Pride Voices: What does it mean to be a lesbian in 2022?
In a world where identity is ever more fluid and free, has the meaning of the word ‘lesbian’ changed – or just evolved – asks Amelia Abraham, author of ‘Queer Intentions’
Friday 24 June 2022 By Amelia Abraham
In celebration of this year’s Pride, we're showcasing a special series – Pride Voices – to explore the many sides of LGBTQIA+ life and queer culture today, as told by people from the community.
When you close your eyes and think of lesbians in 2022, what do you see? Is it Gentleman Jack galloping through a field on horseback? The electric tension between Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer in Killing Eve? The couple of the year, Niecy Nash and Jessica Betts, gracing the Oscars red carpet? The cute lesbian couple in Netflix’s Heartstopper? Or the Instagram pages dedicated to Aubrey Plaza and Emma Corrin worship?
Maybe you don’t think of any of these things as particularly ‘lesbian’ in a time when it’s more commonplace than ever before to see women hooking up with one another or embracing their sapphic side, at least on our TV screens. The writer Daisy Jones puts it well in her book All The Things She Said when she writes: ‘The culture of queer women is everywhere. It’s Kristen Stewart in a backwards cap sticking her finger up at the paps. It’s Janelle Monáe showing up on the red carpet in assless chaps and a butt-length plait. It’s Hunter Schafer and all her different coloured eye shadows.’
The point Jones is making is that, in 2022, through its ubiquity, queer female culture has come to include a whole lot more than those who strictly identify as lesbians. Perhaps the word ‘lesbian’ can no longer quite contain all that is lesbian culture, which often – as the examples above demonstrate – includes bi, pansexual and non-binary people too, in a world where gender is ever more fluid and free.
Some people within our community are pleased about this shift towards inclusion, viewing ‘lesbian’ as a catch-all term that can include almost anyone, or self-labelling with terms like ‘queer’ that feel more encompassing. I feel both to be true: I have friends who choose to identify as non-binary and a lesbian at the same time, in spite of the gendered connotations of the latter term. And I personally switch between describing myself as ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ and ‘queer’ pretty much depending on my mood.
Yet others are concerned that this broadening out of the term dilutes it, and that the arrival of new labels puts those who identify as lesbians at risk of erasure. As one of the talking heads in a recent Channel 4 documentary on the topic asks: ‘Why does it seem like fewer people are choosing to identify as lesbian? Is there a lesbian extinction going on?’
The question that the show takes as its title – Where Have All The Lesbians Gone? – has come to be associated with certain corners of the lesbian community who believe that we’re ‘losing’ lesbians who are opting for terms like ‘queer’, or transitioning to identify as male, or choosing to identify as non-binary. The same corner of the community often rejects the inclusion of trans women in the category of lesbian, feeling that lesbianism is defined by ‘womanhood’ and that womanhood is defined by biology, not by how you identify. These rifts aren’t new, but perhaps just more visible. See, for example, the self-identified lesbians who stormed London Pride in 2018 to protest against the inclusion of trans people. Or a harmful and polarising BBC article, published last year, that pitted lesbians against trans women under the headline: ‘The lesbians who feel pressured to have sex and relationships with trans women’.
It can be a distracting argument, in a time when LGBTQIA+ rights are rolling back (see, for example, the introduction of the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in Florida) and hate crime – particularly towards trans people – is rising. Plus, it seems to ignore what history proves to be true: that being a lesbian has never meant one thing. It’s always encompassed people across the gender spectrum and it has shifted in meaning over time.
In the 1960s, you might have been a ‘stud’, while in the 1970s, you might have been a lesbian separatist, a political lesbian who wanted to live away from men. In the 1980s you might have been a punk lesbian or a kink lesbian or a self-proclaimed ‘dyke’. The 1990s saw the rise of the term ‘boi’ to describe more masculine lesbians, particularly within Black communities, and in the 2000s ‘lipstick lesbian’ or ‘power lesbians’ were immortalised by the TV show (and lesbian sacred text) The L-Word, for better or worse. New labels have always helped us find our communities within a community.
When I look at lesbian culture in 2022 and all the terms that come with it, I see a continuation of this: a flourishing, not a diminishing. Especially when I look at lesbian meme culture online and LGBTQIA+ TikTok, where lesbians and queer women support one another through breakups and dismantle lesbian stereotypes through humour. I see our ability to laugh at ourselves, despite the fact that lesbians are often thought of as too serious, as well as our keenness to establish a shared culture in a context when lesbian culture has often been hidden, dismissed or else created for us by people who aren’t lesbians at all. (I’m looking at you, Blue Is The Warmest Colour).
What does it mean to be a lesbian in 2022? I can’t answer for everyone. The term means different things for different people. But I know one thing: we can’t complain that the word ‘lesbian’ is going out of fashion if we don’t include as many people under it as possible.