‘People are scared of the word “lesbian” – I want to find out why'

Dyke, carpet muncher, scissor sister, lezza, queer, gay. Out of all the words that describe a woman who loves other women, lesbian is the big bad word.

I remember the first time I heard the word lesbian, thrown out at girls in the PE changing rooms and during lunchtimes in form rooms. Laced with disgust and mockery, it became a word that terrified me.

Once I understood what it meant, and slowly understood that it might be applied to me, it felt loaded with negative connotations that dictated what I thought life was going to be, how I should act and what I should wear.

At the age of 14, it made me feel ashamed, before I knew what exactly I was being shamed for.

Lesbians were white, butch, angry, and man-hating. They were hairy, loud, scary vegans who wore Doc Martens and checkered shirts and stomped around causing trouble.

And as a Black, feminine presenting girl growing up in a Jamaican, Pentecostal home, with a propensity to follow the rules, that wasn’t exactly a life I saw for myself.

Lesbians weren’t cool, they weren’t fashionable and they definitely weren’t fun. They were the antithesis to the gay best friends hanging of the arms of pretty blonde girls in glossy teen movies.

My fear of the word lesbian and the life I thought went along with it, meant I struggled for so long to come out – and I’m not the only one.

According to research conducted by LGBT+ young people’s charity, Just Like Us, people across the UK have postponed coming out due to ‘harmful’ stereotypes, with 68% of lesbians delaying coming out due to stereotypes about being ‘man-hating’, ‘unattractive’ and even ‘anti-trans’.

But why is it so hard for lesbians to come out as lesbians? What exactly is wrong with the L word? Why was I so scared of it, and why nearly 10 years after I finally used the word to proudly describe myself, are so many people still scared to use it?

Over the last few months, I’ve been an assistant producer on the Channel 4 documentary ‘Where Have All The Lesbians Gone?’ where we tried to answer these questions. Unpacking the word lesbian, and why, even now, with lesbian representation at an all time high, some people still have such a fraught relationship with the word.

Alongside lesbian photographer Vic Lentaigne, known for her intimate photographs of the queer community, we wanted to create a portrait of what lesbians and queer people looked like in 2022.

Our research involved speaking to 12 women and non-binary people with a range of experiences, including lesbian comedians Rosie Jones and Jen Brister. 

We explored their relationship to the word lesbian and their thoughts on the other words such as queer, gay and dyke. 

The final cut is on TV tonight and, in both equal parts funny and heart-wrenching, it reveals the results of our quest to find out how they identify and why, while looking into representation, visibility and homophobia. 

It’s no coincidence that it’s airing during Lesbian Week of Visibility, a week set up by DIVA magazine’s Linda Riley to celebrate lesbians and to show solidarity with all LGBTQI woman and non-binary people.

I use gay and queer interchangeably with the word lesbian, but since I accepted my sexuality a decade ago, I’ve never shied away from using the word lesbian.

However, in this documentary, we want to understand what being a lesbian meant to different people, and why some people prefer to use words like gay or queer instead.

We discuss stories like Pat, 78, who came out at the age of 38 after being married to her husband for 18 years, and had no choice but to leave her marriage and become homeless – highlighting the hidden struggles lesbians have undergone for decades. 

And Maya, 21, whose experience of losing her family because she came out as queer shows that the world is still unkind to young people opening up about their sexuality.

One thing that stood out across everyone we spoke to was the fetishisation of the word lesbian and the way that to some, lesbian has become synonymous with porn.

‘How do lesbians have sex? Which one of you is the man? How do you know if you’ve never been with a man?’ If you’re a lesbian, you’ve heard these many times.’

Being a lesbian in a lot of popular culture is focused purely on sex. And this directly affects how lesbians are objected, resulting in homophobic incidents that often escalate to violence. The homophobic attack on a London bus in 2019 is undeniable proof of this.

Melania Geymonat and her girlfriend Chris were beaten up by a gang of young men on a London bus when they refused to kiss for them.

The fact that these men felt it was their right to demand these women to kiss for them is a clear illustration that the fetishisation of lesbians has real life consequences. It highlights how men believe lesbian relationships are for their own gratification.

And as shocking as the incident was, sadly, it wasn’t a surprise to me or any of my queer female friends.

I’ve been on dates where I’ve had to hide in the bathroom from men who tried to pick one or both of us up.

I’ve had men come up to women I’m on a date with and outright ask for a threesome and then square up to them when we’ve politely asked that they leave us alone.

I’ve held hands under jumpers in the back of taxis to avoid uncomfortable stares and I’ve hurriedly dropped my girlfriend’s hand when we’ve approached a group of men.

I very rarely kiss my girlfriend in public without scanning the area to see who is around us, so of course I wasn’t surprised when the attack happened.

And unfortunately, a lot of lesbians have had similar experiences.

In the documentary, we meet Charl, who is 25 and engaged to her fiancee Aislinn. She has been harassed so often that she just considers it part of being a lesbian.

Charl and her fiancee are both feminine presenting and they’ve had men try relentlessly to flirt with them, ask for threesomes and even grope them. That’s one of the reasons Charl isn’t very keen on PDA, because she doesn’t feel safe.

‘We don’t really feel comfortable holding hands in public,’ Charl explains, ‘We’ve been followed – we’ve had almost anything you can think of when you think of harassment towards women.

‘Sometimes I feel like when I say I’m a lesbian it’s like an invite for someone to say inappropriate things,’ she continues. ‘And it’s not and that’s why I often alternate between saying queer or not saying anything at all.’

It isn’t just feminine presenting lesbians who are victims of harrassment, either.

Another woman we spoke to, Louise, told us how she grew up in care across various home in Manchester and explained that as a butch woman, she experiences homophobia everyday of her life.

Louise recounts horrific stories of homophobic violence and threats of corrective rape. And because of the daily threats of violence, she has had to learn to box to protect herself.

However, it’s important to note that it isn’t just men. I’ve experienced sexual harassment from straight women too, I’ve had women grab me inappropriately when I’m making out with another woman, or try and forcibly kiss me when they realise that I am a lesbian.

While we wanted to highlight the difficulties facing queer people today, we also wanted to take stock of the positive changes that have been made.

There are more diverse lesbians and queer women on screen today than ever before. We’ve come a long way since the lesbian movie The Killing of Sister George, which was released in 1968 and portrayed an abusive lesbian relationship, and for older lesbians like Louise and Yvonne from Nottingham, was the only representation of lesbians available.

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Louise realised she was a lesbian after she saw The Killing of Sister George, and the dynamics in that relationship became the model of how she thought being a lesbian would be.

And for Yvonne, an older Black lesbian who grew up in working class Nottingham, the film was almost a deal breaker.

“I just thought it was the worst movie… nothing about that film depicted lesbians in a positive light. It frightened me because at 14 I’m going, “is this a life that I want to head into?”

Thankfully, lesbian representation has got a little better.

I still remember the first time I saw the groundbreaking series The L Word on TV, when I crept into the living room where my dad was asleep on the sofa, desperate to take advantage of the unsupervised TV time. I flicked through the channels with the volume on mute and stumbled across a group of women who would later come to mean so much to me.

Their glamorous jobs, glossy wardrobes and romantic lives presented to me for the first time a world where I could be a lesbian and also be happy.

And then, without the immediate access to the back catalogue on a streaming service that I would have today, I sought out the series on eBay, and carried those DVDs around with me for a whole summer in the bottom of my bag, everywhere I went. This included tucking them under my pillow while I slept because I was terrified someone would find the DVDs and know what I wasn’t ready to acknowledge yet.

Meeting all of these incredible people has shown me how both unimportant and important labels can be.

I felt so much pressure to pick a label and stick to it, to become whatever I thought it meant to be a lesbian, to look and think and act a certain way, to build me whole personality on my sexuality.

If the pressure of ‘being a lesbian’ didn’t exist, I think I would have had an easier time.

But equally, now I’m so sure of my identity, I want to use the term lesbian so that I can be identified: so that the rights I want to fight for are acknowledged, so that years of specifically lesbian history are archived, so that young people aren’t afraid to use the term, aren’t scared it means one thing – but to show them that it can mean so many things.

I hope this film shows how diverse and complex lesbians are, we aren’t perfect and we don’t also fit into stereotypes because there isn’t one way to be a lesbian.

But I love lesbians and I can’t wait for the world to love us too. 

Where Have All The Lesbians Gone airs on C4 and All4 tonight at 10:30pm.

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