Lesbian refers to identity (a woman whose orientation is same sex and who considers herself part of the Lesbian community) and to erotic-romantic activities that may occur between female same-sex partners. The term “lesbian” is derived from Lesbos, an island in the Aegean Sea, which was home to Sappho, an Ancient Greek poet known for her homoerotic poetry.
Sappho and the Island of Lesbos
Sappho lived during the 6th century, BCE. She is remembered for her poetry, although very little of her poetry still exists. Some surviving verses mention her desire for other women. For hundreds of years after she died, her poetry was praised because of its lyrical sophistication rather than its homoerotic undertones. Christian authorities in the Middle Ages, however, rejected her from the canon of Greek poets because of the homoerotic content in her works.
It was not until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that scholars began digging through the archives to reclaim Sappho, her poetry, and her sexuality. Hence, terms such as Sapphic, Sapphist, and Sapphism came to signify sexual relationships between women.
As with homosexual men being called “sodomites,” implying they are citizens of the city of Sodom, homosexual women were likewise linked to a geographically-based identity as lesbians, implying they are citizens of Lesbos. Due to its reputation as the home of Sappho, Lesbos has since been turned into a tourist destination as a site for pilgrimage and vacations for Lesbians around the world.
Lesbianism as a Disease
Lesbianism refers to both the practices of women who have same-sex desire. It was also used in medicalized discourse that proliferated during the 1900s. Sexologists, psychologists, and psychoanalysts often defined “lesbianism” as a defective condition or disease. Freud believed that any form of same-sex desire was the consequence of deviance from proper feminine or masculine identity during childhood, adding to beliefs that the lesbian was abnormal.
A well-known quotation by Denise McCanles, circulated within LGBTQ literature, jokes: “That word ‘lesbian’ sounds like a disease. And straight men know because they’re sure that they’re the cure.” In line with this reasoning, many medical specialists believed that proper heterosexual activities were the only cure for those who tried such questionable behavior.
In the early twentieth century, lesbian pulp fiction gained popularity. Books such as Winnifred Ashton’s Regiment of Women (1915), Dorothy Sayers’ Unnatural Death (1927), and Dorothy Baker’s Trio (1943) all told the stories of lesbian villains whose desire for other women made them carnivorous, murderous, and ultimately insane. Such texts perpetuated public beliefs that lesbians were evil seductresses who preyed upon innocent victims as well as the beliefs that lesbians were ill due to their refusal to participate in the norms of heterosexuality.
Daughters of Bilitis
Formed in 1955, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) appropriated a supposedly historical icon when they chose their name. The DOB started as a social club for lesbians in San Francisco, expanded to cities across the USA as an activist group for Lesbian and Gay male rights, then as a woman’s rights group with a large Lesbian constituency. When it began, women in the organization wanted to remain underground, so the group was given a name from Pierre Louÿs’ The Songs of Bilitis. Sappho’s fictionalized lover in the book’s narrative is Bilitis, who Louÿs initially claimed had actually lived at the time of Sappho. Appropriation of the term linked the Lesbians of the DOB with what was presented as centuries of folklore (fictional or otherwise) and legitimacy rather than disease.
Lesbian and Twentieth Century Gay Politics
As Gay rights took hold within the twentieth century, organizations tended to be split between men and women. Although the DOB initially advocated on behalf of Gay men as well as Lesbians, it was largely supported by Lesbians, while other homosexual rights groups such as The Mattachine Society were mostly supported by Gay men. Much of Lesbian activism had closer ties to the early feminist movement, although that too was a complicated venture as a number of heterosexual feminists perceived Lesbians to be a threat to the headway that women had made in the USA. Feminist activist and scholar Betty Freidan went so far as to call Lesbian feminists the “lavender menace,” a term which was appropriated by Lesbian feminists who sought to expose prejudice in the feminist movement.
These political schisms meant that many Lesbians were on the fringes of the feminist movement and, due to continued sexism and a lack of partnership between Lesbians and Gay men, they were also on the fringes of the Gay rights movement. However, this began to shift with activism and scholarship in the later twentieth century, which connected the oppression of women with the oppression of homosexual people. The acronym LGBT, and its further manifestations as LGBTQ and other variations, signify the shifts in consciousness that took place once Lesbian feminists became a part of Gay (as an encompassing term for same-sex orientation, gender variation, and atypical sexual physiology) politics.
The exclusivity of “gay” (as in male) meant that it was increasingly important to include more diverse identities. Although originally – and still in many instances – GLBT was the first response to this diversification, the act of switching the first two letters (LGBT) is the result of collective recognition that Lesbians have often come secondary to Gay men in the same way that women have historically been regarded as lesser than men. LGBTQ represents an attempt to trouble this linguistic-cognitive pattern.
Changing Lesbian Identities
Being a lesbian means very different things for different people. It can refer simply to a woman’s same-sex desire (lowercase L, as in “lesbian”), or to one’s gendered subjectivity within a larger community (uppercase L, as in “Lesbian”). Throughout the centuries, some lesbians have ascribed to the dichotomy of butch/femme, identifying behaviorally and aesthetically with either a “butch” (a more masculine) identity or a “femme” (a more feminine) identity. The signifiers of butch and femme are still alive in the LGBTQ community and continue to be used as stereotypes of Lesbians (and of Gay men). Lesbian-related identities are now characterized more by multiplicity than any heteronormative framework.
Whether or not by choice, Lesbians take on the labels of dyke, bulldyke, bulldagger, gay, queer, aggressive/AG, lipstick lesbian, stud, and boi among others.
A documentary by Daniel Peddle titled The Aggressives (2006) delves into the lives of a number of aggressives or AG’s in New York. The subjects in the film are mostly African American Lesbians who embody masculine personas, and while historically they might be called “butch,” the term “aggressive” is used in African American and Hispanic urban communities, signifying the interplay of race, sexuality, and gender within one’s identity. Similarly, AG fem (alternative: ag fem) is a term for Lesbians who may dress feminine, but who take on a more aggressive role sexually.
Trans Lesbians are male to female (MTF) transwomen who are classified anatomically male at birth and who desire women, but who feel that they are actually female. They may undergo various hormonal and surgical procedures to transition from male to female, and identify their relationships with women as lesbian. Like many people in the Trans community, Trans Lesbians experience discrimination from the general population and from the LGBTQ community. Lesbians who identify as masculine, and who many dress and act according to norms of masculine behavior but who do not want to surgically transition from female to male, are also sometimes called Trans Lesbians.
Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1981.
Gallo, Marcia. Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006.
Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University, 1998.
Johnson, Marguerite. Sappho. London: Bristol Classical, 2007.
Wilton, Tamsin. Lesbian Studies: Setting an Agenda. New York: Routledge, 1995.