Every couple of months, I read an article in HuffPost or Buzzfeed or some other hipster rag about how all these actresses and singers and whatnot have come out as… nothing, really… because they’re so fucking cool, they’re post-label, as fluid as their $129 lip gloss, which is perfectly applied, no matter how gender-neutral. Do I even need to say that they’re all stinking rich and nearly always white? It’s easiest to believe you’re above “labels,” which other people just call “words,” when you’re not only in the top one percent, but the top .05 percent.
I’d like to announce for the record that “lesbian” is just a label in the sense that all words are. This one is offered to us by the English language to describe female types primarily attracted to other female types. There are no political qualifications, no sports certificates you must have, or clothes in your closet, or sexual acts you must engage in. Your hair can be of any length and degree of cleanliness. You can identify wherever you like on the gender spectrum. And better yet, lesbian works nicely as both an adjective or a noun.
When people say they don’t need or don’t like labels, they’re really saying, they don’t want labels. And why? They accept a great many other labels — like singer, for instance, or actress, or even writer — which serve the useful purposes of distinguishing them from plumbers so we don’t call them to fix the drip under the kitchen sink.
Neither do most dispute the word white, even though skin color is actually quite changeable depending on the season, and if they tried to wiggle out of that category like the unfortunate Rachel Dolezal, or Tiger Woods, everybody would come down on them like a ton of gold bricks. You are white, they say. You are black. Get used to it.
But “lesbian,” no. That’s a label you can draw the line at to general applause, pretending like it’s a totally different case, because, “Like, you know, female sexuality is so fluid that we shouldn’t try to contain it at all.” I’d like to officially announce that there’s a word to describe that, too. We call it “bisexual” or “pansexual,” if you want to be fancy. No shame in those “labels” either. We can even change the words we use to describe ourselves anytime we want, in the same way that “actors” can become “directors,” though in most cases, they don’t, not permanently.
I’m even okay with changing language itself. Why not? I’d take an axe to it if I could. But as limited as it is, it is how we communicate, share information. I suspect that the real reason the cool crowd of queer women don’t like lesbian isn’t because they don’t accept labels or that they want new or better ones, it’s because this particular one scares them shitless. It has a whole history of hatred behind it, and was once synonymous for sicko, degenerate, perv. More importantly, “lesbian” slams shut the door of heterosexual privilege and access to men, and lumps them in a terribly female category with all us dykes of the hoi polloi.
Including every woman who’s ever lost her children in a homophobic court, every dyke that was ever bashed, every girl that got dragged to the preacher or kicked out of her house for kissing another girl, those dykes from New Jersey that finally fought back when they got harassed and landed in jail themselves.
Some of us, like most Americans, really could stand to lose a few pounds and refuse to swipe on a little mascara to bring out our best features, which are always our eyes. I myself could use a haircut. And sometimes my personality could use a make-over, shrill and strident and so often angry I have nothing in common with these incredibly privileged females whose desire to sleep with women has never brought them anything but joy.
But there’s more than grief. If you’re looking for exceptional lives, you’re tied as well to our histories of resistance and radical experiments in sex and gender and literature and art. We have outlaw lesbians, utopians, and activists. A garde much more avant than yours. You can’t imagine you’re the first, after all, to think you’re so progressive, so post-everything by announcing the demise of labels and of lesbians. Lesbophobes have been doing it for as long as I’ve been paying attention, which is a very good 25 years.
The lesbian is dead! Long live the lesbian!
Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.