Growing up lesbian in a smaller conservative-leaning town, I feel like I missed out on a lot of opportunities to interact with my community. While I’m certainly grateful for the programs they did have, the majority centered around help centers and offered support for issues like homelessness and drug addiction. It’s a step in the right direction, as some cities offer no resources at all, but I always wished for a place I could go to just speak with other people like me--this made my first drag show all the more exciting. I went with a group of friends in Ocean City, where we all had a fun time watching the performance and engaging with drag queens from across the state. Out of all the people I spoke with that night though, there was one interaction that always stuck with me.
The only other girl in the room besides my girlfriend and I came up to our table to congratulate us on beating her in a game onstage. After complimenting her makeup and high-fiving on us both being gay, I made a comment regarding how few women were around; she instantly responded with “people like us need to have our hand in a pussy to ever be taken seriously by gay men!” She said it lightheartedly enough, but her words and the implications behind them bounced around my mind for the rest of the trip. Why are we worrying about men taking us seriously, when the entire point of sapphism is non-men? In something as woman-centric as two girls dating, I’m still hung up on whether or not my sexuality is “valid” in the eyes of a man.
Many people outside of the community aren’t aware of how much in-fighting goes on amongst LGBTQ+ individuals, and this is a great example of why. Because, of course, gay men have their own issues, but at the end of the day they’re still men. That’s what people first notice when they walk into a room, and it’s the privilege they are treated with unless they state otherwise. Gay men do face forms of discrimination unique to them, and I think now is an appropriate time to insert a brief disclaimer. Too many people think they’re fully knowledgeable on LGBTQ+ struggles because they follow a hashtag on Twitter, but I’m telling you now--not all gay people are the same.
Everyone’s experience is different depending on their individual identity. Yes, we’re all lumped into one big umbrella of “queer”, but a heterosexual transgender woman is going to face completely different struggles than someone who is nonbinary and bisexual, or any other combination of gender and sexuality. Social media has presented performative activists with the perfect platform to think they can speak on an issue and know just as much as someone actively living through it. For that reason, I’ll be focusing on my own experiences as a woman attracted to women (wlw) and how the male gaze impacts us even when they’re not in our pants.
The reason why the wlw experience differs so much from the rest can be chalked up to misogyny, one of the most historically universal yet normalized forms of discrimination. Every culture has its own place in society reserved for sexism, none more prevalent than the male gaze. Defined as depicting and viewing women through a sexualized lens, the male gaze cements men into an unjust position of power where they’re free to observe women as nothing more than sex objects for their personal use.
Here’s the facts: men are uncomfortable when women experience pleasure that is not for them.
Masturbation is regarded as taboo for anyone but men, and it’s all too common to hear about girls faking orgasms since it’s rarely an expectation. Unfortunately, it’s not just sex: it’s sexuality, too. Women are only ever crammed into one of two boxes, those being maternal caretakers or seductive vixens. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the male gaze, but gay women introduce an entirely new factor. Thanks to years of negative stereotyping, lesbians and other wlw are almost never seen as the model mother--that leaves sex object as the remaining option. Masculine women may appear to get the shorter end of the stick at first glance, as they don’t align with the beauty standard men establish, and are consequently ostracized entirely.1 They are mocked, harassed, and labeled as “dykes” so often you forget it’s a slur. Masculine-presenting women are also more typically victims of violence,2 and the reality is that hate crimes are never taken seriously until a body is found. However, those that are feminine-presenting aren’t faring much better, as they are constantly hypersexualized in order to conform to the needs of men.
A huge place we see this happening is the porn industry. Year after year, “bisexual” and “lesbian” hold the prize for top searches worldwide,3 and those keywords are major selling points in terms of titles and hashtags. Even though it’s one of the most popular categories, every skit’s plot is consistent--hot “girl-on-girl” action only for a male actor to walk in at the last second and join in the fun. Even if there are no men in the script, the language used and actions executed make it clear to the viewer who their target demographic truly is. Adult film actors are not the ones at fault, though. They’re only creating content based on the demands of consumers, and said content just happens to be women performing pleasureless activities to satisfy the man behind the phone screen. Now why is this the content we’re demanding?
Representation in the media and movies are just as insulting. Bisexual women are more prevalent, but only exist to advance the development of a male character. This is where the “manic pixie dream girl” trope originated, making their sexuality a cute quirk alongside hair dye and dark clothes rather than an identity (i.e. Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). Other examples include Harley Quinn from DC Entertainment and Jennifer Check from Jennifer’s Body--sassy, sensual, and mainly seen with men. The latter film is even more infuriating, as it is regarded as an LGBTQ cult classic, with a single wlw kiss scene that is so obviously written by a man. Jennifer also dies at the end, a homage to the infamous “bury your gays” trope where as soon as representation is introduced, they’re ultimately killed off.
Lesbian representation features tropes as well, most notably the “lesbian kiss” used by producers and proven to boost viewership.4 While sex sells regardless of sexuality, it’s used doubly so when it comes to lesbian relationships. These characters frequently play into the “man-hater” and “social justice warrior” stereotypes, but are seen touching and flirting with male characters when they’re not talking about being gay.
A more current example would be Cheryl Blossom from Riverdale, but it’s also worth mentioning the entire cast and premise of Orange Is the New Black. There are many examples of butch and masculine-presenting women, but the only ones getting on-screen sex scenes are Piper (bisexual) and Alex (lesbian)--of course, the two femmes. While lesbian media representation is often hypersexualized to appease male viewers, it won’t stop them from asking who wears the pants.
That’s how deeply engraved misogyny is in our society; people will see two women in a relationship and still insist one must be “the man”.
We’re not even taken seriously in our own community. We’re criticized for stealing precious space in gay bars. This only because we have none to claim as our own; there are a select number of lesbian bars scattered across the country, and many are in danger of closing.5 Throughout the AIDS crisis in the 80s, lesbians were some of the first and only people to lend comfort and support to dying gay men.6 This strengthened the bond between the two groups that, before, had never really existed, and helped lesbians prove themselves as active members of the community. It’s one of the main reasons why the “L” was moved to the front, giving us the acronym as we know it today.7
Despite these events, it still makes one wonder: how are we the first letter in LGBTQ and still so neglected by not only outsiders, but our own community members? White, gay men focus so much on f-slur discourse that they repeatedly fail to acknowledge other issues, including the ones they’re starting themselves. Again, they’re gay, but they’re men first.
Thanks to an overwhelming lack of support, wlw of all kinds are often excluded and heckled with outdated, ignorant stereotypes. Lesbians are told they’d change their mind if they just found the right man while bisexual women are invited to threesomes on Tinder instead of actual dates. It even impacts wlw’s own views of each other, starting arguments around the bragging rights of gold-star lesbians (women who never had sex with a man) or bisexuals who are more or less valid depending on their gender preference. Bisexuality is a spectrum and needs to be treated as such instead of invalidating a woman for being with a man.
All of these statements and issues are rooted in misogyny, internalized or not, and do nothing but reinforce harmful stereotypes. They succeed in molding non-LGBTQ folks’ opinions and spreading misinformation, alongside negatively influencing queer women exploring their sexuality. While offensive cliches and sexualization may appear harmless in media, they spell danger for queer women off the television and encourage dangerous crimes such as conversion therapy and correctional rape. It boils down real relationships with real feelings to something nothing more than sexual.
It’s important for gay women to be seen in a non-sexual context. Yes, we have sex, but we’re more than just our bodies. There’s a middle ground between infantilization and sexualization needing to be met, but telling media producers and distributors to stop isn’t the way to reach it. Instead, we need to change the way the public views us. While our bodies are beautiful and our love for one another is real, fantasization does not do our love justice. Our bond as queer women is unbreakable and unique to us, and that support is something to be celebrated--both on and off the big screen.
Rachel Johnson-Yates, Kristina Johnson-Yates, and Jennifer Esparza photographed by Jessica Bishop of JustJess Photography; Hair and makeup artistry by Chie Sharp; Designs by Leila Breton of Curvy Custom Bride; Studio shared by The Delicate Boudoir Studio; Article written by Isabella Lowery
1 Bindel, Julie. “Butch Lesbians Are Paying a Price for Bending Gender Rule.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, July 31, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/31/butch-lesbians-paying-price-bending-gender.
2 Mohan, Megha. “The Red Zone: A Place Where Butch Lesbians Live in Fear.” BBC News. BBC, June 23, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-48719453.
3 “Celebrating 10 Years of Porn.. and Data!” Pornhub Insights. Pornhub. Accessed September 16, 2021. https://www.pornhub.com/insights/10-years.
4 Henry, Jasmine. “How the First Lesbian Kiss on American Television Changed TV Forever.” KitschMix. Accessed September 16, 2021. https://www.kitschmix.com/first-lesbian-kiss-american-television-changed-tv-forever/.
5 Marloff, Sarah. “The Rise and Fall of America’s Lesbian Bars.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, January 21, 2021. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/rise-and-fall-americas-lesbian-bars-180976801/.
6 Lister, Dr. Kate. “The Lesbian ‘Blood Sisters’ Who Cared for Gay Men When Doctors Were Too Scared To.” inews.co.uk. inews, August 21, 2020. https://inews.co.uk/opinion/comment/the-lesbian-blood-sisters-who-helped-save-gay-mens-lives-235100.
7 The ‘L’ in LGBT, and Why Order Matters.” The Foreword. The Student News Site of Taylor Allderdice High School, November 19, 2019. https://theforeword.org/832/editorials/ the-l-in-lgbt-and-why-order-matters/.