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  • Writer's picturePatricia Grayhall

Lesbian Queer or Gender Fluid?

Language is always changing and so it is with women who love women. For my generation, women who preferred loving women emotionally and sexually referred to themselves as lesbian or gay. Queer and dyke were considered derogatory.

In the late 1970s that began to change. People chafed at the limitations for sexual and emotional expression imposed by society. Sexuality exists on a spectrum and the black and white dictum of straight vs. gay no longer was adequate to define the many ways in which humans can love one another.

Beginning in the 1980s the word queer began to be used with defiant pride by gay and lesbian activists and gradually it evolved into an umbrella term that includes lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transexuals, intersexuals, and any number of sexual explorers. Some women now use the term queer to acknowledge gender fluidity, or to affirm a non-heterosexual orientation without having to state who they are attracted to.

The evolution of terms for sexual orientation labels or buckets in the sea of erotic attraction also coincides with a dramatic increase in acceptance of gays and lesbians by society.

In the 1960s and 1970s when I came out, there were several hundred bars that served as gathering places for women to meet other women who were lesbian, bisexual, or curious. Then we knew most of the women there were attracted to other women.

Today such bars have diminished greatly in number with only 25 in the entire country. There are so many more options now for women who love women to find each other including the internet, interest groups such as hiking and singing, and just being out to family and friends.

In my memoir about coming out in the 1960s and 1970s while training to be a doctor, I use the term lesbian exclusively. I cringe upon being referred to as queer as it still carries the derogatory stigma left over from that era. In an article I wrote, published in the Gay and Lesbian Review, the editor insisted that I change the word lesbian to queer to better appeal to their readership. I agreed reluctantly. The women in my short essay, my peers, would likely not care for the term applied to them either.

With so many options of labels to choose from, I wonder if older lesbians may be confused at times. Perhaps using queer, the umbrella label, or non-binary or gender fluid allows the normal exploration of adolescence and young adulthood to occur without having to commit to one track or another.

The stakes for exploration are not nearly as high as they were for my generation when a woman could lose her family, friends, livelihood, home, children, and reputation for expressing emotional and sexual love for another woman. Young people are freer to experiment and explore without stigma. Thus, the change in language may be a good thing.

I am curious to hear from young people. What label do you prefer? Do you feel freer with the many choices available to you now or uncertain when you meet someone who identifies as queer or gender fluid?


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