Bisexual Visibility Week: On the Definition of a Lesbian

In honor of Bisexual Visibility Week, I present to you an essay I first posted to the Garden in my early twenties. It’s gone through many iterations since then. Over the decades, the details of my love life have changed, but the fact of my bisexuality — or my queerness, if you reject the binary gender model — remains constant.

On the Definition of a Lesbian

Depending on who you talk to, I am or am not a lesbian. If you define a lesbian as someone who resides on a small island off the coast of Greece, then I am not a lesbian. If you define a lesbian as a woman who is exclusively attracted to women, then I am not a lesbian. If you define a lesbian as a woman who emotionally, sexually, and spiritually centers her life around women, then I am a lesbian. [Editor’s Note: These days, I have a male partner. So I guess I have to give my toaster back and stop calling myself a lesbian.]

I’m much more comfortable with the term “bisexual” than I was when I was a young, confused baby dyke in the early 90s. I shied away from the term partly because of my own internalized biphobia, but mainly because the GL part of GLBT has always been the more respectable side of the rainbow. It can be difficult for people to accept bisexuality as a bona fide identity rather than some phase I’m going through. Lesbians don’t trust us, and men usually get glassy-eyed and say “I’ll be in my bunk.” Or if they’re particularly clueless, they might ask the following questions:

  • “Can I watch?”
  • “Did you ever do it with both at the same time?”
  • “Will you do it with me and my girlfriend?”
  • “Can I watch?”

Depending on how polite they are, they may or may not ask these questions outright. In the past, the ones who did usually got these responses: No, Yes, Probably Not, No.

I suppose there are any number of reasons why many straight men are so fascinated with lesbians. My favorite explanation is that they’re threatened by any situation in which they’re irrelevant, and that colonizing the lesbian experience through voyeurism somehow soothes their fragile egos. Hence the large volume of by-men-for-men “lesbian” porn. Pro tip: most dykes don’t have long nails. It’s hard to get your hands in the right places if you do. Even femme dykes usually keep the first two nails on their dominant hands short for just this reason. Unless they’re total pillow queens. Or prefer… well, there’s infinite variety to human sexual behavior. But this essay is about identity politics more than sex. So let’s talk about identity, and the labels we use to define our sexuality. Or better yet, let me just tell you about mine.

Early in my twenties, I generally identified as a lesbian, even though I continued to be attracted to both sexes. Sometimes I said I was a lesbian. Sometimes I said I was gay. Sometimes I would ironically (but not really ironically) say that I was a traitor to my own kind. Sometimes I said I liked girls and boys. And if I was feeling the need to be really, really exact, I’d say I was a lesbian-identified bisexual. In fact, that’s still the term I prefer today. Why do I use it even though my partner is a man? For the same reason I used it when my partner was a woman: just to piss you off.

Bi community? What’s that?

When I moved from upstate New York to Connecticut in 1996, I found a thriving gay and lesbian community. But I got this vibe off the lesbians I met that bisexuality was not an option. This kind of attitude was not uncommon. And considering the struggle for lesbian identity that went on in the 1970s and 1980s, it was understandable. I myself had fallen prey to the ol’ stereotype of the bi-curious female who just wants to experiment a little but isn’t really gay and oh look, I just dropped my towel but I’m not really gay, I just like toying with your affections. I never mentioned my relationships with men to these friends for fear of being cast out of a community it had taken me so long to find.

Then I discovered a group of people who didn’t have any trouble at all calling themselves bisexual. I went to a Bi Net USA conference in August of 1997, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t have to play the pronoun game. In fact, very little I said shocked them. It was through that organization that I connected with members of Conn Bi Nation, an activist and social support group based in Hartford. This group was an important part of my own coming-out process, and it gave me a feeling of community in a time and place where gay-ness of any kind was not generally accepted.

For a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, I’m no longer much connected with the bi movement (or with queer activist groups, which tend to cater to young, single people with plenty of energy). It appears to be alive and well, though. Bi Net USA has a nationwide listing of groups on its website. I’ve found a number of groups on Facebook and am sure they exist elsewhere on the Tubes as well. Boston — my current home — is also home to the Bisexual Resource Center, a wonderful organization spearheaded by Robyn Ochs, a Harvard professor and long-time bi activist. Robyn is the editor of a number of great books and newsletters, including Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World and the recently published Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men. The BBWN’s Bi Women Quarterly is one of the few ways I connect with a larger community of bi and queer women. We’re easily mis-identified — even by our own — and especially when we’re paired up.

Some queers have said to me, “I’ve come out once. I don’t want to do it again.” But for me, the whole point of coming out was about being true to myself and my sexuality. In America, it’s easier to be one or the other, and it’s still not very easy to be gay in many parts of the country. But I’ve never been one to do things the easy way. And at the end of the day, living a lie is way more difficult than embracing the truth about your sexual needs and desires, whatever they may be.

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