Lesbian Myths, Debunked

Gender stereotypes about the lesbian community distort gay women's experience.

For a gay woman, it can often be a struggle to determine where exactly she fits in the spectrum of gender identity in both the lesbian and heterosexual communities. Many lesbians are faced with having their sexuality evaluated purely on the basis of their looks, as if sexuality is something that can be “seen” on the body to warrant approval, while others are not “accepted” for failing to act in a certain way. Such narrow-minded, misguided stereotypes create numerous social problems in advancing gay rights and raise an important question of what gender identity means for lesbians today.

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According to mental health counselor Tara Lombardo, of the LGBT psychotherapy center, Institute for Human Identity (IHI), gender stereotypes about lesbians are merely an extension of “internalized homophobia.” In other words, the LGBT community has adopted society’s standard of what it means to be straight or gay based on the only model it knows—heterosexual relationships. In essence, it has had to borrow from this prototype.

“For lesbians, representation appears to be 'owned' by heterosexual attitudes that personify what lesbians are and are not, and this is related to women’s sexuality being invisible and based on attraction. A lot of femininity is based on the male gaze. If you remove the male perspective, you have to figure out the female gaze and at this point we still don’t know what exactly that is in the gay community.  It has been a long trek for lesbians to come out and work out where they identify within these pre-determined social scripts that exist,” Lombardo explained to AlterNet.

A growing body of social science research suggests that the proliferation of gay marriage is redefining the way we view gender and specifically gender roles within family life. According to Liza Mundy in her recent article, “The Gay Guided to Wedded Bliss,” research has shown that same-sex unions are happier than heterosexual marriages, with lesbian couples experiencing the most intimate relationships compared with their heterosexual and male gay counterparts. 

“Same-sex spouses, who cannot divide their labor based on pre-existing gender norms, must approach marriage differently than their heterosexual peers. From sex to fighting, from child-rearing to chores, they must hammer out every last detail of domestic life without falling back on assumptions about who will do what. In this regard, they provide an example that can be enlightening to all couples,” Mundy said.

While the critics of gay marriage warn of the effects of a “genderless” society, Mundy believes gay marriage can help us to shed ancient, old-fashioned stereotypes by re-evaluating gender norms.

“If a genderless marriage is a marriage in which the wife is not automatically expected to be responsible for school forms and childcare and dinner preparation and birthday parties and midnight feedings and holiday shopping, I think it’s fair to say that many heterosexual women would cry, bring it on! Beyond that, gay marriage can function as a controlled experiment, helping us to see which aspects of marital difficulty are truly rooted in gender and which are not,” she said.

We are certainly making some headway, at least in the eyes of the law, with over 14 nations now having legalized gay marriage. Such efforts have generated extensive media coverage of gay weddings and enhanced the visibility of the many different types of gay couples that exist in the LGBT community. Moreover, such transparency has helped to normalize lesbian identity for heterosexuals and thus paint a clearer picture of society’s evolving gender norms.

Despite the enthusiasm surrounding such progress, hiccups and push-backs remain in the struggle for equality. As we celebrate Pride Month this June, we still find ourselves living in a world where gay people are subject to discrimination and anti-gay hate crimes. While some lesbians are fortunate enough to escape such prejudice by slipping under the radar and not being recognizable as gay, these women face other obstacles such as the effects of “femme invisibility."

According to gay rights activist and writer Megan Evans, the concept of femme invisibility is the lack of recognition and validation that feminine lesbians experience by being perceived as heterosexual as a result of looking feminine. The forgotten "femme," as she states in her article, Femme Invisibility, is the feminine-looking lesbian who goes unnoticed because of her girlish appearance. 

“We fall victim to heteronormativity and heterosexism: the notion that heterosexuality is the preferred and normal sexual orientation. We are presumed to be heterosexual by both communities, which leads to the feeling that we don’t belong to either,” Evans told AlterNet.

Sadly, pop culture has not done much to dispel such misconceptions. While femme lesbian characters have risen over the last couple of years on popular TV shows such as “The L Word,” according to Evans, most are either portrayed as “femme” or “butch” with not much diversity of representation of the lesbians who sit somewhere in between.

What’s more, story lines about femme characters tend to involve struggles over sexual identity or a lesbian having relationships with both men and women, which only perpetuates the idea that lesbians can be “turned straight” or “swayed by men."

Evans explains: “Frequent comments that I hear as a femme lesbian are, "But you're too pretty to be gay," and "Who wears the trousers?" We are often seen as a challenge for straight males who think that they can 'turn' us, and lesbians mis-label us as straight fag hags,” Evans said.

Lombardo, who is also the associate director of IHI, echoes this sentiment: “The challenge for the queer community, particularly for women, is that if you identify as a femme, you have the burden of proving you are a lesbian as well. There is a struggle with such classification because femme women have to prove their sexuality to both straight and gay communities,” she said.

The lesbian porn industry also fuels misconceptions about “lipstick lesbians" by centering on two femme women to satisfy the sexual fantasies of men. In porn, feminine couples are constantly objectified and dominated to fulfill their sexualized roles according to what satisfies men. 

Last week’s YouTube clip, “Real Lesbians React To Porn," which recorded the reactions of real lesbians watching lesbian porn, shattered the myths surrounding the bedroom antics of lesbians. The comical video showed lesbians poking fun at the use of suspiciously long fingernails and oddly placed stiletto heels. With over 2 million views already, the clip confirms what most of us already know: lesbian porn is made for straight men.

“Lesbian porn only reinforces the view that lesbians are not 'really' gay. It also undermines our relationships, for example, when we're seen to be kissing for the pleasure of men, instead of as an expression of love towards our partners,” Evans said.

Undoubtedly in this day and age, it seems unconscionable that anyone should have their sexuality scrutinized for the simple reason that it does not conform to a misguided stereotype. But how do we go about avoiding such stigmatization? The answer lies in positive lesbian role models in the community who can act as mirror images for society

Lombardo explains: “Those who identify as a lesbian all look and act very differently. Because coming out has changed over each decade, it seems that while acceptance of sexuality is more acceptable today, it is still a challenge. Thus, by branching out, people in the lesbian community can act as mirrors for other women. If there is internal shame in a community, there is a tendency for women to isolate themselves, whereas if you can expand your mind and ideology by becoming more active in the LGBT community, you begin to develop a better idea of who you are,” she said.

Megan Evans agrees: “We have Portia De Rossi and Chely Wright, but there are not many high-profile celebrities that have come out to proudly say that they are a lesbian. Growing up I felt that I did not have a role model to look up to so that I knew I could be feminine, gay and happy,” she said.

In response, Evans launched the Femme Visibility Campaign to combat the invisibility of feminine lesbians and change lesbian stereotypes through encouraging fellow femmes to come forward and have a voice. The campaign was launched as part of Evans’ own website, What Wegan Did Next, a blog about her life with her wife, Whitey, as a loving feminine lesbian couple.

“What I strive for is the day that it will no longer be a shock to be feminine and gay. After all, 'feminine' is not a synonym for 'heterosexual.' I hope that with more lesbians coming out and living their lives proudly, that we will slowly but surely show both the straight and gay communities that our sexual orientation is legitimate and that we deserve to be treated that way,” Evans said.

Jodie Gummow is a senior fellow and staff writer at AlterNet.