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Let’s talk about non-binary lesbians!

Robyn Exton

Apr 12, 2023

Let’s talk about non-binary lesbians!

People be mad. TERFs be delusional. In the comment section of pretty much anything that mentions non-binary lesbians, you can expect a flood of angry trans-exclusionary fake feminists, homophobes, and dumb ass people being wild, out-of-pocket, and confused. 

Non-binary lesbians are valid, real, and entitled to express themselves however they please, regardless of how others might interpret that self-expression. Non-binary lesbians have existed, well, as long as people have existed — even before there was language to describe their experience. 

Using gendered terms when existing outside the gender binary

“But how can someone be non-binary and a lesbian?!?!” The short answer: by having those be the labels they identify with the most. It really is that simple. 

A lot of the outrage sadly comes from people within the community, especially sapphic TERFs, trans-exclusionary “radical” feminists. TERFs believe that the term, “lesbian,” should only be used by cis women who are attracted to other cis women. 

Source: Unsplash

They make the argument that the origin of the word lesbian comes from the Greek island of Lesbos, where the wlw poet, Sappho was from. That it is a word that was exclusively made to refer to cis women’s attraction to other cis women. And while, yes, the word “lesbian” does originate from Sappho and Lesbos, it’s actually not as black or white as many people make it out to be. 

A short history of the term “lesbian”

It wasn’t until the 20th century, when medical professionals were looking for language to describe many different human sexualities, that the word “lesbian” became popularized. 

Prior to that, lesbians were referred to as tribades, which comes from the action of rubbing pelvises together aka dry humping, and scissoring. Tribade was coined by men to describe women that were deemed way too masculine, and, in the 19th century, evolved to be the most popular way to describe women who were into other women. 

Source: Museum of Natural and Cultural History

Flash-forward to the 1950s-60s. Women who were attracted to other women were not going around calling themselves “lesbian.” They were calling themselves gay because that word had a more pleasant association.  The term lesbian, in its relative newness, still felt too medical and cold. It was a word that still carried a massively negative connotation, especially in the queer community. 

It wasn’t until the 1970s where the term lesbian was reclaimed and adopted by the WLW organizers and activists of the sexual revolution. At the time, many cis-women lesbians publicly rejected and dismissed trans lesbians. 

Some of these anti-trans cis lesbians were already calling themselves “radical feminists” and they believed that a woman’s identity is rooted in biology. It’s important to note that most lesbians weren’t on board with this essentialist way of thinking, and neither were most feminists (Lowkey they had more important struggles to worry about).

Source: Mariette Pathy Allen

A short history of the term “non-binary”

Non-binary is a term that means a person identifies somewhere outside the traditional male/female gender binary. While it’s not a new concept, it’s a relatively recent term — it’s definitely not a new identity, or concept. 

Several ancient cultures reference a third gender which was neither man nor woman. Many anthropologists state that in Mesoamerica,  Aztec, Olmec, and Maya peoples believed and understood that more than two kinds of bodies, and two kinds of genders existed. And they weren’t the only ones. Sacred, third-gendered people can be found in Mesopotamian mythology, and Andean, Inuit, and Incan civilizations. In pre-colonial times, over 150 Native American Indigenous tribes recognized a third gender within their communities. 

Yup. So, the next time some Fox News watcher tries to say some “all these ‘new’ genders… back in my day,” type of crap — you let ‘em know that it’s time to pick up a book because folks have been existing outside the gender binary since the inception of civilization. 

Alright, so we know the concept of gender outside the binary isn’t new. But what about the language to express genderqueerness, and non-binary identities? When did that come up and about? 

We can thank community organizing and the 1980s-90s for a whole lot of it. The term “genderqueer” gained popularity thanks to queer zines, gender activist groups like the Transexual Menace, and GenderCAP, and organizers like Riki Wilchins. 

The game-changing word took off like wildfire thanks to the explosion of tech, and the arts, making it easier for folks to connect and share their gender non-conforming identities with the world. Fast forward to now and we’ve got even more ways to express ourselves, with ‘non-binary’ being another label embraced by those of us who don’t fit the gender binary.

Language and queer terminology are constantly evolving and in motion.  

Source: Stonewall

Thank you, Leslie Feinberg 

In 1992, ​​Leslie Feinberg, an American butch lesbian, writer, and trans rights activist, published, “Transgender Liberation: A movement whose time has come,” which broadened the definition of the term “transgender” to also include any sort of gender variation or nonconformity.

A year later, Feinberg published, “Stone Butch Blues,” which famously explored trans-ness and gender fluidity within a lesbian framework. Feinberg used ze/hir pronouns, acknowledging that they did not identify as cis-gender despite being oft-mistaken for cis, and proudly said, “I am a butch lesbian, a transgender lesbian.”

Ze was the first activist to advance the Marxist theory of transgender liberation, and is remembered as a key organizer in pro-labor, anti-war, anti-racism, queer rights activism. 

Ze has given us some of the most beautiful quotes in queer history, one of them being, “you’re more than just neither, honey. There are other ways to be than either-or. It’s not so simple. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many people who don’t fit.”

Source: Marilyn Humphries

The value of labels and terminology in queerness

Non-binary lesbians have been a part of history all along, even if the language to describe their identities wasn’t as widely known or accepted as it is now. 

We celebrate the fact that we have progressed towards a more inclusive and diverse understanding of gender and sexuality. Let’s continue to uplift and empower all individuals who proudly liveas non-binary and lesbian, and create a more welcoming and accepting world for everyone.

Source: Open Democracy

And while many gender non-conforming, non-binary, and genderqueer people of the world don’t call themselves lesbians — and use other terms to define their sexuality — many always have, and will continue to. 

Linguistic labels are just one part of how we express ourselves to others, and how we identify, feel, and exist. Just like the term “lesbian” was reclaimed in the 1970s by predominantly cis, sapphic women — it can be reclaimed again by our trans, nonbinary, genderqueer siblings.

FAQ about non-binary people

Am I still accepted as a lesbian if I’m non-binary?

Non-binary lesbians always have been and always will be a part of the community. You are valid! Labels are supposed to be helpful tools to help communicate our identities to others and ourselves. As long as they feel right within you and your inner world, they’re real and right. You’re not “stealing” anything from anyone by being a non-binary lesbian. If you’re non-binary, and the term lesbian is what feels right to you, then you’re entitled to use it. TERFs and other out-of-touch losers can bug off. 

Can a lesbian like a non-binary person?

A lesbian can absolutely like and be attracted to a non-binary person! If you are  a lesbian, and you’re into a non-binary person — you are then, by definition, a lesbian who likes a non-binary person! And that’s okay, and doesn’t have to mean anything other than that. 

I know that in the past, cis lesbians who are dating folks outside the binary have expressed a fear of their sexual label potentially erasing the gender-queerness of their partners who don’t identify as lesbian. To that, I say, communication is the key! Don’t be afraid to have an open, and honest talk with your partner to let them know if this is something that’s been on your mind, or just to hear their thoughts on the matter. So long as you’re both able to make space for respecting each other, your identities, and your needs, only deeper love and understanding can emerge.

Can trans women be lesbians?

Trans women can be lesbians. Here, at HER, we don’t vibe with any sort of TERF bs. Trans women are women. Trans women should have the same rights as cis women, and be treated with compassion, love, and respect. Trans lesbian women are entirely and without a doubt valid — anyone who says otherwise is a TERF and probably living a pretty miserable life. 

What’s the non-binary lesbian flag?

While there is no non-binary lesbian flag (yet), the white stripe in the lesbian flag is there to represent non-binary and gender non-conforming lesbians! So, non-binary lesbians are inherently included in the lesbian pride flag. Take that, TERFs. 

Non-binary lesbian books

We already mentioned Leslie Feinberg and hir life changing books, “Transgender Liberation: A movement whose time has come,” and “Stone Butch Blues.” But those are not the only two radical, and incredible books that talk about a non-binary lesbian and sapphic experience! 

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is a complex book that dives into themes of gender and sexuality from the perspective of an intersex protagonist, Cal Stephanides. “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl…and then again, as a teenage boy,” Eugenides wrote. Published in 2002, it’s a book that has had a great impact on the genderqueer community, despite it using language that is now outdated and highly problematic. 

Source: HRC

All of this to say… 

A lot of the times, when we truly take a moment to sit down and think about our identities — the labels we align the most with, how we truly feel within, the people we really are — a bit of overengineering can arise. We might ask ourselves… can I really be this, if I’m also that? Am I a “real” X if I also like Y, or if I also feel like Z? 

Maybe because we live in the digital age where we’re forced to share the internet with ignorant people — whose commentaries can, unfortunately, linger on… and maybe because when we grow up in an environment where we’re heteronormative structures and systems are the norm, there can sometimes be a lingering voice in the back of our head that carries a bit of doubt. 

But just because someone identifies as non-binary doesn’t mean they can’t also be a lesbian. After all, attraction is about who you’re into, not about fitting into a specific box. So to all you non-binary lesbians out there — keep being your amazing, authentic selves! You are valid exactly as you are. We see you, we care about you, we’re so proud of you.

You’re part of the beautiful, diverse tapestry that is our LGBTQIA+ community, and we’re so lucky to have you.

Robyn Exton

Robyn is the CEO & Founder of HER. Find her on Twitter.

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