person speaking trying to create community and do they themselves identify with the term? The answers to these questions can give us an initial framework to move forward.
I see this analysis and interpretation as a tribute to the powerful legacy of Sappho and will continue to find solace in my olive oil-drenched dreamscape.