Discussion: The L Word

Or, regarding the erasure of the word ‘lesbian’ from YA contemporary literature. I don’t know if you’ve noticed (perhaps you haven’t) that, while the use of some labels to describe sexuality is (wonderfully) on the rise, the use of the label ‘lesbian’ has stagnated, to say the least. So this piece will, hopefully, provide an explanation of sorts of why this shouldn’t be.

A note to start: we’re limiting this discussion to mainstream YA contemporary because that is what’s most likely to get into young lesbians’ hands, especially if they are not so deep into talking about books on the internet.

If you asked us to recall (mainstream-ish) YA contemporary books which had the main character use the word lesbian, in a positive context and to describe themselves, we would probably only be able to give you a handful. Think for yourself a moment. How many books can you come up with? How many can you come up with instead that use the word gay, or queer, instead, when the character is demonstrably a lesbian? This, we would say, is a problem.

‘Lesbian’ is already, in wider society, a by-word for something dirty. Something small and to be hidden. It’s shied away from and nowhere is that clearer than in YA literature and its avoidance of the word. And nowhere might there be effected positive change in that respect than in YA literature.

The same argument as for any type of representation applies here, obviously. Seeing characters who represent you and your experiences in books is good for both yourself and individuals who are not members of that community.

I (Charlotte) wrote a little about perspective-taking and what it can/might do here.

But it’s all very well and good seeing lesbian characters if they don’t go and use the word lesbian to describe themselves. Instead, what happens is you rarely see the word at all. And if you do see it, it’s never in a truly positive context.

Judith (@NirrimsLiar on twitter) came up with a great framework to look at this through. Books fall into one of three categories:

  1. the word lesbian is avoided at all costs, even if it means finding forced ways of describing a character’s attraction, or it is relegated to “I like girls”, which could be any sapphic identity.
  2. the word lesbian is used by a parent or friend, often with less-than-positive undertones, sometimes to erase a character being bisexual.
  3. the word lesbian is used to imply a category or community without implying that the character belongs to that community.

Note also that these are often the only times the word lesbian gets used.

Some examples:

Category 1: avoid at all costs

But there was a good joke there—in a girl who liked other girls spending her free time cheering for boys and fawning over their lockers with homemade decorations and baked goods.

Purveyor of benevolent sexism, indeed.

Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi

After a minute, Maritza said, “Well, I guess we can all talk about boys together.”

[…]

“We can’t,” I said, “because it turns out I like girls.”

Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen

It wasn’t as if Mae hadn’t known about girls before this moment. She’d known, always, this fact about herself: girls were it. The sky was blue, the grass was green, girls were the thing. She’d just never felt it so starkly, with such accuracy.

Other Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin

Papi never saw what Dre
& I were to each other. At least,

he never mentioned it.
Ma is more watchful.

& it’s not that Ma did not like
that I liked Dre. It’s that she understood

I wanted no big deal to be made.

There is an artist my mother loved,
Juan Gabriel, who was once asked

in an interview if he was gay.
His reply: What’s understood need not be said.

I remember how Mami’s eyes
fluttered to me

like a bee on a flower
acknowledging the pollen is sweet.

I have never had to tell
Mami I like girls.

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
Category 2: friend or parent uses it

“Cool about the fact that I told you I was in love with Seeley, who is a girl. And I’m a girl. So I’m a girl that likes girls. Sort of.”

“Sort of?” He crinkles his eyebrows. “What does ‘sort of’ mean?”

“I mean that I don’t only like girls, like I’m not, you know.”

“A lesbian?”

I turn about a thousand shades of red and wish the earth would swallow me whole, because my dad said the word lesbian and it’s the weirdest thing ever.

Hot Dog Girl by Jennifer Dugan

“I do not want to drive! I want to know why you—”

“You still a lesbian?”

“What?” I was caught off guard. “As far as I know. Why?”

10 Things I Can See From Here by Carrie Mac

“You think I don’t see?” Mom continues. “I see the way you act with her. I see every time. Jessica, you— you are my daughter. I want you to be happy. If you are lesbian, it’s okay. But don’t lie to your parents. You don’t let your friend control you like that. You have to tell the truth.”

I can’t breathe. Mom is looking at me like I’m someone to pity.

A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

“Seriously, I feel like I need to address this or else—I don’t know. What Bea told everyone wasn’t what happened. We liked each other—I mean, at least I thought we did, and I don’t know, I’m sick of being pegged as some, I don’t know, aggressive lesbian, when that’s not what happened at all. OK? That’s not what it was.”

The Truth About Keeping Secrets by Savannah Brown
Category 3: implying a category or community, but not belonging

“So, lesbians are ugly?” She raises just one eyebrow—the way Gabi can. On the screen, Amber is having a talk with her father.

“I’m not saying anyone is ugly. But… I don’t know what I’m saying. Amber has a boyfriend. They both do.”

The Griefkeeper by Alexandra Villasante

“Whatever happens,” Alyssa says, “we stick together. Remember why we did all this—to give queer teens the badass lesbian werewolf romance they’ve never seen.”

Going Off Script by Jen Wilde

The washroom was spacious and bright. A purple feather boa lined the mirror, and I wondered who was responsible for the “diva” touches around the house—the portraits in the living room and this plumed accessory.

I did my thing and tried to compose myself. Looking into the mirror, I saw a very young face. A naive face. A face that had never slept in the same bed as a really cute girl before, or hung out with cool lesbians, or really done much of anything.

Kings, Queens and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju

The superficial stuff aside, I’ve been wondering lately whether we’ve got what it takes to be friends after high school. The lesbian thing has something to do with it. When I told Lauren last year that I thought I liked girls she said she was okay with it, but we never really talked about it beyond that.

The Flywheel by Erin Gough

And, to be clear, we’re not picking these books to single them out. They are just indicative of a pattern. A pattern which gives me actually a good ten-to-fifteen books to pick from to provide examples for each category, and that’s only those Judith knew about.

But even if the word lesbian isn’t used, what’s so bad about using other labels, primarily gay or queer?

Besides from the above point that seeing the word will (with luck) remove the negative connotations that it may have in young lesbians, there are a few points to make here. Firstly, using either of these words in reference to a character who is, demonstrably, a lesbian ignores the fact that there is a specific word to describe that pattern of attraction. And one that is specific to women and nonbinary folks (and yes, he/him and nonbinary lesbians are included in this).

Secondly, and this is more in reference to queer than gay, lesbian has a distinct aspect of it that is a lack of attraction to men. By specifically using queer (which does not have this dimension) instead of lesbian, you’re playing into the lesbophobic trope of “maybe you just haven’t found the right man yet”. Yes, sexuality can be fluid, but why is this fluidity only brought up when talking about lesbians who may choose to later ID as bi, rather than bisexual folks who may later choose to ID as lesbian or gay, or gay folks who may later ID as bi, and so on? (Probably because a patriarchal society as a whole, one that centres cis men over and above everyone else, cannot conceive not being attracted to men. But that’s a whole other discussion in itself.)

Another side of this discourse is also that, while bisexual or pansexual rep gets specifically mentioned (as it should, obviously), lesbian representation becomes a generalised “sapphic representation” or “f/f relationship” (which we on this blog are equally guilty of). This has a dual effect of assuming lesbian to be some baseline, some standard, while never actually saying the word itself. It is detrimental to all sapphics. Not least because it also often erases the fact that lesbians can be attracted to nonbinary people.

Letting lesbian characters use the word lesbian, and use it proudly (see: Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender), is only going to do good things. Not only is it important to have lesbian writers using the word, it’s also important to have non-lesbian writers let their lesbian characters say the word (and not in a way that contributes to the erasure of bi or pan sapphics), because right now, it feels as though the only people who care about lesbians are lesbians themselves.

For those of you who want a full list of books that fall into these categories:

Category 1: avoid at all costs
  • Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi
  • Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen
  • The Weight of the Stars by K. Ancrum (although author did promote as wlw, not lesbian)
  • Other Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin
  • Kings, Queens and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju
  • Sawkill Girls by Claire LeGrand
  • Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake
  • We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
  • Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour
  • Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
  • What Kind of Girl by Sheinmel
  • The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif
  • All the Bad Apples by Moira Fowley Doyle
  • The Lost Coast by Amy Rose Capetta
  • The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed
Category 2: friend or parent uses it
  • A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo
  • Hot Dog Girl by Jennifer Dugan
  • 10 Things I Can See From Here by Carrie Mac
  • I Kissed Alice by Anna Birch
  • The Truth About Keeping Secrets by Savannah Brown
  • How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake
  • Amelia Westlake by Erin Gough
  • Summer of Us by Cecilia Vinesse
  • Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard
Category 3: implying a category or community, but not belonging
  • A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo
  • Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen
  • The Griefkeeper by Alexandra Villasante
  • Going Off Script by Jen Wilde
  • Kings, Queens and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju
  • The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus
  • The Flywheel by Erin Gough

What are your thoughts?

12 Replies to “Discussion: The L Word”

  1. YES! I’ve always wondered about this, tbh. Lesbians everywhere generally just go by gay/labelless, and Idk why it bothered me but I could never really put a finger on it. I always felt uncomfortable about the word myself as well, generally preferring to go by gay/queer/pan/omni/Idk my sexuality’s a mess although I’ve never had an indication of being attracted to people who aren’t girls. Something about the word has just always felt…off and it’s almost never used regularly. I started watching glee last year and something about Santana Lopez using the word lesbian so freely and so much felt weirdly jarring. It did help me grow more comfortable with it, but that’s the only instance I can think of where it was normalized and used regularly (then again, the show wasn’t particularly friendly to sexual fluidity so Idk it wasn’t perfect).
    The word’s only usually been condemned and I’ve grown accustomed to using f/f or sapphic at this point too. There’s just something about it that made me uncomfortable and until Santana, I stopped considering why. It’s easier to just put it down to inclusivity but gay men don’t really care about throwing the term around all the time (nor do lesbians, for that matter), so…definitely something weird going on here. I have noticed that it’s mostly also used in contexts where the book/show blatantly erases bi/pan/omni/queer people.
    Thank you for this analysis, it really helped. Props to you for the effort, this was beautifully expressed and I applaud you for this much-needed perspective.
    Let’s go, lesbians:)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. honestly now you’ve started noticing you won’t be able to stop! i was watching teenage bounty hunters and the lesbian character went fully out of her way not to use the word lesbian, it was almost fascinating to watch the all the contortions needed not to!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve noticed this as well. I found some of my favorite books in this list and I didn’t even remember they avoided the word lesbian. Even other queer people have trouble saying the word lesbian and it sucks… I’m a lesbian and I had never felt weird about the word until other queer women told me it was too sexualized and sounded weird or off, now I feel bad about using it but I’m still going to do it 100%.The fact that even authors avoid the word just adds to the stigmatization. Kind of unrelated but I’ve also noticed that whenever there’s mainstream media, in this case books (such as those ensemble cast series like six of crows) with a queer female character on it, most of the time they’re of a fluid sexuality, and lesbians mostly show up on books about coming out (I read most wlw books that come out, even if they’re side characters). I guess authors are trying to be inclusive but it’s kind of transparent that they exclude lesbians. Most queer male characters are gay (and have fluid love interests at best) yet there are so few lesbians on popular book series or stand-alones almost like we are a thing of the past. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. it’s amazing how many do avoid the word once you start noticing it! and i do agree about the ensemble casts to an extent though i’m struggling to just think of ensemble casts that have sapphic characters, rather than what feels more usual which is mlm characters 😂. what’s most disappointing is when the authors who avoid the word lesbian are lesbians themselves, but i think that in part is about the stigma of the word again.

      Like

  3. This is such a nicely written post. It’s true that we don’t use the word lesbian often enough and it being used in a negative context is more prevalent than a positive one. I really liked that you included the third category of “implying, but no sense of belonging” because sometimes when we talk about the erasure of the word, we take that implication as something positive, but it barely scratches the surface.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, this has always been in the back of my mind, but I had never actually been able to put words to it. Actually seeing that there is a pattern of not using the word lesbian in books or in reference to books with lesbian characters truly puts it into perspective. There’s a lot of unlearning that has to be done. The word itself is so stigmatized, which breeds so much more unnecessary shame. I get that the word queer is sometimes used for inclusivity purposes, but if the character is lesbian just say that they are lesbian. More proud lesbian books! I’ll definitely keep this in mind from now on, great post!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s