The Dirty “L” Word

Illustration by Jenny Dodge.

The summer before my senior year of high school I bonded with the girls who I knew would be my best friends for life. These friendships were unlike any I had experience before. There was no jealousy or competition; we were each other’s biggest fans. The bond we have has been maintained by passion, love, trust, and sisterhood. We’ve never been afraid to express the love we have for each other; hugs, kisses, and occasional hand-holding aren’t uncommon. Naturally, growing up in a gossipy, white, conservative, upper-middle class suburb in Texas led to a wildfire of hushed rumors linking our tight-knit group to what was considered the dirty “L” word.

It came to us by word of mouth from friends, who were told by a friend, that another friend overheard the word while walking the halls in-between classes. It came from guy friends who overheard boys two years younger than us gossiping in the locker room. It came from acquaintances who heard it from the mouths of our previously close friends. We were the “Secret Lesbians,” mysterious to boys and looked down upon by the girls of our high school. We were never concerned with the label. What was so “bad” about being a lesbian, anyway? Yet all of us felt a quiet unsettling anger that we could never quite describe beyond our disappointment in the derogatory use of the word lesbian.

Of course this disgust surrounding lesbian existence, and queer existence in general, is nothing new to the LGBTQIA+ community. The harmful use of the word has a long history that was most significant during the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s. While the mainstream women’s movement swept lesbian existence under the rug, lesbian activists fought to expose the heteronormativity and homophobia of the movement. The Radicalesbians were one infamous group of women who brought lesbian concerns to the forefront of the feminist agenda. During the Second Congress to Unite Women of 1970, the Radicalesbians halted the event when they infiltrated the room that was full of figures of the second-wave movement and handed out their notorious manifesto, “The Woman-Identified Woman.”

While lesbian existence was their main concern, the Radicalesbians were also demanding more from the women of the mainstream movement. According to their manifesto, the goal of the women’s movement was merely to seek “more privileges within the system, [the women of the movement did] not want to antagonize male power. They instead [sought] acceptability for women’s liberation, and the most crucial aspect of the acceptability [was] to deny lesbianism – i.e., to deny any fundamental challenge to the basis of the female.”

The Radicalesbians recognized the fear “the Man” had of women organizing, and so they saw the blatant white, male-driven mission to spawn divisiveness within the women’s movement. They were not hesitant to use their advantage to manipulate and silence the women of the movement. As a result, the leaders of the women’s movement strongly discouraged women from being in homosocial spaces and from stepping out of the male-ascribed female role, all to avoid the dirty “L” word. The desire for these strict, female boundaries was explicitly explained by the Radicalesbians:

“Lesbian is a word, the label, the condition that holds women in line. When a woman hears this word tossed her way, she knows she is stepping out of line. She knows that she has crossed the terrible boundary of her sex role. She recoils, she protests, she reshapes her actions to gain approval. Lesbian is a label invented by the Man to throw at any woman who dares to be his equal.”

Unsurprisingly, the malicious and belittling use of the word lesbian has quietly persisted through the years, as exemplified in the hushed, scrutinizing whispers about mine and my friends’ sexual identities. We still live in a forceful, heteronormative environment much like that of the past. There is no better indicator of this than the fact that cisgender, heterosexual people are still obsessed with the secrets of another person’s sexuality.

This curiosity isn’t innocent. And I will be the first to admit that I too — a cisgender, heterosexual woman — have been overcome by this silent but demanding curiosity. This intrusive interest is a result of the conditioning we experience in our heteronormative society. Conditioning has led us to consciously and unconsciously enforce social norms which render “abnormal” sexuality as deviance which supposedly must be dissected and criticized.

The residents of my predominantly white, conservative, norm-abiding community jump on every opportunity to tear apart anyone who dare step out of the box and into “abnormality.” My peers are no exception. Do I think the people who carried the rumors about me and my friends recognized the oppressive, divisive nature of their assumption? Absolutely not; we all fall victim to social norms regularly. To even avoid enforcing the norm, we must first recognize and learn about the implications of the norm.

I do not, however, have any problem critiquing the assumptive rumors. The assumption echoes the voices of the men from the past. There is a relentless, controlling force within many men,  and women who have not confronted their internalized misogyny, that works solely to criticize and divide women. This force is unyielding, and it will continue to be so until we no longer live in a patriarchal society. I must mention that the derogatory use of a word defining a queer existence does more than just “keep women in their place.” Such careless trivialization of queer sexualities delegitimizes the experiences and identities of Queer people.

There is one implication I have yet to address on the topic of male-enforced divisive language: Such language has historically been used to keep women divided, not just to keep them in their acceptable role, but because the force of passionate, angry, driven women scares “the Man” shitless. Men find their power in the socially-constructed concept of masculinity; this power is based off of an illusion. In her book “Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism,” Patricia Hill Collins discusses how the white, male populace that sustains the patriarchy has no underlying bonds than that which is created by the competition bred from hegemonic masculinity. As a collective force, women have powerful bonds that are legitimized when we turn to each other to create an identity that is not defined by man.

There is no better explanation of these bonds than Audre Lorde’s in her essay “The Erotic as Power.” Lorde explains that women’s empowering force of the erotic has been limited to sex in order to keep us from recognizing the strength and creativity it gives us in every part of our life. The erotic is “an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.” What chance does masculinity have against the electric passion ensued by the erotic?

My long-lasting friendships are what I would call a product of the erotic. These women are constantly helping me grow into the woman I am reaching for — a woman that is powerful, joyful, passionate, and creative. We have helped each other “touch our most profoundly creative source…that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.” I owe everything to the women in my life, and so in this piece I offer my gratitude and thanks to them.

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