Or perhaps more accurately, avoiding the word lesbian. But why is that so important on this journey? In the short months since beginning this project I have realised that so many women who love women simply don’t identify this way. Many older women still find the word distasteful or even offensive. For them it has never quite shaken off negative connotations from the past, and outside the English-speaking world there seem to be a million ways that women who love women identify, if they even define themselves by who they love at all.
In my world, the word lesbian reigns. Originally referring to the people of Lesbos, its association over time with the island’s most famous resident (the lady-loving Ancient Greek poet Sappho, pictured above) morphed its meaning and it has become the accepted and standardised term for a woman sexually attracted to other women, so much so that I assumed it had always been this way. Then I read a collection of real-life stories published in the early 1990s where Rachel Pinney, a British woman born in the early 1900s, describes lesbian as a dirty word, ‘bracketed with slime, muck, the devil – all the other dirty words you can think of’.
She said she found the word lesbian difficult to use, preferring homosexual. This came as a revelation – in my world we use the word lesbian to proudly describe our sexuality.
It made me wonder when, where and how the word lesbian came into common usage, when it flipped from negative to positive, and what terms preceded it? Perhaps more importantly, why do we label ourselves and each other? How and why is this different between generations and across the world?
According to Leila J. Rupp in her impressive global history of love between women, there have been many names for love, desire and sex between women, and there has also been a great deal that has been unnamed. Indeed, it has been said that until such time as the early Western ‘sexologists’ very kindly named and categorised ‘the lesbian’ in the late 19th century, there was no such thing. They first used the term ‘invert’ to describe people who appeared physically male or female on the outside, but felt internally that they were of the opposite anatomical sex and therefore ‘inverted’ – just heterosexuals born in the wrong body.
This was an attempt by outsiders to name something they didn’t understand, rather than a move by women who love women (and men who love men) to seek out a collective identity. Other names given to and used by women who loved women included tribades (from the Greek word ‘to rub’) and sapphists, and there are no doubt many more terms that were never recorded.
Until relatively recently, most historical accounts from women who love women (and there are very few) suggest that they had no idea what they were – they just knew what they felt, and they understood that society considered it to be wrong. In women, ‘inversion’ was often seen as some kind of insanity – the (largely male) ‘experts’ of the day believed that lesbians were women who did not adhere to female gender roles and were therefore mentally ill.
It was thought that same-sex love between women might cause vaginal cramps and sterility, or insanity, or lead to suicide or murder.
It is no wonder the labels used at this time had lasting negative connotations that for some persist to this day. As Rupp points out, across the world, women who love women have ‘ignored, rejected, feared or welcomed the idea that they were a kind of person who could be named’.
There may be relatively few women who love women today in the western world who cannot or do not identify themselves as lesbians, but further afield many women are no doubt isolated by this lack of common identity. I was recently in Peru where the term lesbian does exist but very few of the women I met used it proudly, just with acceptance. The term ‘lesbian’ also exists in Thailand but Thai women are offended by the word as it is associated with pornography, preferring ‘Tom’ or ‘Dee’ depending on whether they identify as ‘butch’ or ‘femme’, although this is very much a sub-culture and is not accepted by society in general. In Southern Africa there is much evidence to suggest that love between women is not as uncommon as some anti-gay activists might like to believe; in countries such as Lesoto there is not really any concept of a lesbian but this only means there is no label, not that there are no women who love women – it is said that passionate relationships between women are as conventional as heterosexual marriage.
It may be that prior to being identified as a social ‘problem’ which needs to be named and solved, same-sex love and sexual attraction between women (which seems to have been consistent throughout human history, if not consistently documented) is allowed to continue behind closed doors as long as it does not upset the social order. Once it begins to challenge social norms, in parallel to women’s liberation more generally, it is labelled making it both a positive identity around which groups can form and women can identify, and a negative label that can be used to abuse and stigmatise. But whereas in the past this has happened within countries, it might be that globalisation is beginning to fast-forward the process across regions that have not progressed so far in the emancipation of women.
I now know that the term lesbian only resonates in a relatively small part of the world. Women who love women are everywhere and always have been, and how these women identify, if at all, should not exclude their stories from being told. How to find these women who do not label themselves by the gender of the person they love? That is the challenge.