Why is the Media Trying to Erase the Word Lesbian?

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"Reclaiming my word! Reclaiming my word! Reclaiming my word! Lesbian! What they failed to tell you, is that IT’S MY WORD… And I CAN reclaim it!"

The mainstream media has an issue with using the word lesbian. And that issue—as well as the shaming and rebranding attempts that come with it—only serve to contribute to the homophobia (and internalized homophobia), that lesbians grow up with. A particular brand of homophobia, that specifically targets lesbians… and it can be brutal.

Lesphobia is exacerbated by the mainstream media’s continued pornification and redaction of the word lesbian. The word no one dare speaketh: The L word.

In recent years, “lesbian,” is often replaced with “queer,” or “gay,” or avoided altogether. A study, published by Michael Biggs, displays graphs demonstrating how many times HRC and GLAAD—among other major organizations who claim to represent lesbians—actually use the word “lesbian.” The study found the word lesbian was rarely used in major “LGBTQ” annual reports. “LGBTQ” publications and media often redact the word lesbian, and some have even gone further, describing the word lesbian with unflattering descriptors, such as “stale” and “stodgy.”

There is a social hierarchy. That hierarchy needs to be addressed and shouted out. If people have a problem with the word lesbian, if they don’t understand why it’s necessary to put it in the headline, then it’s time for them to do a little self-examination.

On January 6th, I wrote an article on Huffington Post about the violent and tragic murder of a lesbian, Kerrice Lewis. And although it was shared directly from the site over 100,000 times, overnight, there was one major recurring complaint: Why did I feel it was necessary to use the word “lesbian” in the title?

Kerrice Lewis was violently murdered, and her friends were distraught, because the media had ignored it. I happened to see this comment online:

Her friends wanted people to say her name. So we did. There are reasons her murder was ignored. Compounding reasons. And to understand it, we have to name it. Kerrice Lewis was a woman. A black woman. A lesbian. A ‘butch’ lesbian.

There is a social hierarchy. That hierarchy needs to be addressed and shouted out. If people have a problem with the word lesbian, if they don’t understand why it’s necessary to put it in the headline, then it’s time for them to do a little self-examination.

Why did I feel it was necessary to use the word lesbian in the headline? Why do I, in general, feel it’s necessary? That question, being asked over and over again, resulted in what can only be described as a minor twitter rant. I fired off these thoughts:

“For people who want to know why it’s important to mention someone is a lesbian or have “lesbian” in the headline: As I wrote in my most recent article:’When lesbians are murdered, the distinct media bias keeps the general population in the dark. This bias is multiplied where ‘butch’ lesbians are concerned, and compounded if you’re a woman of color. Lesbian relationships are typically downplayed, sexuality is often omitted, and there’s a resulting lack of focus (with both investigations and media) on potential hate crimes—Even where the murder is exceptionally horrific (as in this case). I mainly write about lesbians, for lesbians (and allies of lesbians), on topics as they pertain to lesbians. Lesbians are the most silenced within the alphabet and within the media. We’re underrepresented and misrepresented. I truly appreciate when non-lesbians are allies to lesbians and make efforts to understand issues as they pertain specifically to us…Lesbians. If you have an issue with the word lesbian, you should examine why you feel it should be omitted… “

screenshot, lesbian history, Rachel Shearer, Alison Froling, Lesbian Avengers, 1992, Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project

In a 1992 Lesbian Avengers documentary, Rachel Shearer says, “Lesbian isn’t even a word people are comfortable using.

It’s 2018, and, apparently, people still aren’t comfortable with using the word lesbian.

On January 23rd, when Rachel Morrison and Dee Rees made headlines, the headlines (as usual) largely omitted the word lesbian. And although the bodies of those articles did let us know that Rachel Morrison had just become the first woman to ever be nominated for an Oscar for cinematography, and Dee Rees had just made history as as the first Black woman to be nominated for an Oscar for an adapted screenplay, the fact that they’re both lesbians was strategically obscured. In fact, I had to become a bit of a detective to find out.

screenshot: Lesbian History, Dee Rees, a lesbian, is the first black woman to be nominated for an Oscar for an adapted screenplay. (on youtube, The Daily Show)
screenshot, youtube: lesbian history, Dee Rees, a lesbian, is the first black woman to be nominated for an Oscar for an adapted screenplay.

Not surprisingly, most major “LGBTQ” publications avoided the word lesbian in their headlines about Dee Rees and Morrison, as well. They opted for descriptors such as “LGBTQ people” and “Queer Women” instead. In fact, an article put out by one of the biggest “LGBTQ” publications has such a strong aversion to the word lesbian that they write “Dee Rees, a queer woman of color…” and “Rachel Morrison, who is also part of the LGBT community…” to avoid using the word lesbian.

In that same article, the word lesbian only appears twice (much further down in the script), but not in reference to either woman, and “queer women” is used to substitute “lesbian” 13 times. Yes, that’s right, 13 times. And they also substituted “lesbian” with “women in love”and “gay and bi women” and “love affair between women” and “female lover” and “presentation of desire between women”…  Anything to avoid the L word. The mainstream media, and mainstream ‘LGBTQ’ media, treat the word lesbian like it’s the plague.

Is that what they want us lesbians to believe? That the “L” is a scourge upon the earth? Lately, it certainly feels that way. There are entire articles in ‘LGBTQ’ media, written by non-lesbians, dedicated to convincing lesbians that the word lesbian should be erased and substituted with something that sounds more bendy, more flexible, more hip… like “queer.”

“Queer,” a word that was originally used as a slur to demean lesbians and gay men, has been appropriated by sexually flexible people to mean “maybe…we’ll see…it’s not off the table…” and can’t a slur only be taken back by the people it was once used to degrade?! Isn’t that a thing? Yes. It is. There are rules. Society has been pretty clear on that. Yet the same fate of appropriation has befallen “dyke”—A word that was originally used as a slur to dehumanize lesbians, and later reclaimed by lesbians.

screenshot: lesbian history, “Dykes will rule this country.” —Marlene Colbum, One of the OG Lesbian Avengers, 1993, Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project

“Queer,” as it’s being used now, doesn’t have the definitive sexual boundaries of “lesbian.” “Queer” is the cool lady. The “I might be open to it” girl.  The intention here is to teach young lesbians that if their sexuality doesn’t leave room, it’s outdated, uncool, or somehow irrelevant. And that’s just plain homophobia disguised as being progressive. Not too surprising, seeing as how many major “LGBTQ” publications are freely using a new slur to describe lesbian same-sex attraction. Shaming lesbians has become the new normal.

screenshot: lesbian history, One of the OG Lesbian Avengers, Ilsa Jule, fighting in the cold for lesbian visibility—“I’m out here because it’s invigorating to be out”  Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project

Cut the Orwellian Newspeak. It should be right there in black and white. Rachel Morrison: Woman. Lesbian. Dee Rees: Woman. Black. Lesbian. Each of these words represent a prejudice these women had to overcome. There is a hierarchy, and these women had to fight. I want to know that right away. I don’t want to have to crack the code. I don’t want to do mental gymnastics when I’m reading something.

Words are important. Words have meaning. Without words, bird tree fly flar-flar floo no can communicate yard go butterfly understand. Let’s all take a page from congresswoman, Maxine Waters, and get a new rally cry going… Repeat after me: Reclaiming my word! Reclaiming my word! Reclaiming my word! What they failed to tell you, is that IT’S-MY-WORD… And I CAN reclaim it!

*a version of this article, by Julia Diana Robertson, was also published on AfterEllen


My wife and I—Lesbians, lesbian-ing, all day every day. ©PSPhotography

جوليا ديانا — JD Robertson, is an award-winning author, and a contributor for Huffington Post and AfterEllen—A first generation Arab-American, who grew up between worlds, and currently resides somewhere in the middle with a bird’s eye view. 

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