The Disappearing Lesbian: Your Stories

On the evolving notions of what it means to be a woman or a man or a ...

Many readers responded to Katie Herzog’s recent Dish column, “Where Have All the Lesbians Gone?,” by sharing their own stories. First, from a “proud 34 y/o lesbian living in Brooklyn”:

I can’t tell you what a relief it is to read that other folks like Katie feel the same way I have about this topic. My wife and I are constantly discussing it, but we know our feelings would not be popular among the gay circles we’ve interacted with for years. Some of the lesbians we knew have even migrated from trans to non-binary only to reclaim their gender identity as male (he/him) after altering their figures (top surgery, for example). To me, not only is this an irreversible decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly, but it communicates a sense of self-loathing about femalehood that I find dangerous. 

I believe individuals who feel they are not in the correct body have the right to make these changes, of course, but I worry that too many women who previously identified as lesbians have internalized their masculinity to a point where becoming male is the only viable option for them to overcome the societal judgement passed on women who aren’t feminine enough. So, instead of owning being a good old-fashioned dyke, lesbians would rather relinquish their womanhood and identify as “non-binary,” to avoid being labeled. However, this is just another box people put themselves into instead of simply pushing back on the way society sees female and male gender roles. Quite the copout, in my opinion. 

And unfortunately, “cancel” culture has forced those who have differing opinions from engaging in this type of dialogue for fear of alienation from friends as well as the wrath of the internet! 

Another reader sounds off, “As a 66-year-old woman who has led a life filled with lovers of many descriptions, I agree that losing ‘lesbian’ is a loss. We always called them hasbians.” A 56-year-old woman suggests that she might have identified as nonbinary back in her youth — certainly as “queer”:

I was in art school in Chicago in 1983 through 1987, so at that time, artsy girls like me who wanted to be a bit of a gender-bender were called lesbians, “baby dykes” or “lipstick lesbians,” or bisexual. They inspired me, as did second-wave feminists like Mary Daly and Robin Morgan.

In high school and college, I dressed and cut my hair androgynously. I wore fatigues and flannel shirts and my dad’s watch. Converse sneakers or LL Bean men’s blucher mocs were my shoes. When a 42-year-old male professor with a crush on me asked me about my look, which he said was “cute rather than beautiful,” I answered (this is paraphrased in my journal, and I recall it clearly): 

“I don’t want to look cute or beautiful. I don’t want to look like a guy or like a feminine barbie-doll. I don’t want to look like a punk rocker or a poet or a painter. I want to look like a human being who happens to be female. I don’t want to spend any more time fussing with my appearance than you do. I want to look like myself.” He acknowledged that my philosophy made sense.

I dated both guys and women in college and had a two-year affair with a fellow female art student. We lived together and were quite committed for our young ages. (Our favorite book: Orlando.) My self-label while involved with my girlfriend: “I’m a lesbian who also still likes guys.” I believed friendships and romances should transcend gender and sex and should be fluid rather than lifetime assignments. I believed I would never marry. I guess if I were in college today, I’d ID as queer.

My entire vision did — and still does — rest on being a woman who rejects some of the typical feminine trappings and behaviors, while realizing there are social consequences. Femininity is a crazy-making word. I resolve it this way: Everything I do is feminine by definition because I’m a woman. Deadlifting 220 pounds in my garage is feminine. Running a strength and conditioning gym, which I did, was feminine.

I’m not nonbinary. I want to force all possible activities into the definition of “woman.” That’s the first aspect of feminism I ever internalized and it’s still important. 

This next reader also doesn’t want to be put in a box; he wants to expand it:

The nonbinary actor quoted by Katie says that nonbinary people are those “who feel that their gender identity falls outside the traditional boxes of man or woman”.  I read that and thought, “Hey, that describes me”. But I’m a man. I’m a man who feels that his gender identity falls outside the traditional boxes of man or woman. Surely there are lots of us. So that definition of nonbinary is dumb. 

I like what the AfterEllen person said: “When we say that femininity is equivalent to womanhood, we leave no space for women, gay or straight, to be gender non-conforming.”  If you switch that around for men, it’s, “When we say that masculinity is equivalent to manhood, we leave no space for men, gay or straight, to be gender non-conforming.” I would totally say that.

I’m 55. From about age 5 to 35, I wished I were female. I never thought that I was female but born in the wrong body, which is what we understood trans to mean at the time. This new definition of trans, where you socially browbeat everyone else into pretending you’re a girl even though you’re obviously not, didn’t exist yet. But even if it did, I don’t think I would have found that satisfying.

Some time around my late 30s I realized I didn’t actually want to be a woman. I just wanted to be who I was, which is a man who frequently acts in ways generally considered non-masculine, and I wished that straight women would find that attractive. The first half of that I can do. The second half … well, there’s a handful of them, but mostly that’s just a bummer for me. 

But whatever. It’s not any worse than being short or poor or ugly or lots of other things that most straight women don’t like. Straight women are picky by nature — literally by nature, as in evolution. One of the side effects of female empowerment is that now they all own their pickiness and feel entitled to it, so that nowadays about 80% of men are considered undesirable losers — which is sad for both men and women.

This next reader, a 27-year-old lesbian in rural Kentucky, dabbled in Tumblr terms but not for long:

My wife and I have had this exact discussion that Katie writes about. We don’t speak of such things outside our home for fear of backlash and to avoid general stupid conversations.

I am not a feminine woman, nor do I strongly identify with my gender, because I am me and this is what I have to work with. When Tumblr started really taking off with all the new terms, I was intrigued and, honestly, a little relieved that I had a very specific term to describe how I felt. However, the more I thought of those terms, the more confused I became. What a small category to be in, and if I used the term (I forget the term I identified with, haha), I would have to explain it and stand by it. I found I couldn’t do that.

I was born in this body and it never really failed me and why would I want to be a man? Couldn’t come up with an answer. I was already bold, brusque, and other stereotypical stuff, but I am still a woman. Why do I need to change physical things about myself to match how I feel and who I am?

I love being a lesbian! I’ve always used the term because I love women so much and no others. But then! NBs and some trans men came into the picture and I was seeing all these hotties who I would totally be down to date! So does that mean I’m pan? Personally, I don’t think so. I think my brain registers women however they are masked.

And then I just got sad. I see all these people in Gen Z just throw out their gender like that’s going to solve their problems or the battle their minds go through. I think it just puts a whole new load of shit on the pile. We are strong enough to come out, but why aren’t we strong enough to push back on stereotypes?

A 28-year-old reader takes us outside the U.S. — yet still in American culture:

I’m a lesbian from Portugal, a tiny country in Europe that a lot of people confuse with Spain. You would think the relative anonymity might have helped us dodge the queer bullet, but sadly that has not been the case.

I grew up in a city in the interior of the country, a relatively small, conservative city and then moved to a smaller city, about as conservative but by the sea. I moved to the capital, Lisbon, when I was 23, and like many gays I thought I was going to find a bunch of lesbians and finally have a group of friends to hang out with. It’s worth noting that at this point in my life I had never encountered a lesbian; I had only met my (by then ex) bi girlfriend. And yet, by the time I got to the capital, the queer phenomenon was already taking root.

All our social justice movements in Portugal are small, and the only time they can gain any kind of traction is by copying what’s done abroad (mostly, in the US), and even then, it’s mostly with college-educated people. For instance, when we had a BLM-inspired march, most of the marching orders were in English, which must be incredibly alienating to anyone here who doesn’t speak English, which is almost everyone in this country 3-5 years older than me.

So when “queer” became the norm outside, it quickly became the norm here. In the space of just a couple of years everything became about being queer and queerness. Absolutely everything. It’s an aesthetic more than anything.

The only Portuguese lesbian I know is my girlfriend. I remember how, a couple of years ago, I’d already started dating my girlfriend and we met up with an acquaintance of hers from college (bi), along with a straight friend. At that time I wore my hair really short and appeared more obviously masculine compared to my petite long-haired girlfriend, and my straight friend. So my hair might be why this acquaintance, even though I had already introduced myself with my obviously female name, still asked me what my pronouns were, whereas she never wondered about the pronouns of my girlfriend or straight friend.

As far as my girlfriend being the only lesbian I know, that is technically not true. I did know other lesbians who now identify as trans. One of them has actually started her transition. The other one has no interest in surgery or hormones; she just changed her name and wants to use different pronouns. Both were more on the butch side of the scale. Another one feels conflicted about calling herself a lesbian (and as far as I can tell, she doesn’t anymore) because she was dating — and now married to — a trans man.

I personally know of one woman who was dating a man but still called herself a lesbian, and she was/is rather prominent in activist circles here. This has happened so much that whenever a woman says she’s a lesbian I have a hard time believing that’s true and I’m usually right, because it typically doesn’t take long until they show they’re actually bi/queer. And then sometimes they are lesbians but are so steeped in queer speak they only identify with lesbians if it’s to share memes about “U-Haul Lesbians” or whatever.

This kind of post-modernist era where words don’t matter, where “queer” can mean anything but lesbian has also been stretched to include every woman who ever had a crush on a woman, have muddied the waters so much that I find it hard to even organize a lesbian group — not because of the pushback, but because many people who are not lesbians would feel like it’s their right to show up.

And because the community here is so small, even in the capital, if you speak up or question things you run the very real risk of losing whatever little community you have.

I would actually love to reach out to older gays here and get a feel of what they’re thinking of this situation, but again, very small community in a conservative country. The older gays have not been easy to find, but we’ll keep trying.