Reclaiming the L Word
Updated: Mar 14
Recently there was a post on AfterEllen about the importance of the word lesbian, and I was surprised to find that it mirrored many of the feelings I have and have had about the infamous L word.
In many ways, our society has tried to make lesbian a dirty word, a predatory word. Lesbians (and other queer folx) have been villainized in pop culture, pathologized by the medical community, criminalized by the courts, disowned by our own families. Lesbians in particular are also constantly told in various insidious ways by society that our love should be fetishized for the male gaze. We're constantly fighting to be visible, to be acknowledged, to have our rights respected, to be left alone, to not be discriminated against, attacked, or even murdered.
As a kid growing up in rural New England, I met so many people (not malicious people, mind you, but well-meaning folk) who couldn't say lesbian without snickering, without making an off-color remark, without blushing. As if my sexual preference somehow distilled me down to something to be snickered at, catcalled, and blushed at instead of a complex person for whom sexual identity is one of multiple aspects of her personality.
Living in a society that actively reviles your type of love is a pretty good reason to hate what they call you, so for a long time, I rejected the word lesbian for myself. It came from a place of hatred, prejudice, and heteronormative ignorance. It was a signal that I could be discounted, my rights stripped away, my sexuality boiled down to a locker-room joke or a fetishized porn video.
This past summer, I got tired of letting our painfully heteronormative culture win. Not without rocking some serious boats. Maybe it was that horrible, awful, crap, hetero-panic treatment of every single romance in that last Star Wars movie. Maybe I'm just growing up.
It was like getting struck by lightning out of a clear blue sky. I was visiting my physician for a post-surgery appointment (rotator cuff, thanks to my many years of martial arts). My surgeon is an older guy, very smart, very respectful, always 100% professional. When he found out I'm an author, he asked what I wrote.
"Lesbian YA," I responded (because although I'd never really used the word for me, "lesbian YA" is the name of the genre, so there I was).
His face went beet-red, and he started stammering a little. I could see he was unconsciously making all those old assumptions I made about the word lesbian. Like so many people, he thought lesbian meant erotica. (This is also true of our predominant society, in which women's attraction to women is so often fetishized and put on display for the male gaze.) To his credit, he realized pretty quickly--and maybe from my stone serious expression--that his initial unconscious assessment was inaccurate, and he recovered enough to ask me a little more.
I calmly explained that the word lesbian is not synonymous with sexual content. This is not the first time I've had to explain this. Every time I say lesbian YA, I have to in the next breath mention that there's no "on-screen" sex in CIRCUIT FAE.
Reader, I am so tired of it. And angry. And frustrated. But I'm also hopeful that things can change, that different types of people, when they make an effort, can truly understand one another. So from that moment on, I decided I was going to start calling myself a lesbian, I was going to say lesbian as much as I damn well could until people sucked it up and realized that their worldview needs adjusting.
That's where I am. When I talk about my books, I talk about my disaster lesbians. I tell my mom about my lesbian friends. I recommend lesbian books, go to lesbian movies. I'm a big ol' lesbian.
One of my favorite quotes from the article:
"Lesbian is a powerful word. It denotes a clear set of sexual desires and boundaries – something women have historically been discouraged from doing. Not only that, but the word lesbian describes attraction by women and for women. That is why lesbians have always been perceived as a threat by patriarchy and targeted accordingly: ours is a female sexuality that exists completely independently of males."
Thanks for reading! xoxo,