A Lesbian Reclamation of the Word “Girlfriend”

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In 2014, at the ripe old age of 24, I finally got myself a girlfriend, and I was amped about it. I was in love. I was maybe even “in luff” the way Alvy Singer was with Annie Hall. I had found my lobster. I wanted to shout it from a mountaintop (in what I imagine is the gayest way possible to announce voluntary monogamy)—arms outstretched and fingers spiriting as if in the finale of a three and half hour off-off-Broadway musical.

A constant commitment-phobe, I was ready and willing to proclaim that I was in an “adult relationship.” The Facebook relationship status was updated. It wasn’t “complicated” anymore, or so I thought.  To my consternation, nearly every time I tried to verbalize my happy coupling to anyone not in my tribe of friends (or who wasn’t also queer) my efforts were dashed. My use of the word “girlfriend” was mistaken as platonic language time and time again. So, like a good millennial I took to Facebook, in a moment of anger, to rant. I stated the following with a scowling emoji or two:

Can we do away with saying “my girlfriends” my female heterosexual comrades and just say, friends? Gal Pal, perhaps? Just a thought. Maybe I should just beeline for the word partner to describe my girlfriend, but then strangers are going to think I’m selling them something. Thank God I’ll be able to legally say wife… well, someday. Or maybe I’ll just shave my head.

I didn’t shave my head—I would look more like a sad ’90s troll than an overt lesbian without my mane of curls. But that day I did decide that lesbians far and wide will finally take back the word “girlfriend” from our straight female (and male) counterparts as used to describe platonic female relationships. Words carry weight; colloquialisms resemble the times in which we live, and language evolves to more closely describe its changing people.

As a femme-presenting lesbian, I feel that outing myself daily is not something I need to do to feel seen and heard. I am still myself whether or not the passersby know my true sexual preference. What is markedly aggravating, however, is whilst being in a committed and loving relationship with a woman (when I’m stoked to share that I am, indeed, “taken,” “in love,” or “wifed up,”) my own use of the word “girlfriend” rarely translates my intended meaning and is repeatedly mistaken for antiquated straight girl lingo.

Straight women have been using the term “girlfriend” as a way to describe (perhaps redundantly) their other straight, female friends for decades. They use it in the singular and in the plural, as in, “My girlfriend and I had the best manicure there,” or “My girlfriends and I road tripped to Coachella last summer.” It is outdated. My God, is it outdated. Straight cis men never refer to their male friends as their boyfriends. So, why do straight women continue to refer to their platonic female friends as such? 

Gay women’s ease and ability to begin a story with, “I took my girlfriend out for chicken and waffles,” or “My girlfriend and I loved Mustang, have you seen it yet?” or “My girlfriend really hates it when I simultaneously flip off/ curse inept drivers on the 405,” should be an established manner of speaking by now. The phrase “my girlfriend and I” should simultaneously indicate that a woman’s gay and in love, not that she’s, instead, referring to a close female friend who used to braid her hair during sleep away camp.

My girlfriend isn’t my “gal pal,” isn’t my platonic friend at all. “Girlfriend” needs to be sexy again, needs to imply commitment when it’s coming out of the homosexual female’s mouth and needs not to be laughed off by straight men that readily use it to describe their own meaningful love relationships.

My girlfriend isn’t my “gal pal,” isn’t my platonic friend at all. “Girlfriend” needs to be sexy again, needs to imply commitment when it’s coming out of the homosexual female’s mouth and needs not to be laughed off by straight men that readily use it to describe their own meaningful love relationships.

Passing as straight when you are a gay woman (or man) is not a blessing—it’s simply an inconvenience and, at it’s worst, it is lesbian erasure. Passing for straight (or automatically being assigned heterosexual) perpetuates sexual orientation stereotypes based solely on presenting traditional femininity, or certain facets of it such as long hair, makeup, donning anything other than pants, having breasts, curves, or ever wearing any hue of pink. As if presenting any of these automatically dictates your gender identity or denotes with whom you share your bed.

We live in a society defined by shorthand labels to help us make sense of things. The most common label used to describe a woman’s sexuality is “hetero.” Little boys’ sexuality is called into question early on—I can’t tell you how many times I heard middle school boys threaten and taunt each other with the label, “fag” and “faggot.” Little girls are rarely called anything other than “slut” or “whore” because already we belong to men the minute our two x chromosomes appear in an ultrasound. Heterosexuality is the standard, the sexuality against which all other sexualities are measured. Therefore,  “girlfriend” carries little weight when a queer girl uses it to describe her partner.

Lesbian visibility is important. Not assuming that heterosexuality is the default—not abiding by the ideals of hetero-normativity as the gold standard of living as a person on the planet is important. Heterosexuality is no longer the only option—and truth be told, it never was. Normalcy is constantly being redefined and reconstituted to fit our present-day landscape and, so too, should the vocabulary we use to describe it. I want to be selfishly able to say “my girlfriend” and have the declaration, no matter how understated, be understood immediately.

Sexual ambiguity is preferable to chronic hetero assumptions. It’s time to reprogram our brains to assume nothing and sit with the questions—including asking ourselves, “How do the ways in which we speak about human identity affect our own humanity?”

I don’t want to make up another word for my girlfriend—she’s my girlfriend. I don’t need another exclusionary piece of vocabulary to make my relationship read as lesser. I’d never call my girlfriend my gay lover in the same way that I’d never call a marriage a civil union. Repurposing old words for those who wish to use them in a strictly homosexual context is important. I acknowledge, however, that some words never shake their previous associations. “Gay” used to mean happy, and it still does.