How lesbians are owning their identity in the face of negative stereotyping

Written by Amy Beecham

Research has found that stereotypes around over-sexualisation and “man-hating” are stopping two-thirds of lesbian women from coming out.

Coming out is a deeply personal experience. There is no “right” way to do it, if, indeed, you have to do it at all, and people face different challenges and barriers to do so.

Even though coming out can be a challenge, it can also be incredibly liberating, and many people see it as the first step to living authentically as themselves.

However, new research from LGBTQ+ rights charity Just Like Us found that two-thirds of lesbians postpone coming out as a result of negative stereotypes, including fears they will be perceived as “man-hating”, “over-sexualised” or “anti-trans”.

Those surveyed also cited fears that being a lesbian is perceived to be “cringey or awkward” andhomophobic societal misconceptions that being a lesbian is “wrong” as reasons they’ve delayed telling their friends and family.

It’s something Liz, a 30-year-old from London, understands deeply.

“When I say I came out in 2017, I’m referring to the day when the words ‘I don’t think I’m straight’ left my lips,” she tells Stylist. “My internal coming out journey had been ongoing for the previous 10 years, but being a lapsed catholic and in a pretty serious relationship at the time,there just wasn’t the space to explore how I was feeling.

“I started with my partner, who was so understanding and supportive, and I slowly began to test out the words ‘I’m queer’ to a few close friends. The response of those around me was overwhelmingly positive and allowed me to grow in ways I didn’t anticipate.”

 Still the word lesbian, she says, felt “too big, too loud, too consuming” to ascribe to herself.  

Liz came out in 2017, but says she was impacted by the stereotypes around lesbianism

“The stereotypes were big,” she admits. As someone who played football all the way through childhood, I had been on the end of that term as an insult, and hearing it made me freeze up inside.”

Liz says that cultural stereotypes, as well as the socialisation she’d experienced throughout her childhood, played a large role in how she reflected on her identity.

“To be a lesbian was to be butch, bad, un-womanly,” she shares. “As I grew older and identified as queer, being a lesbian became synonymous with those that don’t view our trans and non-binary siblings as part of us. I wanted to let the world know that I was a Woman that Loved Women (WLW) but that I would never exclude my trans and non-binary siblings. It’s only now with hashtags like #LWithTheT where I feel more confident in identifying as a lesbian.”

Theresa, a 20-year-old from Scotland, had a similar experience when she came out in 2020.

While Theresa is thankful she didn’t receive any negative reactions to her coming out, which she recognises is a “privilege”, she admits the label was daunting to adopt at first.

“Without positive representation of lesbians in the media growing up, all I knew was what men had to say or the jokes in school and that they were a porn category — something that existed for the male gaze and male pleasure,” she shares.

“I very much internalised this and it took a lot of work and seeking out media with good lesbian representation for me to feel comfortable identifying as a lesbian.”

Theresa found positive lesbian representation in books and online

Theresa says that making lesbian friends online and consuming lesbian media helped her to unlearn preconceived ideas and fully embrace her identity. “It helped me see how wonderful and beautiful being a lesbian can be and to finally accept that for myself,” she says.

On the role books played in her accepting her lesbian identity, she says: “I truly believe that they are the best media to go to right now for LGBTQ+ representation, particularly for queer women. Reading about characters going through experiences so similar to yours and coming out on top is life-changing. It gives me great joy to recommend these books with the hope that they will help other struggling queer people like they helped me.”

For Liz, while her personal confidence has grown, she says she can completely understand why so many feel conflicted with the term.

“Unfortunately language matters, and the discourse in society is still so lesbophobic, biphobic and transphobic,” she adds. “For many in my generation and below, the word queer ironically feels less loaded – a sentiment that certainly wouldn’t ring true with my LGBTQ+ elders.”

But for Liz, her power comes in her choice to identify however she feels: sometimes as queer, sometimes as a gay woman and sometimes lesbian.

“Day upon day, year upon year, I feel powerful in my lesbian identity. I feel at one with it and incredibly proud of the women and non-binary lesbians that I have in my life. As the saying goes, a day without lesbians is like a day without sunshine.”

Images: Getty; courtesy of contributors

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