Lesbians who don’t think they’re lesbians

In my career as a lesbian feminist blogger I have come across many stories of lesbians not knowing they are lesbians. Some of these stories are from FtM transitioners who can’t possibly believe they are female and lesbian, and some of them are women who are not trans but who spent many years of their lives not understanding what their feelings for women meant or how they could act on them.

I am starting to realize how lucky I am, and how hard things obviously are for other lesbians. I’m very lucky I was able to realize it in my early 20s and that I was able to meet my partner and be with her for so many years. Some women I’ve met on the Internet had confusing feelings for other women for many years but didn’t quite understand what it meant, or sort of knew they were lesbian but could not come out, and stayed in the closet for years, or believed that they couldn’t really be one due to the belief that all lesbians have a certain culture and not identifying with that culture. But you don’t have to be a certain way to be a lesbian—the only criteria you have to meet is that you are a woman who loves women. A lesbian is a female homosexual, so if you are a female and attracted to females, guess what! You are a lesbian. You don’t have to own a plaid shirt or a cat, you don’t have to shave your head, you don’t have to listen to Ani Difranco, you don’t have to be a radical feminist—if you are a female homosexual then you have a right to the word lesbian. Let’s have a handy flow chart, shall we? Everyone loves a flow chart!

lesbian flow chart

While my personal opinion is that everyone should be a radical feminist, lots of lesbians aren’t. In fact, some lesbians are downright misogynist. Don’t ask me why, I don’t get it! Some lesbians are liberal sex-pozzies, some lesbians are conservatives, some are sporty, some are masculine, some are feminine, some are soccer moms, some are geeks and some are rock stars and none of these lesbians are doing lesbian wrong. We are just people like anybody else, and we are only united by our sexual orientation. In some cases, our sexual orientation is the only thing we have in common.

I don’t know what it is about the last few years, but it seems that tons of lesbians are refusing the label lesbian and calling themselves anything else—genderqueer, non-binary, transmen, the list goes on. When did ‘lesbian’ become such a terrible word anyway? I finally watched a few videos about How I Knew I was FtM tonight, and sure enough, these videos are full of lesbians who are desperately trying not to be lesbians and to be men instead. This just breaks my heart. This is homophobia and they can’t see it.

Here is a FtM video where she realized she was trans at age 23. (This means that she successfully navigated the world as a female for 23 years…it seems to me it would be entirely possible to continue!) She realized she was trans because she was dating a woman who was involved in the queer community and this led her to meet some FtMs. Before this, she claims she only dated straight women. WHAT!?! No, you didn’t. For fuck’s sake, if women wanted to date you BEFORE YOU EVER DECIDED YOU WERE TRANS they certainly weren’t straight women. You were a woman in a woman’s body identifying as a woman when you were dating those “straight women.” It turns out that straight women only date men, and they don’t date lesbians who may someday take testosterone.

Some of the reasons she identifies as trans are (1) she feels she can relate to other FtMs (2) she prefers an androgynous presentation and wears boxers (3) she doesn’t think it’s normal for women to want an androgynous or masculine presentation (4) she watched a lot of transition videos (5) calling herself a lesbian never felt right even though she knew she was a woman attracted to women, and the FtM identity felt better (6) she feels uncomfortable that people identify her as female.

Here is a video where a lesbian couple talks about how the one reacted when the other said she is really a boy. The more feminine one says that she is a lesbian and only dates women, but she will not break up with her girlfriend even if she identifies as a boyfriend. Well, duh—the reason you aren’t breaking up with your girlfriend is because she’s still your girlfriend. She’s not a boy and you both know it.

Here is a video where a lesbian FtM says that she knew she was really a boy because (1) she liked wearing boys’ clothes (2) she hated dresses and long hair (3) she saw a FtM character on Degrassi. That’s it! She talks about wearing boys’ clothes during most of the video. It seems she wants to take testosterone just to gain permission to wear baggy clothes.

I couldn’t even get through more than three videos. These poor girls who grew up with such strict gender roles that they can’t believe they are female! They seem to think it is completely absurd for a female to want to wear comfortable clothes and have a girlfriend. This is not unusual at all! Lots of women prefer baggy clothes, and plenty of us are attracted to other women. The one girl who said that she knew she was trans because she likes wearing boxer shorts—for fuck’s sake, I like wearing boxer shorts and I’m the more feminine one in my relationship.

If you are a girl who always liked playing in the mud, being active, and wearing comfortable clothes, you are a completely normal girl—there is nothing unusual about any of that. If you like your hair short, you are a completely normal girl—take a look at adult women some time, and you’ll notice that lots of them have short hair, even the straight ones! If you are a lesbian who wants to make her presentation increasingly more masculine as she gets older, you are a completely normal lesbian—lots of us are this way. I used to be somewhat feminine as a teenager, and I cut my hair short in my 20s and started wearing more androgynous clothes and sometimes men’s clothes when I can. And like I said, I’m not even as masculine as my partner is. My partner learned how to repair cars from her uncle when she was a kid, and she would feel really uncomfortable in women’s clothes, and her interests besides auto repair are woodworking/DIY, demolition, chain saws, horror films, and power tools. She’s still a woman. You know, I think my partner is more masculine than some of these young dykes who think they must be men.

If the label lesbian feels uncomfortable to you, you have internalized homophobia. I am pretty out and proud these days, but once upon a time I was in a counselling office crying and terrified to say the words “I’m attracted to her” out loud and thinking that it was the end of the world. It certainly doesn’t feel comfortable calling yourself a lesbian right away. This doesn’t mean you’re not a lesbian, it just means that coming out is not easy! It’s not easy for any of us. If you are female and attracted to females and you don’t like the word lesbian, the question you should be asking is “why?” Take a good hard look at the answer to that question.

If you feel uncomfortable that people identify and treat you as female, you are not alone on that one, either. It turns out that it’s hard to be female in a woman-hating culture, and this is hard for all of us, regardless of our gender presentation. None of us likes the sexual harassment, the rape jokes, the actual rape, the being treated like second class citizens or being paid less money. In fact, there is an entire movement going on to improve the lives of females—it’s called feminism.

I just don’t know what to do about all this. I know if I tried reaching out to any of these young women who think they’re men they’d just dismiss me as transphobic. But I don’t hate nor fear them— I care about them. I care about the fact that it’s hard to come out as a lesbian and I wish it wasn’t so hard. Truly, you can get over internalized homophobia, you can wear the clothes you want, you can find a lesbian partner, and you can have a wonderful life. I’ve been an out lesbian for years, I have a loving partner and I’m just living the dream over here. I want the same for all my sisters.


22 thoughts on “Lesbians who don’t think they’re lesbians

  1. This is such a fascinating topic. Recently, I was thinking about how homophobia can be seen as thinly veiled sexism. Many of the homophobic slurs hurled at men are based on the idea that it’s insulting to be feminine or vulnerable in any way. In our culture, many people feel threatened by the widening of typical gender expressions–women who prefer short hair, less or no makeup and comfortable clothes MUST want to be men because only men get comfort and convenience?

    I also suspect there is a certain safety in the need to occupy typical gender stereotypes. It’s almost like “everything is okay as long as everyone plays their part.” But if men and women begin to express themselves in ways not typical to their sex, it forces the more rigidly defined to reexamine their own expression, values, etc.

    I think a lot of homophobic men are threatened by the possibility that they could also be vulnerable. And I think there are probably a lot of women threatened by the possibility of strength or even an existence that isn’t somehow defined by men.

    Part of it is just human nature but part of it is the damned brainwashing of the patriarchy that relies on women occupying the weaker role in order for men to feel powerful. Anything outside the “norm” might bring down the whole system! Aaahhh!

    Thanks — I love articles that make me think!

    Liked by 8 people

  2. God this is so heartbreaking. I’m almost in tears after watching just the first video. I just want to shake all the young lesbians and say YES IT IS NORMAL to feel that way about gender roles, especially as a butch lesbian. Yes it’s normal to internalize homophobic views about the word lesbian when we’re most visible as a fuckin PORN category. Ugh.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. PurpleSage, it may be a lot worse than homophobia. It may be that lesbian is so “last century” and genderqueer-trans is “cool.” People can sometimes learn to get over homophobia . The number of people who can get over status-seeking is infinitesimal.

    (Yes, I’m partly being sarcastic and disgusted about the dishonesty of it all. But I’m partly also afraid it’s true.)

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Hmmm….I don’t agree. I’m 40 and I don’t feel comfortable labelling myself into a box. I think attraction is complicated and social norms have us following a certain way of being. I was married to a man for 17 years and have been with a woman for 2 years. I couldn’t say for certain that I’m attracted to any particular gender because I’ve not really had the chance to really explore that. So I prefer to use the term queer for myself, because it feels inclusive of whatever it is that I am…which isn’t straight. I do think ‘lesbian’ is a very political label, and to me it IS negatively weighted, but mostly in terms of the ‘gold stars’ not thinking middle aged, previously hetero identifying women are ‘real’ lesbians, not in terms of any internalised homophobia. I am very open in my relationship and don’t care if anyone else calls me a lesbian, I just don’t want that label for myself. …and I don’t think it’s fair to tell me I’m homophobic to make that choice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Xonna. I don’t think we have much of a disagreement. I don’t believe in “Gold Star” theory either. I have a bisexual history myself, and I knew plenty of lesbians who got married to men before they figured it out. It sounds like you are in a transition period where you may want to remain label-free for a while. That makes total sense.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I really appreciate your comment Xonna. I’m Queer too, although my current tomboy girlfriend is happily & determinedly a lesbian. But I’ve had good sex & relationships with men too, over the years (I’m 50 now); it drove my previous dyke girlfriend crazy that I wouldn’t wear the ‘Lesbian’ label, but it just doesn’t fit for me. For now. For this year or decade. But who knows?? G


  5. You’ve expressed this so much better than I could have. The question remains, what is causing all of these young women to repudiate themselves? Are gay men hemorrhaging the young ones the same way we are? Is it the lack of role models and real life acquaintances? Is it the stigma and the powerlessness that is so repelling?

    I came out when I was 14. It wasn’t easy and there was hell to pay. I went back in the closet and attempted to be straight, failed miserably, came back out and never looked back. That was all without the benefit of understanding adults, role models, peer support groups or gay/straight alliances. All I can think of is that “being true to yourself” was an officially normative value back then in a way that is now only paid lip service to by the adults in charge, the psych authorities, teachers and well meaning liberal allies who haven’t a gender-non-conforming cell in their body.

    And I take it personally. I feel like we have failed the young dykes but I have no idea what we did wrong.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I’m a straight woman, 47 years old, and I am really despairing, and angry, and frustrated about the tidal wave of transgender propaganda which seems to be overwhelming just now. Scared too, as we seem to be sleep-walking into this, and people either haven’t noticed yet, or don’t care, or are frightened or reluctant to speak out. I don’t know.

    Today, I remembered a book called “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” first published in 1841. From the Preface of the 1852 edition – “We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”

    It’s striking how the external, temporary, irrelevant things – like hair styles and clothes – are so important and how they think these things are somehow indicative of biological sex, but then no one talks of biology any more either. It’s all about “gender”, which they seem now to see as in some way liberating instead of being oppressive.

    Maybe it’s the youthful thing of rebelling against previous generations. If your parents and grandparents age groups are being openly and happily gay and lesbian, then you need to be something different? Do they genuinely not realise the difference between gender and sex? Or that they are conforming to such horribly sexist and restrictive stereotypes?

    I feel helpless in the face of all of this.

    I’m in Scotland and at a government Burns Supper this week a trans “woman” is to deliver the Reply from the Lassies. A man is to speak on behalf of the women! It’s nauseating.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Wow, on the Burns Supper thing. I just came here from reading comments on the Gender Trender article about the Olympic committee letting unaltered men compete in women sports now. The overall transgender mania certainly has an element of ‘women don’t deserve anything fuck them let’s take everything that they might have’. lots of men since forever have thought that way. And the type of woman hating man I’m thinking of spends a lot of time thinking about this, nursing their resentment of Women in General. So that’s one bit.

      The delusions of crowds thing is very apt. I’m familiar with that book but I never thought of it in connection to this. Yep. The mass response to trans, the just being laudatory and not thinking, seems different from moral panics where it’s ‘the sky is falling the sky is falling’. But I think this is very similar to the response to multiple personality disorder, Satanic ritual abuse. It’s like the people who read tabloids. ‘We will just believe this because that is what we want to do’. Almost like it was entertainment.

      As for the young lesbians you have to wonder if so many are embracing trans because it’s being offered. In other words the commentor above MaryMacha mentioned coming out at 14 in a context where there was no support. What seems to have developed at the same time as the greater acceptance of gay people as regular people is the trans-thing. So maybe young lesbians see this as a lifeboat. Someone comes along and says you don’t want to be a lesbian? No problem get in the lifeboat. There was no lifeboat for lesbians in the olden days except of course for pretending to be straight. Pretending to be a man sounds a lot more fun than pretending to be straight. First off no having to submit to unwanted sex. And especially because it is so farcically “playing dress-up-like” it’s really hard to be inadequate at it. The very fact that for a woman to wear pants unlike a man wearing a dress, and baggy clothes, “masculine clothes” up to and including those little ball caps is really OK in our society it means that to stick your toe in the water of being a trans man is really easy to do. You’re not really breaking any taboos. You’re playing at ‘oh now I’m a man’ inside your head. But other people can’t really tell so you risk nothing. So it’s the lifeboat as dress-up box. And is being offered to you by other people which makes it seem valid. Pretty different from coming out as a teenage lesbian in say 1979.

      None of which however tells us how to stop this crap.🙁

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Who we love is a choice. Lesbian Feminists in the Seventies said this proudly. Previously, the psychiatrists pathologized us and afterward, the gay men pushed “sexual orientation” and “born this way” to demand equal rights as if we have no choice.

    Of course it’s a choice. The majority of Lesbians choose men first and then choose women. Some go back and forth. I believe loving other females is natural, but the punishments and extensive rewards for choosing men often win out.

    It’s horrible to think that Ani DiFranco who chooses me is identified with being a Lesbian, or cats, or head shaving, which I see as usually a trendy middle class Fem choice.

    Most F2Ts I know are Fem, and many are het women wanting access to gay men.


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  10. I’ve been waiting all my life for someone to say these things out loud. We all seem to be so respectful with trans issues that we don’t talk about the absurdity of gender roles and the sexism behind it. Sure trans folk deserve to be respected and celebrated. But wearing clothes who are traditionally considered men’s or women’s doesn’t change your gender, being attracted to the same sex doesn’t change your gender. I don’t even believe that wanting to have the very sexualised and chased after female breasts makes for your gender to be female if there’s no desire to have a female body including the vulva. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect the right of trans women to self-identify as women. Everybody has a right to self-define themselves. But just questioning a little gender roles and accepting, respecting and celebrating the existence of intersex people too would change the perspective on these issues.


  11. This is an interesting post. And the comments are fascinating too- you could probably find 10 more blog posts just by engaging with some of them! Labels are so tricky… for some people, and SO rewarding/comforting/empowering for others… I have no answers, only my own preference for being relatively label-free at ‘Queer’ (which I’ve been happy with since I was 21, and had not yet kissed a girl, although now by nearly 51, I admit I’ve kissed a lot of every body : ) )


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