Lesbian Is Not Just an Identity—It’s Something You Do

Curvea magazine focused on lesbian news, politics, culture, lifestyle, travel, and fashion—was founded in 1990 (under the title of Deneuve) in San Francisco by Frances Stevens and Outspoken Enterprises. Like other niche publications, its mission was to provide a community of readers with a medium that provided visibility and information. Its longevity is unusual and the result of hard work, determination, a change of ownership in 2010, stringent budget cuts, and a merger with a similar U.K. publication earlier this year. Like most queer media, magazines for lesbians have often struggled. American publications aimed at this demographic such as Jane and Jane, Girlfriends, On Our Backs, and She have folded over the years—possibly because they have been unable or unwilling to change in the digital age. Such change is often necessary—but change for the sake of change is not always wise.

For as long as I can remember Curve’s tagline has been “The best-selling lesbian magazine.”

Recently, I received an email from a reader asking us to change that. The subject line of her email was curt: “Curve: lesbian magazine.” Her email read:

i really enjoy reading Curve magazine. my spouse (who is female) brings them home for me as a treat. … in addition to the interesting articles, it’s so fun to see myself reflected in the queer ads. however, it kind of hurts my feelings when i see so much bisexual invisibility throughout the pages. pete’s sake, even on the cover it says LESBIAN magazine under the word Curve. could that maybe be changed to queer? or some other less exclusionary word? i am happily married to a woman, but i am not a lesbian. i’m bisexual. i think there are others out there like me who enjoy this magazine but don’t feel great about being rendered invisible.

I am familiar with these sentiments, having heard them for more than 16 years during my career as editor-in-chief of three different lesbian magazines across two continents. But I have to disagree. During that time, I have viewed the word lesbian not so much as a stable minority identity, but as a noun, as an adjective, and as a verb. Who can forget season one of Orange Is the New Black when Pennsatucky says of her inmates Piper and Alex, “They lesbianing together.” I am a lesbian by virtue of acting upon my desires. Even if I was born this way, I choose to be this way, and I assume that the lesbian feelings I have are shared by bisexual, queer, and—according to numerous studies—a good percentage of straight women.

For me, lesbian is already an inclusive word—but that’s a sentiment not shared by my emailer, or perhaps by anyone who earned a humanities degree in the last 25 years. Because at the end of that email lurked an accusation that sounded vaguely academic, as though emanating from a women’s or gender studies program: Curve’s tagline had “rendered invisible” one of its readers.

How can an identity different from or adjacent to your own erase you? How does a magazine that you choose to pick up exclude you? But like erasure, invisibility has become a buzzword in our community of late. These terms are by-products of identity politics, a belief system prevalent among minorities in their struggle to identify themselves as “other” than the status quo—sometimes in a credible, activism-driven way, but often in a way that emphasizes dispossession and victimhood. In our insistence on the infinite refinement of anti-establishment, anti-patriarchal selfhood, we’ve othered ourselves out of our own communities. Today, it is the schisms between us that define us more than our similarities.

I replied to the woman’s email in our Letters page and explained that lesbian is not about a flag; it’s about a feeling. In my mind, women—bisexual women, queer women, and lesbians, whether cisgender or transgender—can all identify as lesbian through the lens of desire. That old-fashioned word describes the drive that makes me want to get into bed with a member of the same sex—not an “identity.”

As a woman who came out in the early 1990s, during the brief heyday of “lesbian chic,” which was a time when lesbian visibility was deemed culturally cool, I find the tendency to silo ourselves into micro-identities a less-than-joyful approach to something that was once exciting and spontaneous. While lesbianism is not a club, I remember spending a good deal of my youth queuing up outside them—curious and excited by the possibility that I might find a home inside and if not, well, I was free to look elsewhere or perhaps establish one of my own.

Young LGBTQ people seem to feel so easily “excluded” these days. And so do older lesbians who lament the loss of their community even before its roots could take hold. But let’s abandon these cries of victimhood. Let’s stop playing with semantics and look at our actual lives: Women who love other women, whatever label you add on top of that, still suffer. They still have precious few places to go. They still have a shrinking media in spite of the digital revolution, and a handful of magazines worldwide—Curve being one of them—hanging on for dear life.

What I really wanted to say to the young woman who emailed me was this:

A lesbian magazine is not a club or a sorority. It is not a college textbook; it is not a DNA test; it is not your birth certificate; it is not a tattoo; it is not a label; and it does not have to represent or describe every aspect of you. It is merely a place to meet and see yourself or part of yourself—the lesbian part—reflected in an affirming light. A lesbian magazine—hell, any magazine—is a mutable space where identity, ideology, aesthetics, commerce, and yes, desire, converge. As with any women’s magazine, there will be divergent viewpoints and disagreements. But I decline to remove lesbian from our tagline because I don’t want to see the three-decade vision of many women hijacked by today’s likely ephemeral understanding of identity politics. I’m not saying that your sexual preference is not valid. (It is.) I’m not saying that today’s inquiry into gender binaries is a fad. (We may very well evolve beyond our historic understanding of gender categories to a point of complete neutrality or infinite variety.)

But I am not yet ready to give up the fight for women; for those who identify as women; and for women who love other women. Call it what you want, but for now I’m calling it lesbian.

Read more of Outward’s Lesbian Issue.