Who am I? It’s a question all humans have asked as they try to place themselves, their singularity, in the context of the whole. Ok, so I’ll admit I wrote the first draft of this while volunteering at a meditation retreat centre in Tuscany (surprise, their guru is Osho from Wild, Wild Country fame on Netflix…but these people are super nice and non-culty, thankfully). This immersive experience perhaps makes me a little more aware of existence than usual. But the point remains, questioning after who we are is part of the human condition. Queer people have a particular hurdle to overcome on this quest – what do we call ourselves?
When I first fell in love with a woman I was obsessed about whether it was an anomaly or a new path. I searched for a category. A word. Many friends (mostly straight ones) said “don’t feel the need to label yourself, just be you.” They were sweet and supportive, but they didn’t get it. I didn’t know who me was anymore. I wanted a label that could help me understand my emergent self. I ached for a box in which to fit, a word to tell me I made sense.
At this point in my journey of becoming out I’m pretty sure that I’m mostly attracted to women and other non-male genders. In this blog, I’ll go over some of the most common words I could use to describe myself, a history of the words I have used to describe myself, and where I have landed. I want to emphasize that this is my language and label journey, and everyone is entitled to choose their labels and have that respected.
Lesbian seems the obvious choice for women who only love other women. But like many lesbians-by-definition, I was uncomfortable with the word (see Kasandra Brawbaw, Sophie Wilkinson, and Arca Bayburt). Discomfort is honestly an understatement. Like Bayburt, I used to think it sounds almost like an illness. And coming out to someone is hard enough without it taking three frickin syllables to get it over with! The word used to make me squirm or wince with awkwardness.
Other writers explain the political reasons that may cause aversion to the term lesbian. As Bayburt writes, lesbian has many heterosexual stereotypes attached to it. Lesbians are either fetichized in porn or ugly man-haters. As Wilkinson writes, within the LGBTQ movement, the term lesbian can be associated with an older-school, less radical feminism that excludes trans women and is very white-washed.
What about queer? I always wanted to be someone who could call myself queer. It seems the current hip term for enlightened lefties. As Maya M writes, it is a term that resists definition, is intersectional, and gives space for identity evolution. At first, I didn’t feel LGBTQ2-enough to call myself queer. Also, the word still isn’t well-understood by many non-queer people, and holds many painful connotations for other LGBTQ2+ folks who had it used on them as a slur. Dyke is even more radical. For me, it makes too much of a statement for causal use. I am not against others making this statement, it is just that I don’t want to create space for my identity to be scrutinized by using such a shocking word to describe myself. I fear drawing attention to my difference.
So where does that leave me?
From when I first fell in love with a women in 2015 until recently, I called myself 'I have no clue,' lezzy-but-not-strict, or 85% gay. However, thanks to my grade 12 statistics class and lots of experimentation, I have realised that the 15% non-gay part of me was an over-estimate. In public/short interactions I usually go around letting people think I’m straight (I think a lot about femme invisible, see my post here), or I use the word gay. I don’t like gay because it usually refers to men who love men, and then due to men being the standard in society, it can also be used as an umbrella word for all same-sex attraction. By using gay, I feel like I am betraying my lesbianism and woman-ness for a more palatable male word. However, the draw of a single syllable to come out is strong.
Slowly, especially internally, I have started to get over my aversion towards the word lesbian. When I think about myself as a lesbian I felt happy, sexy, and part of a cool, exclusive club. By 2018 I hoped to be like Zara Barrie who learned to embrace the word lesbian inside and out.
At time of writing (Summer 2019; published fall 2019) I just finished the first year of my Master’s degree. I ached for a queer community, so I joined a queer conversation group at university. There, I referred to myself as a perennial baby dyke who wanted to use the world lesbian. The lovely folks in the group laughed along and helped me understand the linguistic loveliness of lesbian.
Now, the word I feel the most personal and political affinity to is lesbian (an inclusive lesbian that doesn’t restrict entry or love to only cis women). In queer spaces I even use queer and dyke to describe myself. I find queer acts as an umbrella word and a unifier for the community, while dyke gives me a feeling of being powerful in my transgression of norms. Also, as time goes on, I feel less and less at home with the term perennial baby dyke. But this time, it's the baby that doesn't fit, rather than the dyke. I feel more at home in my queerness.
Now that I have a name for me, I am less obsessed with giving the correct label to others. I have realised that the word I use will be contingent on my surroundings and on my, potentially evolving, identity. I still dance around the word lesbian a lot with straight people, or just let them assume I’m straight. I’m trying to be easier on myself too as I continue on my journey of embracing my lesbianism in all three syllables of its glory.