September 15, 2011

There is no standard definition of lesbian. The term generally refers to a female sexual orientation that may involve one or more of the following components: behavioral, affective, or cognitive understandings of lesbian. The behavioral definition of lesbian emphasizes current or lifetime sexual activity with other women. The affective definition considers the subtleties of sexual or emotional desire and/or attraction for other women (in real time or in fantasy), regardless of whether or not these desires are acted upon. Rounding out the three conceptualizations, the cognitive definition refers to adopting a lesbian identity. Typically, women who self identify as lesbians will also fit the behavioral and/or affective understandings of the term. Nevertheless, some women may identify as lesbian for political reasons as an expression of solidarity with women, but neither experience desire and attractions for other women, nor have a history of lesbian sexual behavior.

Lesbians are a demographically diverse group. Women whose sexual orientation is directed toward other women exist in all cultures and societies. There are lesbians of every race, culture, religion, nationality, ability level, age, socioeconomic status, size, and so on. However, it is important to note that there are wide variations in lesbian social/political definitions and acceptability across various cultures and racial/ethnic groups. In fact, the meaning of the word lesbian has fluctuated over time in lesbian circles, in the feminist movement, in popular culture, and in the scientific community. These shifts reflect the range of lesbian identities and the political and social climates in which they live. Thus, it is difficult to make generalizations about lesbians, just as it is with any diverse group, including heterosexual women.

The term lesbian was not coined until 1868. The scientific community, in particular, the emerging fields of sexology and psychiatry, first used the term to describe women with masculine attributes and attractions for other women. Thus, the image of the mannish lesbian became popularized and medical professionals quickly decided that a lesbian sexual orientation represented pathology in search of a cure. This belief persisted for over 100 years, until the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as an illness from the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual, a handbook used by mental health professionals, in 1975.

The concept of a lesbian identity crystallized in part through the gay and lesbian liberation movement, which began in the United States in the mid-20th century. In 1955, a group of eight women formed the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian organization in the United States, to promote civil rights and provide an alternative method of meeting other lesbians through their newsletter, The Ladder. The emerging workingclass lesbian bar culture was also a source of immense support and community building for the early lesbian liberation movement. Working-class women frequently found each other through coded articulations of gender called butch and femme. Although the lesbian feminist movement in the 1970s criticized such gender expressions as reinforcing heterocentric norms, several contemporary scholars point to the way the gender identities helped lesbian women survive in workingclass society and find other lesbian women.

The problematics of assuming similarity among lesbians is well illustrated by the term’s contested meaning within the feminist movement. Lesbian visibility increased considerably during the 1970s in the United States due to the lesbian feminist movement. Feeling overlooked by the male-dominated gay liberation movement and unwelcome in the women’s movement, lesbian scholars and activists formed their own organizations— such as the Furies and the Radicalesbians—and published revolutionary lesbian feminist theory. Lesbian feminists examined scientific, popular culture, and feminist understandings of sexual orientation and gender to formulate concepts such as compulsory heterosexuality, and to advocate for the elimination of all oppressions in order for true equality to emerge. Lesbian feminist activists pointed out that the concept of lesbian references a woman’s relation to a man and is only possible in a patriarchal society. In a sexist society, an independent woman is labeled a lesbian and is not considered a real woman. Thus, several lesbian feminists in the 1970s advocated for a broader understanding of lesbian as a woman-identified woman, that is, a lesbian is a woman whose primary identification is with other women, regardless of whether or not that identification is sexually based. Lesbian feminist politics sometimes also advocated temporary or complete separatism from men and patriarchal society as a means for women to reconnect and find their own language.

In the late 1970s, lesbians who practice butch/femme, bondage/domination, or sadomasochism (BDSM), and other representations emerged to critique the lesbian feminist utopian ideals of equality and mutuality. These groups criticize the lesbian feminist movement as being antisex with an agenda to desex the term lesbian. Additionally, lesbians of color and working-class lesbians have noted that much of the lesbian feminist work has come from a decisively white, middle to upper class perspective that cannot claim to represent the needs and perspectives of all lesbians. The lesbian feminist call for separatism has also been critiqued because it denies the importance of men in the lives of lesbians.

Lesbian history has been a process of uncovering evidence of women with same-sex attractions or experiences. Actually, lesbian historians, following lesbian feminist interpretations of lesbian as encompassing an emotional attachment to another woman, have uncovered strong evidence that romantic friendships between women have likely existed throughout time. Sappho, the famous poet from a Greek island called Lesbos around the 6 th century BCE, and from which the term lesbian is derived, is such an example. Some scholars consider it problematic to label romantic relationships between women in history as lesbian, since sexual orientation was not categorized according to gender until the late 1800s. However, historians point out parallels to women in modern society. For example, same-sex attractions or relationships among women in history likely would have been devalued in relation to heterosexual, procreative sex.

Despite the wide variety of lesbian lives, all lesbians are susceptible to discrimination based on their sexual orientation. Homophobia, the belief that homosexuality is wrong or repulsive, is something all lesbians experience on some level during their lifetime. For example, in many areas of the United States, it is legal to discriminate against an individual based on their sexual orientation in housing and employment, as well as in marital and parental rights and privileges.

Along with discrimination, many lesbians become victims of hate crimes, a type of social terrorism that is usually violent and is committed against people because of their minority status. The perpetrator’s homophobic beliefs lead him/her to irrational actions such as physical or verbal violence toward the minority group or individual. Some U.S. states have enacted hate crime legislation to address these irrational responses, but lesbians and gay men are still susceptible to homophobic violence.

Although lesbians share the same health risks all women do, there is some evidence that lesbians may be at a higher risk of certain health conditions. For example, some studies have found higher breast cancer mortality, mental health problems, and substance abuse in lesbian populations compared to heterosexual female populations. There is disagreement, however, over the etiology of health concerns specific to lesbians. While some have argued that nulliparity (lack of childbearing) may leave lesbians susceptible to certain cancers, there are also numerous obstacles to adequate health care. Lesbians’ access to health care may be affected by the lack of culturally competent health care providers, the presence of homophobia in the health care system, and limited access to health insurance. This can be exacerbated by the lack of domestic partner benefits, or being economically disadvantaged, which includes being unable to afford health insurance and/or health care. Furthermore, some lesbians may hold false assumptions about their own health care needs. For example, many believe that they do not need routine gynecological exams because they do not have sex with men.

Lesbians are faced with similar mental health and developmental challenges that all women experience. However, lesbians face the unique challenge of coming out—accepting and deciding whether to make their lesbian identity public. Coming out is a process that can occur throughout the life span. Some lesbians come out as teenagers, young adults, in middle age, or late in life. Regardless of the age that this milestone is confronted, the stress of enduring the process, particularly if it is confounded by threats of violence and discrimination, can result in co-occurring conditions such as depression, substance abuse, internalized homophobia, and other mental health difficulties.

In recent times, lesbians have begun to own, define, and create new opportunities for themselves in our society despite adversity. The most noticeable trend has been embracing motherhood. Although lesbians have always enjoyed the option of motherhood, a surge in the rates of women choosing motherhood either as single women or in the context of same-sex relationships has been witnessed since 1980. These opportunities, along with greater public acceptance, have allowed lesbians to participate more fully and openly in society and to experience a greater range of themselves as women.

SEE ALSO: Feminism, Feminist ethics, Gender, Gender role, Homosexuality, Intersexuality, Lesbian ethics, Queer, Transgenderism

Suggested Reading

  • Nestle, J. (1987). A restricted country. Ithica, NY: Firebrand Books.
  • Panati, C. (1998). Sexy origins and intimate things. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Solarz, A. L. (Ed.). (1999). Lesbian health: Current assessment and directions for the future. Washington, DC.: Institute of Medicine.
  • Stein, A. (Ed.). (1993). Sisters, sexperts, queers: Beyond the lesbian nation. New York: Penguin Group.
  • Vida, G. (Ed.). (1996). The new our right to love: A lesbian resource book. New York: Touchstone.

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