Do you listen to Girl in Red? If you have been on the queer side of the internet in the last year, you may have come across this tongue-in-cheek question. The phrase, which has been furtively co-opted to ask someone if they are a queer woman, references the discography of popular artist Marie Ulven, whose songs “i wanna be your girlfriend” and “girls” sprung to popularity in LGBTQ+ music circles in recent years. While her music and new reputation as a Queer musical figure has become a modern counterpart to “are you a friend of Dorothy?” it might come as a surprise to listeners that Ulven has described the word “lesbian” as “literally [her] least favourite word in the entire world.” Wow. A bit harsh for someone whose fanbase is considerably populated by individuals identifying with that same word, don’t you think? While this rejection of the word and identity may spark criticisms that Ulven is biting the hand that feeds her, it might be enlightening to examine why exactly she holds the term lesbian in such low esteem, because she is certainly not alone. In fact, Stephenson (2020) reports that among women loving women (WLW) communities, individuals were significantly more inclined to identify themselves with the word "Gay" than "Lesbian" due to perceptions that the word triggered feelings of disgust. Not only that, but Diamond's 2015 study of relinquishing Lesbian identity found that more than half of the participants surveyed identified fully with the term gay women, but found no resonance in the label of lesbian. Why is this? While identity labels are a deeply personal and complex issue in and of themselves, and words like “gay” can offer a more comfortable sort of ambiguity, linguist Robin Lakoff noted that stigmatized populations are not only shaped by “the way general language use treats them…" but also “in the way that they are taught to use language" self-referentially (1973). In short, when the word lesbian is used with distain in heteropatriarchal society, queer folks may simultaneously be reinforcing this through internalization.
But, let's take a step back. What exactly are these negative connotations, and why do they exist? The stereotypes and stigma attached to the word "Lesbian" are a product of homophobic culture. For these reasons, it has become recognizable for many as a "dirty" word. Being called a lesbian (or, if you favour 2000s era teen movies, a lesbo) by another person can carry many implications. For instance, the word has connotations ranging from excessive masculinity, hypersexuality, militancy, or even unfitness to parent. In media, we have grown used to seeing lesbians flattened by unflattering tropes: the predatory Lesbian preying on vulnerable straight women in the changeroom, the "luscious Lesbian," made to be straight-coded and consumable by the male gaze, or even the constantly referenced "Lesbian phase.” Homogenizing negative stereotypes persist even within the LGBTQ+ community, as lesbian has been sourly associated with trans-exclusive feminist ideology, "assimilationist" politics, and misandry, among others. Essentially, no matter where you look, you are more likely to see lesbian hinted at as a loaded word, a taboo, or even a straight-up insult.
So, we can acknowledge that “lesbian” carries a stigmatized weight (and, in fact, we SHOULD address this negativity), but what does that have to do with not using the word? After all, our community has been famously successful in transgressing word taboos and reclaiming language (see: Queer, Fruity, Dyke, etc.). But, there is something profoundly sad in a plain-language identity term being avoided almost as if it were a slur (particularly in heterosexist culture). In linguistics, this stigma represents a trend of Semantico-Pragmatic Avoidance — basically, the cultural context of homophobia has made people want to avoid this particular word because it has come to represent not just a definition, but an unpleasant cultural archetype. Isma'eel and Ahmed summarize the notion nicely: "the unsaid or the unspeakable or the undone are connotatively bad, dirty, unacceptable, unpreferable, unpleasant, fearful, etc." (2011). By socializing these taboos, this linguistic act ultimately compounds the desire to keep that negative object unspoken. So, in the case of lesbian, the stigma surrounding the word is powerful enough to make it a taboo, and create an understanding in the minds of speakers that using the word will act as a sort of contagion. If they use the word (especially in reference to themselves) they risk taking upon them all of the unpleasant and homophobic stereotypes that have been built into the term. Of course, this deprecation comes at the benefit and direction of normative heterosexuality, and the word has undergone what linguists call pejoration, meaning it has become devalued and negative over time. While this term would typically imply an original neutrality that lesbian was never granted due to its immediate marking as socially and sexually dissident, the superiority of heteronormative systems is predictably maintained by diminishing sexual orientations categorized as threatening or unintelligible. It’s hard to break that cognitive dissonance; lesbian can sometimes become a symbol for something unlikable, and it may be hard to see yourself fitting into a word that you’ve been taught to associate with qualities you don’t identify with.
That’s where euphemistic language comes in. These are the words that, while not always created with the express purpose of directing people away from another term, can nonetheless serve that very purpose. Isma'eel and Ahmed posit “as a technical term, ‘euphemism’ is viewed by scholars as ‘a softened, agreeable, or indirect expression used instead of the one that seems too harsh, indelicate or direct’” (2011). Words like this can semantically substitute a less stigmatized – perhaps even romanticized – label in place of one that carries stereotypes which an individual may not identify with. Now, this is not to say that these terms are just words that people use to disguise their “true” lesbian identity, nor that the choice to use these words is anything other than a personal preference and identification. However, it is worth examining the ways in which attraction between women has collected a lexicon of alternative terms that never actually touch upon that dreaded L word. Examples include: WLW, sapphic, gay, queer, or even “they who listen to Girl in Red.” If you use these words, by no means am I suggesting you are lesbophobic or harbouring some internalized discrimination; there are a multitude of reasons that people might choose one word over another, ranging from semantic meaning, ideological politics, and even just the feel of the word as you say it. In some cases, this avoidance may come not from a rejection of "Lesbian" but from rejecting the Lesbian identity projected by the Other. Or, they simply might not identify as a lesbian or with any other label, and that’s okay too.
To sum it up simply, the compounded stigma from heterosexist society and even from within the LGBTQ+ community has certainly put some taboo on the word lesbian. Through linguistic avoidance, euphemistic language, or even feelings of contagion, there very well may be queer people who align themselves with the sapphic experience but have a strong negative reaction to being called a lesbian themselves. Would a lesbian by any other name smell as sweet? At the end of the day, we should all be reflecting on our individual biases. If much like Ulven you feel that lesbian is literally your least favourite word in the entire world, you aren’t necessarily alone or even in the wrong, but it might be worth sitting with that feeling and examining the role that linguistic stigma might be playing in your language choices. To put it plainly, avoiding the word lesbian because you find it icky is a personal choice, but doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and those sentiments might be holding back the linguistic liberation of the lesbians in your life.
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