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