Some years ago, a close friend and I developed a not-so-subtle code for queer women too basic for our tastes: We’d make an “L” with our thumbs and forefingers against our foreheads, like the loser sign that was popular when we were in middle school. In this case, the “L” stood for lesbian.
We, too, were lesbians—generally speaking. But the women my friend and I mocked (and trust, I am duly shamed by this memory) were what we’d call “capital-L lesbians.” We were urban-dwelling and queer-identified and in our 20s; the other women came from the suburbs, skewed older, and were, we presumed, unversed in queer politics. We traveled in circles of dapper butches and subversive femmes; the other women either easily passed as straight or dressed generically sporty in cargo shorts and flip-flips. A woman in this category was clearly down with the assimilationist, trans-exclusive politics of the likes of the Human Rights Campaign. She was the kind of dyke for whom the laughably niche Cosmopolitan lesbian-sex tip “tug on her ponytail” might actually apply.
In other words, we shared a common sexual orientation, but little, if any, cultural affiliation. In the space between “lesbian” and “queer,” my friend and I located a world of difference in politics, gender presentation, and cosmopolitanism. Some of our resistance to the term lesbian arose, no doubt, from internalized homophobic notions of lesbians as unfashionable, uncultured homebodies. We were convinced that our cool clothes and enlightened, radical paradigm made us something other than lesbians, a label chosen by progenitors who lived in a simpler time with stricter gender boundaries. But with a time-honored label comes history and meaning; by leaving lesbian behind, we were rejecting, in part, a strong identity and legacy that we might have claimed as our own. While all identities are a product of their respective historical moments, starting from scratch is a daunting prospect. And so we’re left in a gray area of nomenclature, searching for threads of unity in our pluralism, wondering what, if any, role lesbian can play in a future that’s looking queerer by the day.
Cultural connotations aside, the main reason my friend and I felt (and still feel) more comfortable with queer than lesbian was practical: The word lesbian, insofar as it means a woman who is primarily attracted to women, does not correctly describe our reality. My personal queer community comprises cisgender and transgender women; transgender men and transmasculine people; and people who identify as non-binary or genderqueer. One friend told me queer works better for her and her female spouse because lesbian implies a kind of sameness she doesn’t see in her relationship or those of her peers. In her circles, as in mine, most romantic partnerships lean butch-femme or involve at least one trans or genderqueer person. Many of us have had or are currently enmeshed in sexual or romantic relationships with people who aren’t women. Using lesbian to refer to my queer sphere (e.g. “She’s hosting a lesbian potluck!”) excludes many people I consider my peers. In most young, urban queer communities, at least, lesbian, in its implication of a cisgender woman to cisgender woman arrangement, is both inaccurate and gauche.
But then, it’s hard to organize around a community without a name. I co-host monthly queer tea-dance parties in the warmer months, and my partners and I have struggled to promote our event to our desired audience. We called it a “ladies’ tea dance” for the first few years; one of my fellow co-hosts was a well-known trans guy in the community, and we thought his leadership would be enough to make it clear that anyone with social connections to queer women would be welcome, too. When some transgender attendees told us that the “ladies” terminology felt exclusive, we agreed, and started using the word queer on its own. But in D.C., as in most places, queer parties that get labeled without a gender often default to gay men, who crowd the rest of us off the dance floor. And while we’d never turn away cis gay men (one of our favorite guest DJs is one), I believe it’s important to carve out spaces that explicitly focus on women, especially as lesbian bars and publications shutter en masse. Basically, we wanted to promote our party to women—plus all queer or trans people who aren’t cisgender men.
Unfortunately, there’s no word for that. So my peers and I have found ourselves using the phrase not cis men to describe the makeup of our friend groups, political identity groups, and the people we want to come to our dance parties. It’s functional, but a bit hollow: There’s a feeling of being uprooted from time, place, and meaning that comes with defining ourselves by what we are not. Lesbian has a rich political and social history; not cis men establishes our identities quite literally on someone else’s terms. It gives cis men power and presence, assets they already disproportionately control, in conversations that have nothing to do with them. And it reaffirms cis male identity as the norm from which all others deviate. Not cis men is the non-white people to people of color.
That said, non-specificity is part of the appeal. Not cis men and queer are broad enough to include not only transgender and genderqueer people (and those who date them) but bi- and pansexual women who are often sidelined in lesbian society. Still, an increasing number of young people who are more or less straight are identifying as queer as a statement of political worldview rather than sexual orientation. Lesbian leaves no doubt that a woman’s sexual and romantic affinities run toward other women. In a world that preferences heterosexual pairings, lesbians face a very different reality than queers-in-name-only, giving the term the power of a blunt, plainspoken, unapologetic declaration. Sex and the City, funnily enough, neatly captured this debate way back in 1999. In one episode, a few art-world lesbians reject Charlotte’s attempts to insert herself into their cabal, telling her, “if you’re not going to eat pussy, you’re not a dyke.”
That seductively simple definition of dyke or lesbian would never fly in most circles of queer women today, attuned as we are to multiplicities of gender and genitals. But the male variation—“if you’re not going to suck cock, you’re not a faggot”—is less likely to raise hackles in the average clique of gay men. Where spaces that cater to lesbians and queer women are very likely to accommodate transgender and non-binary people, too, social gatherings of gay men are typically far less diverse, gender-wise. And our femininity-devaluing society leaves far more room for women than men to claim a fluid sexual orientation, meaning queer women are more likely to have current or former partners who aren’t women. That’s why it’s both easy and usually accurate to label circles of gay men as “gay men”—and why gay men are relatively free from the perpetual infighting over labels and politics that seems common among segments of queer women.
Of course, gay men are no more monolithic than queer women are. But generalizations are often instructive, especially when they ring true. Communities of queer women have long committed themselves to never-ending cycles of self-examination and reorientation to radical politics, prioritizing inclusion and calling each other out, for better or for worse, when an assumption of shared experience leaves someone out. Communities of gay men, on the other hand, have largely hewed to a coherent, unifying cultural through-line. They have rich lexicon of campy icons and references; new bars popping up like crabgrass in D.C.; quite a few contemporary films and TV shows just or mostly about them; a vibrant party culture that’s survived decades of gentrification and a deadly public health crisis; and enough hookup apps to cover desired mates from twink to daddy. Queer women have an atrophying network of physical and digital spaces; a largely unrecorded history most of us know very little about; precious few authentic pop culture representations; and no hookup apps with a critical mass of users. If there’s a “lesbian” culture today, what is it? In 10 years, will it still be around? Can we still claim even a modicum of connection to the history of our forebears if we look back at them with chagrin or consider ourselves a different species altogether?
Without a label that’s at once inclusive, accurate, and specific, it’s hard to imagine how not cis men might ever create the kind of tangible, identifiable touchstones that make gay male culture so rich and durable. (Granted, that durability is one upshot of a culture that doesn’t engage as readily with more inclusive notions of gender and sexuality.) Losing lesbian means losing a well-defined commonality around which to socialize and mobilize. Perhaps that commonality was never as common as it seemed; at any rate, it’s clear that lesbian doesn’t properly explain our collective identity any more. But as queer women and our comrades mourn the losses of lesbian bars and media outlets the nation over, it’s worth wondering how we might expect a dance party or magazine to cater to us when our identities and politics appear to prevent us from sharing a name.
There’s something very queer about rejecting all labels and insisting on making home in the gaps between. As a practical matter, though, it is no easy feat to organize or serve a community that’s defined by its fragmentation. Well-intentioned attempts at inclusive language should be applauded, though many will inevitably fall short; and we are not vampires who must be explicitly invited by name to cross the threshold of a nightclub. If lesbians and queer women can acknowledge that our collective identity defies conventional labels, we must accept that, until we come up with a new vocabulary to describe our world, no one label will ever feel quite right. The lightning-fast evolution of queer terminology shows no signs of slowing, and no amount of internecine bickering will ever result in a name that pleases everyone. Instead, the endless calling-out of inadequate verbiage that counts as queer discourse these days threatens to undermine any hope of preserving the good stuff, the connective tissue of lesbian culture that doesn’t depend on transgender exclusion.
Maybe, instead of depending so hard on labels to give us identity and meaning, queer-not-cis-men should focus our energies on bringing our own identities and meanings to what spaces we have left, whether they invite us by our preferred terms or something adjacent. Queer people have generations of experience reclaiming words and cultural traditions that weren’t explicitly meant for us. The tea dance is a brilliant example of our capacity for reinvention and asserting belonging from within. If queers can transform a formal social gathering for biscuit-nibbling heterosexuals into a mainstay of the gay party circuit, imagine what we could do with lesbian.