“I am a girl. I also like girls. So what am I?”
I’ve heard this line countless times before. Women or girls who discover that their hearts beat for others like them, their loins lust after people who have the same body parts as them, and whose souls get excited by like-gendered souls, the inevitable question of who or what they actually are pops in next, ever so fiercely.
Of goldstars and silver belles
For those of us who were not fortunate enough to realize that we love women early on, we had to go through what theorist/poet Adrienne Rich called “compulsory heterosexuality.” Unlike you goldstars* who didn’t sleep with men, ever, some of us silver foxes or silver belles had to go through the whole heterosexuality shebang. Maybe we had a small “girl crush” back in grade school, high school or college, and we weren’t brave enough to pursue those feelings to have deeper meaning other than it being a “passing phase.” We got stuck with having boyfriends until we realized that we bat for the same team. Or maybe some of us waited to be financially independent before we could face these things that embroil within us, every minute of our waking time.
For some of us who were lucky enough to realize who run the world, as Beyonce sang, a transitioning need not happen. It’s just girls bursting out of the closet or girls waking up one day and realizing that girls rule our world. Perhaps this is an easier route for some, but there are still those who need some sort of road map to navigate this uncharted region called lesbian love after the initial discovery.
“But wait, am I automatically a lesbian if I like girls?”
Again, this is another fairly common question I hear from girls. Is it automatic, then, that if you feel for girls, then you are part of the lesbian community? Check your hues to see if you indeed fit.
Who are you?
If you are a girl who accepts being a girl and you fall for girls, then yes, you are a card-carrying lesbian. Have that ID countersigned for complete access to the community. But being a lesbian is not that simple.
Within the lesbian spectrum, there are different nuances of identity. There’s the butch if you prefer to self-present as more masculine than feminine. The more masculine you look and act, the more stone butch you become. For those who are not that hard on being too masculine, you are termed as a soft butch.
Being a butch has its nuances as well. Aside from dressing up in a masculine fashion, there are butches who accept that they are girls but they don’t make any moves to transition to become men. In a way, these butches just like self-presenting as men and they don’t want to be reminded of their womanhood — and this is evident in the way they act or have sex (the proverbial one-way or two-way). For those who want to transition or to be identified as men already (partly or in full), then they already fall under the transgender category, specifically transmen. And that’s another hue of discourse altogether.
Aside from looking like men, there are also some butches who act like they have to be “the man” in the relationship, like they have to be the providers, the strong one, the head of the family, stuff like that. While some lesbians like that, some don’t. They see it as mimicking the heterosexual relationship of a man-woman setup. What’s the point of being alternative, they argue, if the supposedly more progressive partnership still becomes sexist and male/man-dominated? But that shouldn’t be the case. If that’s the relationship dynamic that works for a couple, then so be it. Let’s just hope that they become less machismo-sexist, though, and treat the relationship on equal footing for both parties.
Within the lesbian spectrum, there are different nuances of identity.
But just because a lesbian looks and acts like a butch doesn’t mean that she identifies as one, so be mindful. Sometimes, some lesbians just like dressing up in masculine clothes because it’s more comfortable for them. Or maybe some want to challenge the status quo in fashion, want to gender-bend it a little to have their own statement. Some lesbians who reject these lesbian-divide notions usually use the term queer for themselves. Queer people generally don’t like to be categorized or boxed much in these sub-nuances of the butch-femme identity. Or they just like to toe the line of such identity divides and mix them up/challenge them.
For those who like meshing up their masculinity and femininity in one package, they usually fall under the spectrum of the androgynous or andro for short. A newer term for andro is also called genderqueer where queer people either reject the existence of the man/woman gender construct or they embrace their being masculine and feminine at the same time. So yes, they could have boyish haircuts but they wear dresses and blouses. Or they could dress and walk with that manly swagger but they could wear bright red lipstick and be soft-spoken feminine as well.
If you wave your femininity like a flag, then you could be considered as a femme lesbian. If you look very girly and prefer to wear make-up, they also term that as lipstick or lipstick dyke. But unlike the hard/stone or soft butch, there is no hard or soft femme to speak of. You’re welcome to invent a term, though, as a friend of mine sometimes refers to herself as a “hard femme” when she wants to look super-fierce and fab. I also know of a queer-identifying lesbian who refers to herself as “futch” meaning a more femme-looking butchy lesbian. Hey, to each her own! The more the merrier, right?
Emerging terms and non-identifications
In certain circles, emerging terms of identities are throwing a wrench at these established terms of identities. We have heard of women who sleep with women who, in their preference to be discreet about their identity, use the term bi or bisexual. Strictly speaking, a bisexual is a person who could be with either a man or a woman. And that’s perfectly okay. However, some discreet women who want to hide their lesbianism use the term bi. For them, the term “lesbian” automatically means “butch” and their term for femme or lipstick dyke is bi-femme (or bifemme).
I guess it’s perfectly okay to be discreet about sapphic relations. However, I think using bisexuality to disguise one’s lesbianism is a way of discriminating against bisexuals. More often than not, bisexuals are often ridiculed within the community for safely straddling the line between heterosexuality and homosexuality. Granted that there are indeed some bis who act this way, it is not polite to assume that all bisexuals are like that.
But then again, there are also femme-looking straight women who are proud of sleeping with fellow women. Yet when asked to label themselves, they abhor being called a lesbian or bi. These women say that they have “boyfriends who are girls” or it’s their girlfriend who identifies as a lesbian but not them. These women often use the term TBF to refer to their “tomboy boyfriends” (meaning butch lesbians who are their girlfriends). Some of them who are into femme-to-femme relationships sometimes use the term GBF to refer to their “girl boyfriend.” While it’s quaint to hear of these newer terms, it’s also disappointing that they still frame relationships within a male-female/man-woman construct, as if that is the only legitimate existing form of relationship from which to pattern other relationships.
No matter how you identify within the lesbian spectrum, the bottomline still remains: that we have to be respectful of each other’s identities.
We’re all in this together
Yet no matter what you flaunt in your self-presentation or no matter how you identify within the lesbian spectrum, the bottomline still remains: that we have to be respectful of each other’s identities no matter what. Some definitions might not work for some while others will continue to grapple with self-labels. Let them.
In the end, what matters is that we are all in this together. For as long as we are women who love women, then the thing we have to focus on is our own selves. Sometimes, we still have to struggle with our own identities in order to negotiate our daily lives. Whether we live inside the closet our outside of it, perhaps we should focus on loving our selves more. Label or no label, the bottomline is that we are comfortable with who we are and that we are not hurting other people with our self-identifications, more so with our actions.
So live and let live, and just let labels be. //
Libay Linsangan Cantor is a media literacy and gender rights advocate, an award-winning literary writer, and a card-carrying two-way genderqueer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* a term popularized by the US cable TV show The L Word
**This article is reprinted with permission from the author and FEIST Magazine.
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