Congratulations, you’re not a lesbian!

Coming to terms with your sexuality and the identity that fits you best can be a difficult thing. Coming out, even to ourselves, is a shared experience for any one of us who finds we are something other than heterosexual, which is why I find it incredibly frustrating when some queer and straight women alike say, “I am not a lesbian!”

First, I’m going to address those who are under the queer umbrella. You may not like “queer” either, but it’s used as an all-encompassing blanket term because there are so many of us that don’t want to be labeled—and I get that. In fact, I celebrate that. I am so thrilled to know people who are bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, homoromantic asexual, gay, poly, gender-fluid, agender or prefer to be label-free. But it’s so often that people who claim these identities are the ones who make their definitive, sometimes disgusted-sounded affirmations of “not being a lesbian,” and, well….

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I appreciate that you don’t want to be assumed or labeled something you are not. As a femme (identified and presenting) lesbian, I am frequently assumed to be straight. Yeah, I could roll my eyes and say, “I am not straight!” but honestly, I know a lot of really nice straight people and feel like it’s okay to define myself without inferring that whatever they are is something I’d rather not be, even if it is the case. I am proud of being a lesbian and queer and gay and a feminist and a woman, the labels I feel fit me best. When you say “I’m not a lesbian!” you could be saying, “Actually, I identify as ______” instead of using a phrase that insinuates you want to be anything but.

The idea of labels and the history that lesbians share with bisexual and other queer identified women is loaded, from the earliest political groups like the Lesbian Avengers to the more modern day Dyke Marches and dance parties. As a community, we aim to be as inclusive as possible, and I can tell you firsthand that running a website that caters to this crowd en masse has proven difficult when it comes to appeasing every single reader in a headline or a tweet. For better or for worse, we are a community that polices other people’s identities, from public figures to family and friends in our own lives.

As more and more public figures come out of the closet, the words they use for their own identities have been dissected and debated. When Ellen DeGeneres came out on Time magazine and on her TV show, she used the word “gay,” but she’s also used “lesbian” to describe herself. YouTuber Ingrid Nilsen‘s recent coming out on her video blog was also accompanied by the words “I’m gay.” Then at VidCon last month, she made reference to herself as a lesbian.

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But for every for Ellen and Ingrid, there are plenty of other out figures who identify as something other than a lesbian, and so many are doing great work in the name of visibility for bisexuality (like Anna Paquin and Evan Rachel Wood), pansexuality (Angel Haze) and fluidity (Miley Cyrus). Thankfully, they do not go out of their way to say “I am not a lesbian!” in order to define themselves, even if the general public still cannot wrap their heads around the large spectrum that makes up sexual identities, and I appreciate that so much. Because yes, Virginia, there are lesbians! And by finding that you are a lesbian and that it fits you does not mean anything other than what you want it to. There will be people out there who tell you what it means to be one, but here’s a secret: There’s no way to be a lesbian. By definition, it means you’re “a homosexual woman,” but there’s nothing else in Webster’s about the kind of clothes you must wear, music you should listen to or hobbies you will enjoy. I guarantee that if you are the most stereotypical of lesbians (flannel, potlucks, etc.), there will be something about you that isn’t something others will assume of you, because you’re an individual, even if you are a part of a worldwide Sapphic tapestry.

I often hear from lesbians I know that they don’t like the word lesbian. But just like women who say they don’t like the word “feminist,” it has more to do with what they think those phrases mean to the world, and they are seeing them with the negative connotations that they (and we all) could be working to dispel every day. (For the record, heterosexual feminists tried to keep lesbians from joining the fight for gender equality but the Lavender Menace proved we were not only part of the solution, but a necessary component to the fight for all women.)

This extends, again, to Hollywood and the entertainment industry. While covering TV shows and films that have same-sex female themes and characters, it’s so often that gay women who work on the projects will say “It’s not a lesbian show” or “It’s just not just for lesbians.” Believe it or not, even The L Word sought to advertise itself as a broadly appealing show, and not just one for a lesbian audience. What is everyone so afraid of?

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Do not misunderstand me and think I’m saying you are all closet lesbians. I do think, however, that there’s some lesbophobia inherent in your declaration of not identifying as one. I’m on your side. You don’t have to identify as anything, but you also don’t have to use my identity to describe what you are not. It’s likely just as annoying to me as it is for you to hear people telling you that you are a lesbian.

The next time you feel the need to tell someone how not a lesbian you are, I suggest offering up how you do identify versus how you don’t. There are baby dykes of all ages out there listening to what you say and how you say it. Your words have power.

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