The Less-bian Problem

I love the word “lesbian.” I love its etymology.

From Wikipedia:
“The word ‘lesbian’ is derived from the name of the Greek island of Lesbos, home to the 6th-century BCE poet Sappho.”

But I have every reason to love it. I am a lesbian, love being one, and love the life I share with my wife. “Lesbian” has never had any negative connotations for me, has never been used against me as a slur, an insult. It seems silly to me that some people use it as an insult, because, in and of itself, it’s not an insulting word–no more insulting than “straight” or “beautiful” or “equality.” It can be used inaccurately–for example, in reference to a woman who is, in fact, not a lesbian. But that doesn’t make it a negative word; only personal perception transforms it into anything other than it is: simply, a noun or an adjective.

Obviously words have power. And they carry with them the weight of our experiences. When I hear the word “lesbian,” my ears perk up because that’s a topic that interests me and something I enjoy talking about. When other people hear it, they may react differently, perhaps negatively, because that is how the word has evolved within them.

It’s the same story with any word, really. A person might hate the word “apple” because they had a bad apple experience. So some people have less-than-neutral-or-even-negative thoughts about the word “lesbian” because something–conscious or unconscious–influenced them to think that way.

The problem is…converting a neutral word into an insulting word leads to devaluation of the word’s original intent. Makes it seem less important. Less sincere. Less meaningful.

Just less.

And kind of like a joke.

A couple of weeks ago I read the novel Happy Endings Are All Alike by Sandra Scoppettone–widely considered one of the first lesbian books aimed at young adults. I don’t have a copy on hand and can’t quote directly, but there’s a scene in the book between one of the protagonists, Peggy, and her father, who has just found out his daughter is romantically involved with her best friend, Jaret, a woman, too. His reaction surprised both his daughter and me: he didn’t mind it, exactly; he just didn’t know if he could ever take a relationship between two women seriously.

Peggy told him that was very chauvinistic of him, and he seemed to agree with her, though that didn’t change the way he felt about lesbianism–as something less than a relationship between a woman and a man.

From Wikipedia:
“Throughout history, women have not had the freedom or independence to pursue homosexual relationships as men have, but neither have they met the harsh punishment in some societies as homosexual men. Instead, lesbian relationships have often been regarded as harmless and incomparable to heterosexual ones unless the participants attempted to assert privileges traditionally enjoyed by men.”

I mean, in recent years (or maybe it’s been this way since the beginning of time?), it’s become sort of cool to be a lesbian–or, rather, to act like a lesbian, i.e. make out with other females in the presence of, and for the benefit of, male onlookers. There’s a weird misconception that lesbians exist as eye candy for men. I recently watched a documentary in which a group of young men were asked how they felt about gay marriage. “Two women together?” one of the guys asked, and his eyes got all misty and his smile spread a mile wide. “Yeah, I like that.” But he was more hesitant on the topic of married gay men.

That bothers me. A lot. Sure, I want the legal right to marry, but I don’t want it for any other reason than because it’s fair. Again, there’s that lessening, that perception that lesbians are nonthreatening and, therefore, fun to ogle, or laugh at. And don’t get me started on the notion that we’re all just waiting for the right man to come along and make us straight. (Trust me, we’re not.)

This issue is really rooted in the perception of women as a whole throughout the entire course of history–but that would make for a much longer post.

I guess my point is that there’s nothing more or less innocuous about a lesbian relationship than there is a gay one, a straight one, or any other kind of relationship. They’re all about people making connections, and they’re all of equal validity, deserving of equal esteem. And “lesbian” isn’t a dirty word, or a funny one, or a trendy one. If we stop using it for all the wrong reasons, maybe the right reasons will begin to gain a little more respect.



About Sarah Diemer

I write about heroic, magical girls who love girls. I drink a lot of coffee. Follow me at or find out more about my work at
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8 Responses to The Less-bian Problem

  1. Shaun says:

    Something struck me about this article. I’d always considered my lesbian friends lucky because, in a lot of ways, my perception was that they had it easier. Men weren’t instantly repulsed by the idea of two women together, and women were often curious. So in a lot of ways, I thought they had an easier time of it.

    I never considered the idea that the flip side of that is that lesbian relationships are often not taken as seriously. And it makes sense that that kind of thinking would exist. Men are intimidated by gay males because men are traditionally aggressors. Historically, it’s the man who initiates sexual relations, the man who proposes, the man who works, etc. So I’d never thought about people’s perceptions of a relationship that hasn’t got a man in it.

    One of my big pet peeves is when I’m identified by my sexual orientation. I don’t want to be seen as a gay person, simply as a person. I don’t want to be judged based on the person with whom I’m in love, but rather by my actions as I make my way through life.

    What a fantastically eye opening post! Kudos!


    • Sarah says:

      Historically, it’s the man who initiates sexual relations, the man who proposes, the man who works, etc. So I’d never thought about people’s perceptions of a relationship that hasn’t got a man in it.

      It’s really weird that you’d bring that up, Shaun–Jenn and I were just talking the other day about aggressors in relationships, and how that works for relationships with two women who are not, for lack of a better word, “masculine” (relegating “masculine” and “feminine” perceptions in relationships). Like–in the books I write, I most often write from the perspective of a girl who is being pursued, but in our relationship, I was the pursuer, and the books that I’ve written that I love WITH MY ENTIRE HEART AND SOUL were about the pursuers. Not that in a relationship you can’t have both women doing pursuing (it definitely happens), but it was just interesting, because I’d never thought about it in those terms–pursuer and pursued (taking away icky labels like the “manly” or “womanly” one). 🙂


  2. Ah, yes, the dreaded male gaze. *gag* Clearly women’s only purpose ever is to please the man, right?

    Wonderful post, Jenn. 🙂


    • Er, I should clarify that I mean the societal male gaze. I do like men on an individual basis! 😛


    • Sidhe says:

      I know what you mean. I’m bisexual and when I was younger, men would come onto me because they thought they could watch me with another woman or have a threesome with me. Um, no, my sexuality is not there to serve you. Fortunately, I have met many men who are MUCH nicer since then.


  3. Katya says:

    I remember back in December I had to do a presentation for Spoken French and I chose the topic of gay marriage legislation and laws concerning adoption by homosexual couples in Britain and France. The wikipedia article I used as reference said that until the late 18th century male homosexuality was punishable by death, while female homosexuality was neither acknowledged nor punished. One of my coursemates asked why that was, and I had to explain to him that lesibanism just wasn’t taken seriously at the time.

    I don’t think people intentionally don’t know about these things, but they don’t particularly interest themselves in it unless it concerns them directly. Earlier this week, I had to explain to my class (after a horribly inappropriate joke I made, to which I apologize profousely) how society’s common perception of lesbianism (that it exists to turn men on, thanks to pornography) has actually made it difficult for bisexuals to be accepted as such. While it was a horribly embarrassing moment for me (because I’d made the joke in the first place), the teacher thanked me because now she knew. I only hope the rest of my coursemates share her opinion.


  4. Meg says:

    Fantastic post, Jenn ❤

    I remember when I was in high school, and my heart was seriously lost to my best friend. My parents didn't bother me about it much, though I'd never admitted it to them, but I remember somehow it came up that girls (and, me) fall in love with their girl friends because they're emotionally immature. As if maturity had anything to do with what gender you were attracted to or loved. Yeah, that bothered me.


  5. Ally says:

    This is actually a topic I think about often, being interested in the history of homosexuality in Britain. But still, when I read this post, the first thing I thought was, “Wow, that’s so stupid, because Jenn and Sarah are more MARRIED than most het couples I know!”

    And now I’m all thinky about the effect of women’s second-class citzenship on lesbian and bisexual women, when I had been meaning to go back to bed. LOL


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