Lesbian is a Powerful Word. Here’s Why We Will Always Need It.

Lesbian. One word. Three syllables. And a whole lot of controversy.

For over a century, women have struggled for lesbian sexuality to be acknowledged as legitimate. These battles have taken place in courtrooms, as lesbians fought to retain custody of their children. They have taken place in the medical system, which systematically pathologized lesbians and gays right up until the 1970s. They continue to take place in families, communities, and churches.

With every generation, the fight for lesbian acceptance has grown a little easier. Thanks to the gains made by our community elders, attitudes have shifted – and more of us feel able to take up arms in this struggle. As time progressed and we gained momentum, the battle reached new heights: government.

Slowly but surely, homosexuality is being decriminalized across the globe. And since the century turned, more and more countries have sanctioned same-sex marriage, providing crucial legal recognition for lesbian and gay couples.

Just when it looked like the battle was close to being won, it kicked off all over again – this time online. In recent years, the word lesbian has become freshly controversial. At first glance it would be easy to blame the far-right – they have bulldozed into the political mainstream, driven by the occupants of the White House and 10 Downing Street. But this is not the only threat we’re facing. Elements of the queer left are now determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

In the last decade, lesbian identity has faced intense existential scrutiny from the community in which we supposedly belong. Every aspect of lesbian sexuality, culture, or feminism has been put under the microscope of queer thought.

In the last decade, lesbian identity has faced intense existential scrutiny from the community in which we supposedly belong. Every aspect of lesbian sexuality, culture, or feminism has been put under the microscope of queer thought.

Critical self-reflection is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is a vital part of the social movements that paved the way for the rights we presently enjoy. But there’s a difference between scrutinizing the meaning of the word lesbian and contesting it.

A rising tide of op-eds, listicles, and feminist resources have attempted to sweep the word lesbian from our cultural lexicon. The Brag brought us “Eight reasons why I hate the word ‘lesbian’.” Buzzfeed posted a listicle entitled “A Lot Of Lesbians Hate The Word ‘Lesbian’”, claiming that “it sounds like a rare disease.” They also published an op-ed by Shannon Keating questioning whether lesbian identity can even survive the gender revolution. “Against the increasingly colorful backdrop of gender diversity,” Keating claims, “a binary label like ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian” starts to feel somewhat stale and stodgy.”

Each of these articles appeals to a reader’s sense of herself as someone modern and progressive, enticing her to leave behind the label of lesbian in favor of “queer.” Lesbian, we are told, is insufficiently inclusive. Same-sex desire, in the era of fluidity, is old-fashioned.

The term “queer” has gained popularity as a catch-all because it delineates no specific boundaries and details no fixed set of desires. While some find this umbrella term helpful, others – many of whom fought for the rights we presently enjoy – worry that we risk undermining lesbians’ right to self-definition.

Younger women are also alienated by this enthusiasm for abandoning lesbian identity. Arielle Scarcella, a prominent YouTuber, has been branded “transphobic” for asserting that as a lesbian woman she “like[s] boobs and vaginas and not penises.” The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras canceled a panel with her – incidentally, according to Scarcella, their only lesbian-focused event – after an online campaign called for her removal.

Scarcella has consistently used her platform to uplift lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans voices. Her videos provide information about lesbian sex, relationships, and health that – even nowadays – is too often missing from SRE classes in schools. She’s exactly the sort of person who should be embraced by progressive political communities. And yet Scarcella was denounced as a bigot for describing herself as same-sex attracted – which ultimately led her to disavow the ‘progressive’ left. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie observed, “the left is very cannibalistic. It eats its own.”

And Scarcella is not alone. In her research paper Lesbians at Ground Zero, Angela Wild found that 66% of respondents “reported being intimidated or receiving threats in their LGBT group” as a consequence of describing themselves as same-sex attracted.

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.

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.

Brutal tactics like corrective rape, forced marriage, and medicalization have been weaponized in the hope of forcing us back into the heterosexual fold. In many countries, these practices continue – which is why lesbian asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable. When the mainstream world continues attaching such devastating consequences to being lesbian, gay and feminist communities can ill afford to give up the word. Self-definition is a key part of liberation politics.

Lesbian, noun: a  female homosexual.