When I decided to come out to my mom, I wanted to wait until I could say the word "lesbian" out loud. But as I sat her down, I tripped over the long string of letters. "Mom, I'm gay," I blurted instead.
The impulse to dissolve my identity to gayor queerhas followed me since then. While I fit into both these categories and find incredible solidarity with my larger LGBTQ+ community, "lesbian" is the word that liberated me. It also is the word that took me the longest to say.
"Lesbian" sounds like a secret. It's rare when I hear it spoken with pride or even much volume. Growing up, I'd always hear people whisper "lessssbian," with something salacious in their tone. It felt like a dirty word, and I felt dirty for being one.
Now, I find strength in its specificity. "Queer" and "gay" are fantastic as expansive umbrella terms, but they're generalizations by nature. As a lesbian, I encounter countless men who try to "turn me" and sexualize me; I need a word to hold on to that says, "I am not attracted to you."
This reclamation is especially important in the face of overt objectification. Part of my embarrassment in using "lesbian" in front of my mother was that it felt inherently sexual. That's no surprise, since lesbian remains a top porn search. But it is not my fault that men have built caricatures of my sexuality in order to get off. I and other lesbians deserve a term to describe ourselves.
But compared to the older LGBTQ+ community, my generation seems much less likely to identify with the word. This could be because there are more terms to use now, including words that lesbians in another time may have gravitated toward, if only they were given the option. But there's also a particular backlash against using "lesbian" that I find from my own community.
Don't get me wrongI would never argue that a queer person should use the label "lesbian" if that word doesn't fit. I personally use the term because it best describes my sexual orientation and gender identity. I'm attracted to (cis and trans) women, transfeminine people and non-binary people connected to womanhood. As far as gender, I'm not a woman, but I am a lesbian. That's a lot to explain, which is why I like the label. I've never felt restricted by identifying as a lesbian. I've only felt free.
By this point, I don't care much about what cisgender, heterosexual people think about me using the term "lesbian." But it is hurtful to hear my own community call my identity "outdated," "restrictive" or "too binary."
I resent the implication that lesbians should be regulated to history, or that we are somehow "less progressive or radical" than other queer people are. You aren't progressive according to who you are attracted tothat depends on your politics.
And just because we exclude men from our attraction does not make us inherently "restrictive." Not only are gay men rarely told the same, but that claim reeks of lesbophobia. It's the exact same idea as someone telling me to "be more fluid and open" or to "just try men!" Trust lesbians when we say we know our own sexuality and experience.
History also shows us that lesbians have never been strictly binary. My own gender identity is best described as "lesbian" or "dyke," and those terms have served to describe both sexuality and gender throughout time. Traditions of gender non-conformity exist across our culture, with lesbians changing their names, switching up their pronouns, or identifying as butch or femme.
Most of the arguments against the term "lesbian" can boil down to a few stereotypes, all rooted in misogyny and homophobia: "'Lesbian' sounds stuffy and uptight;" "Lesbians are ugly and undesirable and mean;" or "'Lesbian' sounds so gross and dirty."
I understand these reactions. My own internalized lesbophobia stopped me from using the term, too. But there's something incredibly special about reclaiming "lesbian." Why should heteronormative and patriarchal norms decide whether we're attractive or not, nice or not? Why should men get to sexualize lesbians out of our own word?
I'm a mean, ugly, uptight, undesirable, gross, stuffy, dirty lesbianand I'm proud to be one.
Max Lubbers (they/them) is a non-binary lesbian journalist focused on telling nuanced, community-based stories. Prior to the Windy City Times, they reported on Evanston, Ill. news and served as digital managing editor for The Daily Northwestern. This past summer, Max reported for KRBD, a NPR-affiliated public radio station in Ketchikan, Alaska. Currently, they study journalism and gender studies as a junior at Northwestern University.
Outside of journalism, Max likes poetry and live music. They grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado, right by the Rocky Mountains, but they love Lake Michigan just as much. Ever since Max moved to Illinois, they've read the Windy City Times, so they are incredibly excited to now report as a fellow.
Lubbers is one of the Field Foundation fellows writing for Windy City Times this fall.