Lesbian is a term for someone who experiences strong queer attraction to women and/or nonbinary people, often exclusively. This attraction may be sexual, romantic, queerplatonic, or any other form of attraction that is significant to oneself. Lesbian individuals may identify as sapphic, gay, a combination, or another term entirely.
The MLM/NBLM counterpart to lesbian is turian.
The word lesbian is derived from the name of the Greek island of Lesbos, home to the 6th-century BCE poet Sappho who was believed to experience homosexual attraction. Her name is also the root for "sapphic" and the archaic term "sapphist."
- Queer attraction to women (the experience shared by all lesbians). However, a lesbian does not have to identify with this specific experience to be a lesbian. - Lesbian Label History Carrd, 2021
- A woman whose enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction is to other women. Some lesbians may prefer to identify as gay (adj.) or as gay women. - GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation)
- of, relating to, or characterized by sexual or romantic attraction to other women or between women - Merriam-Webster
- [Has been described as] women who have sex with women ... women who self identify as lesbian ... and women whose sexual preference is for women. - Committee on Lesbian Health Research Priorities, 1999
The term "lesbian" as well as the culture itself has deep and extensive roots. Lesbian, originally, referred to a resident of the island of Lesbos in Greece. This was the island on which the ancient Greek poet Sappho resided. While Sappho's true sexual orientation is not known, it is known that she wrote of her love for women, and given cultural context and ambiguous translations, was also most likely attracted to men on some level. She may be described as pansexual, bisexual, and of course, lesbian or sapphic by many in the modern day.
Her poetry was studied and referenced by lesbians throughout history. In 20th century Paris, a community referred to simply as "Paris Lesbos" grew, leading to a rise in violets as a symbol of lesbian love. The terms "Sapphist" and "lesbian," both from her name, referred to women who loved, were attracted to, and/or had sex with women from the 18th century. Before that, "tribade"--also derived from Greek--was used as early as 1601 in reference to lesbian sex, though this fell out of fashion.
It is of note that, for centuries, sapphic was not a separate umbrella term to lesbian but simply the adjective form. For example, a lesbian is a sapphic person, not "a sapphic." In the modern day, it is often assumed that "sapphic" refers to WLW, and that "lesbian" refers to sapphics not attracted to men. While it is true that many sapphics are WLW, and many lesbians are not attracted to men, neither requires one to be. In historic usage, and to some now, sapphic and lesbian are and were entirely interchangeable.
Various terms rose over time to refer to lesbians and their culture, each with its own history; for example, butch, stud, and femme, as well as the reclaimed slur and identity dyke--all four of which were popularized by lesbian bar and prison culture. In their most condensed definition, these terms refer to:
- Butch: A masculine queer individual, especially a lesbian
- Stud: A black masculine lesbian often rooted in hip-hop culture and aesthetics
- Femme: A feminine queer individual, especially a lesbian
- Dyke: Anyone associated with queerness and womanhood and especially butch lesbians
More detail can be found on their respective pages.
- A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion. - The Woman-Identified Woman
In 1970, soon after the Stonewall riots, co-founder of feminist organization National Organization for Women (NOW) Betty Friedan referred to lesbians as a "Lavender Menace" to women's liberation. In the midst of the firing of an openly lesbian NOW editor, many lesbians and allies quit in protest, branching off from the organization. As a response, lesbians Karla Jay and and Ellen Shumsky wrote the revolutionary and now famous lesbian manifesto "The Woman-Identified Woman." They, along with a group of about 40 women all wearing hand made Lavender Menace shirts, stormed the stage of the Second Congress to Unite Women, and turned the focus from ignorance of the plight of any non-heterosexual non-white woman to a discussion and acknowledgement of the fear of lesbianism. The Lavender Menace, then, became an identity for revolutionary and feminist lesbians, as well as a group pushing for lesbian, BIPOC, and lower class liberation.
Lesbian flags and their history have been highly controversial for decades. There are now over 100 known lesbian flags, so not all can be discussed. This section focuses on the most notable flags and their history.
The first explicitly lesbian flag was created in 1999 by gay graphic designer Sean Campbell in a series of LGBT+ flags he created. This was the labrys lesbian flag, featuring a labrys superimposed over a black triangle on a purple background. This flag featured multiple established lesbian symbols, and while there is controversy over the flag being by a non-lesbian, all symbols used were popularized by lesbians. More pressing and significant is the flag's modern popular use by TERFs, as well as the use of the black triangle by non Romani being anti-Roma erasure and racism.
On July 28 2010, Natalie McCray created the Lipstick Lesbian flag on her blog thislesbianlife. It was a seven striped pink flag with a kiss mark in the top left, modelled after colors of lipstick, and specifically intended to represent lipstick (femme) lesbians. This flag was controversial due in large part to being highly exclusive, and because Natalie was casually transphobic and blatantly ableist, butchphobic, and racist on her blog. On December 8 2013, a flag compilation post by trans-wife on Tumblr featured a Lipstick Lesbian flag with no kiss mark, marking the first known instance online of the flag without it. On October 7 2015, DeviantArt user Pride-Flags posted the Lipstick Lesbian flag without a kiss mark simply titled "Lesbian." In the post, it's alleged that the kiss mark was removed by someone at some point to represent all lesbians, though this is unsourced and likely false.
In July 2017, Tumblr user shapeshifter-of-constellation posted a combination butch and lipstick lesbian flag which they proposed as a lesbian pride flag. On June 6 2018, sadlesbeandisaster on tumblr--AKA Emily Gwen--posted a virtually identical but flipped lesbian flag proposal. This has been a source of massive controversy in the lesbian community, with accusations of plagiarism levied against Gwen especially in inclusionist circles. Emily Gwen has frequently made stelliphobic (anti stellian), aphobic, and other exclusionist statements on her platforms, further stoking lesbian controversy and discourse. Emily Gwen's flag, most often referred to as the Sunset Lesbian or Community Lesbian flag, is currently the most popular lesbian flag. It was the winner of the survey put out by now defunct Tumblr blog official-lesbian-flag to find the lesbian community's flag.
On June 26 2018, Ledia on Medium posted their proposal for a lesbian flag based on sapphic poetry in response to the racism of the Lipstick Lesbian flag's creator. This flag is often referred to as the Sappho Lesbian flag, and has been confused for a sapphic flag. It is one of the most popular alternative flag designs, and was specifically created to be butch inclusive and not hyperfeminine in appearance. The same flag with an alternate stripe order by Maya Kern was featured in an edit. In January 2019, a version of the Sappho Lesbian flag with a white stripe in the center was created by Twitter user lesflagisracist.
On October 16 2020, ferretwlw on Tumblr created the all inclusive lesbian pride flag. This flag was specifically designed to include stellians, nonbinary lesbians, and transgender lesbians. The flag is nicknamed the Aurora Lesbian flag, as well as the All-Inclusive Lesbian flag.
Some other notable but less popular lesbian flags include the Violet Lesbian flag, apersnicketylemon's lesbian flag, and the Lykoi Lesbian flag.
For label-specific controversies, see the controversy section on: Bi Lesbian, Stellian, Lesboy, Nonbinary Lesbian, Dyke, and He/Him Lesbian.
Lesbian controversies tend to revolve around community discourse, TERF ideology, or a combination of both. The majority of these discourses are deeply rooted in lesbian separatism.
Lesbian separatism or political lesbian is a radical feminist ideology that posits that to resist patriarchy, women should totally reject all forms of heterosexuality and interaction with men. Political lesbianism does not require being attracted to women, only rejecting attraction to men. Lesbian separatism was the beginning of pushing bisexual people, transgender (transmasculine and transfeminine) people, and other non-homosexual sapphics out of the lesbian community; since bisexual people were typically also attracted to men, they were often portrayed as sleeping with the enemy. Transgender people were either considered the enemy trying to infiltrate lesbian spaces (transfeminine people) or traitors abandoning women and trying to become the enemy (transmasculine people.) The belief that a "true lesbian" or "gold star lesbian" must never be attracted to or romantically/sexually involved with men rose from this ideology. In lesbian separatism, a "woman" is defined as a cisgender woman, and this ideology specifically and actively excludes transgender people; to separatists, trans men are "gender traitors," and trans women are "invaders."
There are many objections to this ideology and its descendants of mspec, transgender, and lesboy exclusionism. First, lesbian separatism is an explicitly TERF ideology. Even non-TERF lesbian separatists advance TERF ideology and talking points. Political lesbianism also erases lesbian history, and divides lesbians. Dogwhistles originating from lesbian separatism are still common in lesbian discourse today; "Lesbians don't like men," "men can't be lesbians," "the point of being a lesbian is not being attracted to men," and "lesbian not queer" are the most prominent. All three center the rejection of men as central to lesbianism instead of the love of women. All three are also transmisogynistic (oppressive of transfeminine individuals), due to the origins of lesbian separatism and the common labeling of trans women as men infiltrating the lesbian community. These dogwhistles are often included even more subtly in defining a lesbian as a "non-man," centering some rejection of manhood in lesbian identity.
In fact, lesbianism is and has always been centered on the queer love of women. Love of womanhood defined the works and actions of historic lesbians, and rejection of men being at the core of lesbianism was solely an invention by lesbian separatists in the 1950s.
Perceptions and Discriminations
Lesbophobia (bigotry against lesbians) is one of the most well-known forms of anti-LGBTQ bigotry in the community. This often takes the form of sexualizing lesbian attraction and relationships, demonizing lesbianism, insinuating that lesbians are lying or experiencing a phase, and framing all lesbians as simply "man haters." These attitudes, especially the belief that lesbians are hypersexual or going through a "phase," can factor into corrective rape (sexual assault to try to "change" lesbians). It should be mentioned that lesbians who are in fact hypersexual, attracted to men, or who feel their lesbianism was a "phase" are not responsible for these lesbophobic actions and attitudes.
Lesbians face higher rates of intimate partner violence than their straight counterparts, with 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women having been stalked, sexually assaulted, or physically assaulted by an intimate partner, as compared to 35% of straight women. Lesbians also lack marriage equality in most of the world, with only 30 countries and territories in the world that have legalized same sex marriage.
Labrys lesbian flag, rejected due to Nazi imagery, being made by a gay man, being frequently used by TERFs, and for being anti Romani
Interlocked double venus over a rainbow pride flag, representing lesbians
Butch Lesbian pride flag by an unknown creator
The Lipstick (Femme) Lesbian pride flag, largely rejected due to being made by a racist, but may be reclaimed
Sky Femme flag by kenochoric on Tumblr, inclusive of non-lesbian femmes
- ↑ Merriam-Webster on "sapphism"
- ↑ Lesbian Label History Carrd
- ↑ https://www.glaad.org/reference/lgbtq
- ↑ Merriam-Webster on lesbian
- ↑ Lesbian Health: Current Assessment and Directions for the Future
- ↑ The "Sodomite" and the "Lesbian"
- ↑ Merriam Webster definition of Sapphic
- ↑ The Woman Identified Woman
- ↑ them. on the Lavender Menace
- ↑ From Lavender to Violet
- ↑ Why Don't Lesbians Have Our Own Flag?
- ↑ Putting Out Sean Campbell's Flags
- ↑ romaniuprising on the Black Triangle
- ↑ This Lesbian Life coining of the Lipstick Lesbian flag
- ↑ trans-wife's flag compilation
- ↑ Lesbian flag by Pride-Flags
- ↑ Combination butch and lipstick lesbian flag
- ↑ Emily Gwen's sunset lesbian flag
- ↑ Twitter thread on the alleged plagiarism of the sunset lesbian flag
- ↑ A Tumblr post compiling sources on Emily Gwen's exclusionist remarks
- ↑ The results of the official-lesbian-flag survey
- ↑ Creation of the Sappho Lesbian flag
- ↑ Lesflagisracist's white stripe des
- ↑ Aurora Lesbian flag coining by ferretwlw
- ↑ allukazaoldyeck's violet lesbian flag
- ↑ apersnicketylemon lesbian flag coining
- ↑ LGBTA Wiki's Lesbian page, where the Lykoi Lesbian flag was created
- ↑ Lesbian Separatism
- ↑ HRC on sexual assault and the LGBTQ community
- ↑ Pewforum Gay Marriage Fact Sheet