Lesbian stereotypes – should they be embraced or rejected?
Once upon a time, people thought lesbians looked like men. No-one would have believed a lesbian wore a dress. Moving into the 60s and 70s, the gay community created their own labels – dress like a man? You must be butch. Wear a skirt? You must be femme. Look like you could be a man or a woman? Okay, you’re androgynous.
But we’ve come a long way since then. Do lesbians still identify this way in the 21st Century? Is the lesbian community ready to ditch the labels? Or is it the heterosexual world who need the labels to make sense of us?
Body dysmorphia, low self-esteem and poor mental health are disappointingly high within the lesbian community. Research by Cambridge University highlights 12% of lesbian women and 19% of bisexual women have mental health problems, compared with 6% of heterosexual women. Could this partly be down to the issues around our identity and how we are forced into meeting perceptions and stereotypes?
Catherine: There are far fewer butch lesbians now than there once were
Catherine, 43, identifies as butch and has done for two decades.
“I guess I just identified as being more masculine. In my 20s, I understood what butch was,” she says.
She adopted the label when she met other women who identified in the same way. She expects others in the lesbian and gay community to know how to identify her.
“I don’t really go round saying ‘Hi I’m a butch lesbian’ but I think when people meet me, who are of the community, they know that I fit into that butch label.
“But I definitely think there are far, far fewer butch lesbians now, than there were.”
So could lesbians be hiding their identity as a way to blend in? Catherine thinks so.
“When you’re butch, you constantly come out to every single person that you meet, without having to actually say anything,” she says.
“I think for some people, that’s difficult.”
Catherine feels safer being part of the lesbian community. “You meet people who are like-minded, or you stick to a group of people who have the same interests as you,” she says.
But when it comes to gay men, she still feels stereotyped. “I think a lot of the gay community see butches wearing flannel shirts, braces, shaved heads – that kind of thing.”
But it’s the straight community who are still the biggest issue for Catherine.
“Some men feel threatened. They almost have to ‘over masculine’ me,” she says.
“They feel threatened by what masculinity I have.”
But with age has come confidence. Catherine believes that confidence is changing the way she’s perceived.
Sophia: People say ‘Oh what’s your husband doing today?’
Sophia, 36, says she is more femme. To her, labels are about how you feel.
“I do all the cooking, cleaning and ironing. Identity wise, I identify more with a 1950s housewife than anything else,” she laughs.
Sophia has never really engaged in any scene. She just never felt connected to it. She thinks this is because she’s never had any issues after coming out. “I wonder if it’s because I’ve had such an easy ride that I’ve never had to look for an identity – I just got on with it. I didn’t have to come out because I was never really in. It never occurred to me to not tell anybody.”
She finds that people are surprised that she’s gay, “Nobody will believe me that I am! People say ‘Oh what’s your husband doing today?’, because they know it’s Mrs.” She tries to limit the number of times she has to out herself to strangers.
“I quite often let that slide, I always think it doesn’t matter. I did that with my physio, thinking I was only going to see her once and then it became a thing where I had to go regularly.”
Maz: I never identified as androgynous until I came out as a lesbian
But what if you don’t feel like you fit into a stereotypical lesbian identity? Maz, 27, runs an LGBTQ cafe in Selby. She identifies as androgynous.
Maz came out five years ago and immediately knew she wanted to change how she looked.
“I never identified as androgynous until I came out,” she says.
“I decided I could no longer dress the way society told me to, so I started wearing more men’s clothing and I cut my hair really short. It makes me feel much more happier this way than I did before.”
It’s the straight community who seem fascinated with what she’d do if she slept with a man.
“It frustrates me because they can clearly see I am not attracted to men, so why would I sleep with one?” she says.
All these women see issues around labels and stereotypes as a fact of life. It’s part of being who they are, but all three say it’s tiring having to come out or be out all the time. None of them like explaining they don’t actually think about what it would be like to have sex with a man.
It’s something heterosexual women don’t have to encounter. It might go some way to explaining a little of the increased mental health issues that lesbian women face.
Inside the lesbian community is the easiest and safest space to be yourself, with women who’ve been through what you have, or can identify on some level. Although for some women, like Sophia, they don’t feel they fit there either.
So maybe labels are just that – perceptions, stereotypes and identities placed on us by others, or something we use to make sense of who we are in a world where we don’t always fit.
We can use them if they suit us, or dump them if they don’t.