Moving the Goalposts
Exploring how the definition of the word lesbian in queer spaces has shifted, and what effect this has on young lesbians.
Lesbian: woman loving woman.
When I first came out as a lesbian, aged around 14, I didn’t question what a woman was. I had bigger problems: understanding your sexuality as a teenager is all consuming.
I came out to my best friend and within a week she was my girlfriend and we had said “I love you”. Such is the way of teenage love. My friendship group at school were mostly queer. Again, I didn’t question what queer meant or the history of the word, it just felt like a nice catch all of sexuality. We didn’t talk about gender, we talked about English homework and art projects.
I didn’t come out to my family at this point. As many of the women reading this will know, it is very lonely to work out who you are and then hide that part of yourself. I needed a space that I could be me.
So, 14 years old, baby gay and naive, more in the closet than out, I joined Twitter.
Lesbian: women and non-binary loving women and non binary.
Twitter introduced me to the concept of being non binary.
It was an objective fact. Some people aren’t men or women. Some people are both. Some people fluctuate between the two. Some people align more with bunnies or bees than with male or female.
This is unchangeable, set at birth, like my sexuality. Not a choice.
And for the people who changed between male and female day to day, or hour to hour? The fact that their gender changed was unchangeable and beyond their control. It came under the trans umbrella and no one chooses to be trans. Luckily, someone came up with coloured bracelets to indicate which pronouns you could use in these situation. Pink = girl. Blue = boy.
I joined stan twitter and I learned the language. I never made a tumblr account but became used to the iconic branding, as tumblr leached into all young spaces. My circles felt less extreme than the tumblr posts I saw, because we were focused on ships and plots and queer baiting instead of gender ideology. A friend would announce new pronouns and they would be congratulated for their bravery, but we were more concerned about whether the lead actors on the show we liked were friends or not.
If none of the above paragraph makes sense to you, that’s not you, that’s us. We developed our own ways of speaking, to fit in. The fact that our parents and teachers couldn’t follow our conversations was a bonus. Stan Twitter is essentially fandoms, spaces that lots of people who liked a single thing (in my case tv shows) would get together to create and share content for those shows. A ship is a pairing of two characters you would like to see together (“I ship them” = “I think they should date”) and queer baiting is when a show deliberately led fans to believe a character would be gay, specifically to pull in audiences of young gay fans, and then actually made that character straight.
While I didn’t engage with gender ideology at this point, it was deep in our humour and the way we spoke about ourselves, and part of my growing understanding of what it meant to be gay.
I was told the word lesbian included non binary identities but this made sense to me; the non binary people I knew were cute, AFAB (assigned female at birth) and wore make up and pretty jewellery inspired by mushrooms or had a slight gothic twist to their style and insisted all vampires were queer. As far as I was concerned, they were like all my other lesbian friends, they just used different pronouns.
I was told “be kind” and I was.
I was told “pronouns in bio” and I added them.
I was told “lesbians aren’t all women” and I believed them.
Lesbian: non-men loving non-men.
I have no idea when I first saw the word TERF. It would be like trying to remember the first time I saw the word racism or feminism. It’s just something we understood in these social spaces, conveyed through endless threads and group chats and screenshotted tumblr posts.
Terfs are bigots. Terfs hate trans children and want them to die. Trans children who have terf parents kill themselves. We believed it because who would lie about that?
Only the first part of the acronym mattered. Trans exclusionary. Radical feminism is a lie, terfs can’t be feminists because feminists care about all women and trans women are women.
Terfs hate non binary people. We didn’t.
Non binary people felt the phrase “women and non binary” was a problem. It made non binary into a third gender, “women lite” people said. Redefining lesbian to mean non-men who love non-men made more sense, it was more inclusive.
When I was young, my mum used to say to me: “we don’t do girl power in this house, we do feminism.” I think this, even a basic understanding of the difference between those terms and a limited idea of what feminism should look like is what started to pull me out.
I’m not saying there’s no feminism in LGBT circles because there absolutely is, but what we practiced, what we told ourselves and each other was feminism, was girl power. Putting a selfie out with a new feminist hashtag every week is not feminism. I knew that even then.
If there is one value I hold above all others in a debate, it is this: I can’t disagree with something I don’t understand.
I believed what I had been taught. Terfs aren’t real feminists. Lesbians aren’t all women. A trans woman threw the first brick at stonewall.
But if I wanted to disagree with the terfs and hold my own values, I had to understand them. So I started to read about radical feminism.
I’m not an academic. When I started to look into radical feminism, I was 16. I was a kid and not quite clever, then or now.
I wasn’t reading Kathleen Stock or Helen Joyce. These voices didn’t reach into our social circles, not even to disagree with them, real feminism like theirs didn’t touch us. Even if I had been finding authors and journalists making these arguments (the same women I now follow) I wouldn’t have been able to follow the nuanced conversations they were having, addressing the different generations and forms of feminism. I know that because I struggle to follow these conversations now at 21.
At 16, what I found was blogs and stories from parents labelled terfs, and from their detransitioning children.
I used to say to my friends on Twitter, “you should read the propaganda from the other side so you understand them, if you won’t read anything from the other side it’s because you’re scared they might change your mind. You’re scared you’re wrong.”
I understand that fear now, because I have found that I was wrong. And it cost me my friends and my core beliefs about the world and people, about myself and my sexuality.
The “terf” parents weren’t hateful.
It was Lily Maynard’s blog about her daughters journey through identifying as trans that started to sow the seeds of doubt for me.
Her daughter, Jessie, is the same age as me, was in the same circles and also a lesbian. She reminded me a lot of many of my friends and late night groups chats, upset about their hateful transphobic parents who just wouldn’t understand them. I felt that, I understood that.
What shook things for me is that the blog is written by Lily, so for the first time, I saw this from the perspective of the parent. She wasn’t hateful, and she was trying to understand her daughter. It was clear, even to me, that everything she said to Jessie came from love.
And then I read the comments from the people on my side of this argument.
“How do you sleep at night, you narrow minded, callous, harmful person?!”
The big turning point for me came from something so tiny, I feel silly when I mention it, but it mattered to me.
I was a fan of the show One Day At A Time. Even more so when Elena, one of the characters, a bright, funny young woman, came out as gay. Her mother and grandmother had to learn to balance their religion and prejudices against their love for Elena. It’s unusually good representation because it doesn’t demonise Elena’s mother for taking a moment to adjust, instead it empathises with her, while centring the love and bond between the mother and child.
In the next season, Elena starts dating Syd. Syd is non binary, using they/them pronouns and is exactly like the non binary people I described above in my friend groups. Pretty, AFAB, feminine presenting.
For the first time, it really hit me that we were supposed to accept that Syd was not a girl, and that didn’t impact on them dating a gay woman. And I couldn’t square this in my head.
Unfortunately my old Twitter account was suspended for copyright violations, for videos with copyrighted music in the background so I can’t find the exact wording of my tweet, but to the best of my memory it was this: “Elena came out as a lesbian. If the person she was dating was amab and masculine presenting, and had a stereotypical male name, would it make you guys uncomfortable?”
In private dms, two lesbians said yes.
In public responses, two queer women said no.
Both of the lesbians who said they would have been uncomfortable told me they felt guilty for thinking it. I felt guilty for thinking it. WrongThink.
My account and tweets were lost in the suspension but the responses to my tweets are still there. Here is one from a queer woman I knew and held a lot of respect for:
“If you like someone but feel threatened by their gender being fluid so much so that you can’t be with them bc it somehow attacks you as a lesbian I think there may be some transmisogny that you need to overcome” “Eventually you’ll come to understand that gender and labels are much more complex than what society gives us.”
At the time I was repentant. I apologised for asking an insensitive question and thanked her for educating me.
I was 19.
I was a 19 year old lesbian, who asked, essentially, if it was okay to not be attracted to men. Men who identified as not being men. And I was told no.
And I apologised for asking.
Lesbian: Homosexual Woman.
Woman: Adult Human Female.
Over the last few years, the goal posts shifted again. In queer spaces, the debate is no longer whether trans women can be lesbians, or whether non binary people can be lesbians, it’s now about whether men can.
“Men can’t be lesbians” is a terf dog whistle apparently.
When I mention this in radical feminism groups, older lesbians laugh, because it seems so bizarre, so removed from what words actually mean, that it feels like a parody. But if you’re 14, and told that excluding men from your sexuality is bigotry, I promise you it’s not funny.
I was planning on writing more about how I ended up seeing myself as a radical feminist, and maybe I will at some point, but this is already longer than I intended it to be and honestly, I think just understanding myself as a lesbian is enough for today. Understanding how my boundaries were pushed and pushed and the constant level of shame I felt for having boundaries at all.
I am a lesbian.
I exclusively love women.
I am allowed to say this.
It is not literal violence. It is not oppressive. It’s not bigoted or prejudiced.
My label is not “more complex than what society gives us” and is not threatened by gender expression. I just like women. It’s that simple.
I said to a trusted colleague this week that I feel like I’ve been lied to. I know that it’s not personal, that I wasn’t targeted. I identified into these groups. I chose this. But it doesn’t feel like that. What I was told is not true.
Marsha P Johnson did not throw the first brick at stonewall. Marsha P Johnson wasn’t there when the riot started. It was Stormé DeLarverie, a lesbian, who started the riot when she was assaulted by the police.
The “objective fact” I was taught was a lie.
Here’s a truth:
I am allowed to define my sex: I am an adult human female.
I am allowed to define my sexuality: I exclusively love women.