Where Have All The Lesbians Gone?

They're coming out as nonbinary or as men.

Dawn Rabonza sits with the motorcycle club known as "Dykes on Bikes" at the Long Beach Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade in 2004. By Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

(This week’s issue for the Thanksgiving holiday has a different format: the lead item and “Face Of The Week” are written by fellow Substacker Katie Herzog. The rest of the issue is written as usual, with Andrew Sullivan responding to dissents — read that full version here.)

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Sitting on the couch watching TV earlier this month, my wife read to me a headline from her iPhone. “Listen to this,” she said: “There are only 15 lesbian bars left in the entire country.”

“Great,” I said, “We’ll each get our own.” 

Lesbian bars have always been vastly outnumbered by bars for straight people and gay men, but in the 1980s, there were more than 200 lesbian bars in the U.S. What happened? Well, a lot of them sucked. The first lesbian bars I went to in my early 20s were dank, smoky caves where women in khaki shorts and backward caps grinded on each other to Outkast. They could have been frat bars if not for the notable absence of men.

There’s also the economic challenge of catering to a tiny slice of the population in fast-gentrifying cities. This is what took down The Lexington, an infamous dyke bar in San Francisco’s Mission District where the tagline was “Every night is ladies’ night.” The Lex closed in 2015 after nearly two decades, and where it once stood is now a cocktail bar that serves a Cocoa Puff-infused Negronis for a mere $24.

And there are the dating and sex apps. Granted, apps for gay men seem to thrive while ones for gay women tend to be both anemic and unfortunately named. The first lesbian dating app was called Brenda, which sounds about as sexy as a house full of cats. It no longer exists, so I assume Brenda moved out to the country with her wife.

Then there’s the natural course of assimilation. You don’t have to go to a lesbian bar to get a drink with your girlfriend anymore because you’ll be welcome at any other bar in the neighborhood.

But there’s something else going on right now, because it’s not just lesbian bars that are disappearing; it’s lesbian as a category itself. 

After Portland’s last lesbian bar closed in 2010, as Ellena Rosenthal explored in the Willamette Week, there were attempts to start lesbian-specific nights at various venues, but most avoided the L-word to appear inclusive of trans and nonbinary people. One event, called Temporary Lesbian Bar, apologized after being accused of condoning “trans women exterminationism” for using the labrys — a double-headed ax that symbolizes female strength and has long been a part of lesbian iconography — in their logo. That event still exists (or did before Covid), but the organizers make sure to advertise that, despite the name, it’s “open, inclusive, and welcoming to all people.” (Oddly, these fights only seem to occur around women’s space, not men’s. If gay bars, bathhouses, and clubs go extinct, it will be because of Covid, not because of infighting over inclusion.)

Portland may be a parody of PC, but it’s not an outlier. When I came out in North Carolina in the early 2000s, the term “lesbian” was fading and “queer” was rapidly rising. Most of my peers saw lesbians as stodgy, old-fashioned, and uncool, whereas queers were hip, edgy, and inclusive. Yet “queer” is vague enough to mean nearly anything, so the label says less about your love life and more about your politics. (I propose we all start using the Kinsey Scale instead.)

The flight from “lesbian” has accelerated since. An academic in the Southeast, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that when she mentioned to a colleague that she’s a lesbian, the colleague “reacted like I’d confessed to being a Confederate Lost-Causer. She told me that the term is outdated and problematic, and I shouldn’t use it.” So the lesbian keeps quiet about her identity: “It’s like living in a second closet.” 

Not long ago, it would have been the Christian right stigmatizing homosexual women. Today, it’s also from people who call themselves queer.

As “lesbian” has waned, countless variations have emerged: not just hetero, homo, or bi, but pansexual, omnisexual, sapiosexual, asexual, autosexual, and many more, each with their own little flag. The same is true of genders — now counted in the dozens — with “nonbinary” being the most popular. Asia Kate Dillon, the nonbinary TV star who goes by the pronouns “they/them,” described the term as including those “who feel that their gender identity falls outside the traditional boxes of man or woman.” (Dillon is one of many formerly gay-identified celebrities who have come out as nonbinary, including Sam Smith, Judith Butler, Masha Gessen, and Jonathan Van Ness — who prefers “he/him” but is okay with “she/her” or “they/them.” Why be confined to just one?)

Where did this come from? As a term, “nonbinary” doesn’t appear in the academic literature until the year 2000. For the next decade it was largely limited to queer studies, then it leapt to the Internet — spreading from Tumblr and queer blogs to the mainstream media and the general public. A 2017 survey from GLAAD found that 12 percent of Millennials identify as gender non-conforming or transgender. In 2019, Pew Research found that one in three members of Gen Z knows someone who goes by gender-neutral pronouns. That same year, Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year was “They.”

While there’s some overlap between transgender and non-binary identities, they’re not the same thing, and for some trans people, particularly older ones, the notion of “nonbinary” directly conflicts with what it means to be trans. And this makes sense: If your deepest desire is to live as, and be seen as, the opposite sex, why would you want to dismantle the binary concept of sex? According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, most trans people identify as either male or female, period. That’s the whole point of transitioning. (Intersex, I should note, is a separate category as well, and shouldn’t be conflated with either transgender or nonbinary.)

For some enbies (what the nonbinary — NB — call themselves), coming out is often more superficial than surgical. It’s an update posted to friends and family on social media, maybe one that says, “I’m nonbinary and my pronouns are they/them.” This tends to generate lots of likes.

Nonbinary people say that the identification liberates them from the prison of gender, but for others, it doesn’t dismantle gender roles and stereotypes; it reinforces them. It legitimizes the idea that there’s an intractable gender binary in the first place. Instead of saying, “I’m a woman and I reject gender roles,” NB ideology says, in effect, “I reject gender roles and therefore I’m not a woman.” 

Jocelyn Macdonald, the editor-in-chief of the lesbian site AfterEllen, has seen the NB ideology pushed by well-intended people and she worries about the unintended consequences. “When we say that femininity is equivalent to womanhood, we leave no space for women, gay or straight, to be gender non-conforming,” she told me. “Butch lesbians especially have fought for the right to claim space as women, and now women are running from that instead of boldly stepping into it. It’s another way of saying ‘I’m not like other girls,’ and it’s demeaning to other women.”

This is not a popular position in some queer communities, and AfterEllen is routinely accused of being transphobic. In 2018, Rhea Butcher, a nonbinary comic, tweeted: “You don’t represent me or my friends and your website is a sham. You’re not a lesbian/bisexual website, you’re a TERF website.” (“TERF" stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” and is not, to put it mildly, a compliment.) Butcher’s tweet is typical, and it’s part of what makes having this conversation so fraught.

There’s been no clear polling on the shift from “lesbian” to “nonbinary,” and so my sense that the lesbian is endangered is purely anecdotal. But there are plenty of anecdotes. After I put out a call on Twitter asking lesbians for input, my inbox filled with emails from women who said vast portions of their friend groups have adopted new labels and pronouns. But none feel like they can openly discuss it, which is apparent by the number who asked to remain anonymous: all of them.

“Lesbians are pretty thin on the ground for Gen Z,” a student I’ll call Halle wrote me. “I have one other lesbian friend, and together we have collected reports of five other lesbians between the U.S. and Canada, of which three are in our generation…. I do not know how things were in olden times for the elder gays, so I admit that a paucity of lesbian friends may in fact be normal for twentysomething gay women in left coast liberal cities, but I like to imagine there was some Arcadian past where short-haired women in Carhartts could gather in groups greater than two.” 

Halle doesn’t live in Tehran. She lives in Seattle. Another young lesbian I spoke to told me she used to identify as both nonbinary and trans. “There’s a really thriving, active online and in-person trans community and queer community,” she said, “but there’s hardly anything for lesbians, and if you try to create that, you get pushback. It’s not cool to be a lesbian in the same way that it’s cool to be queer or trans or nonbinary.”

Some feminists argue that women are so oppressed in society that opting out of womanhood is a way of opting out of oppression. I’m skeptical. Why didn’t women do this decades ago, when oppression was objectively greater? Besides, enbies are more likely to be Smith undergrads than, say, immigrants getting assaulted at the border.

And there’s another not-so popular explanation: that it’s a fad, a form of social contagion.

I’m aware that this will be offensive to some people. The concept of a fixed, internal gender identity has become sacrosanct, and it’s viewed as something deeply personal and meaningful, like the soul. But humans are social creatures and we are easily influenced by our peers. This isn’t a moral judgment, just a fact, and I’ve seen how it plays out in my own peer circle. First one person comes out as nonbinary, then another, then another, and then one day half the dykes you know go by “they.” Add social media to the mix, and fawning profiles of nonbinary people in the press, and you’ve got yourself a mass cultural phenomenon.

I ran this theory by a therapist who specializes in LGTBQ issues. (She asked to remain anonymous, so I’ll call her Tara.) Tara told me that while the most common complaints of her young female patients involve gender identity, it’s not an issue with older patients. The older ones struggle with their sexuality or their relationships, but aside from a few transexuals with dysphoria, gender identity doesn’t come up. And young women, in particular, are prone to social contagion. We’ve seen this in many areas: eating disorders, cutting, exercising, yawning, strange fits of laughter, and even (forgive the term) hysteria.

When I asked Tara if social contagion could be the cause of the nonbinary movement, she paused for long enough that I thought she may have hung up the phone. “Yes,” she said. “But I can’t really say that to anyone.” The professional risks are too great.

Many queers and enbies, of course, insist that it’s not a social contagion — and they could be right. Maybe it’s just the next evolution, a march towards a future that isn’t male or female, man or woman, but gender neutral and nonbinary. Everyone will go by “they” and the traditional roles and norms that have held back women, as well as men, will disappear as sex-based labels end. “Lesbian” as a label might be endangered, but it’s not like women (or whatever you want to call us) will ever stop loving each other. That, I suppose, is the optimistic way of looking at it. 

But for older lesbian activists, there is something deeply sad about generations of females who don’t want to be lesbians or even women. “What do we lose when lesbians disappear?,” one lesbian in her 70s told me. “Everything. We lose our name. We lose our sense of self. We lose our ability to gather. And the more taboo it becomes, the less of our history gets told. In a millennium people will be saying, ‘We heard about these creatures called lesbians.’ They’ll dig up our bones.” But the bones, of course, cannot talk.

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(Do you have a dissent against Katie’s piece on disappearing lesbians, or a personal story that can shed more light on this? Please email her at dish@andrewsullivan.com. This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. If you’re not subscribed and want to read the whole thing, and keep independent media thriving on Substack, subscribe now! This week’s issue includes all the usual reader Dissents and Andrew’s responses, window views, Quotes for the Week, a Hathos Alert from Wasilla’s most famous mayor, a nostalgic Mental Health Break, and a new challenge for the View From Your Window contest. This week on the Dish podcast, Andrew is joined by Dana Beyer, a remarkable advocate for trans rights and an old friend of his — more details here.)


Face Of The Week

On a lighter note, I’ve got a Substack of my own and it’s about dog testicles. Well, partly about dog testicles (ovaries make an appearance too). It’s also about why, exactly, we’ve collectively decided that a fundamental part of caring for our dogs is cutting off their nuts. The answer to that question may seem obvious, but as I report, it’s actually complex, and it involves years of conflict and infighting between dog breeders, animal welfare advocates, veterinarians, rescues, everyday dog owners, and ongoing myths about what’s best for our pups — myths that have become so accepted that most of us don’t even question them. If you’d like to follow along with my journey (as well as my dog’s), you can read the first installment here.

Also! I have a podcast, which I co-host with fellow Substacker Jesse Singal, and there's a lot of overlap with the issues Andrew covers here in The Weekly Dish. So if you like Andrew (or if he infuriates you), you might like us too. You can listen here or search for “Blocked and Reported” wherever you get your podcasts.