In definition, part 1: Can identity be a trap?
Exploring the concept of lesbian identity in two parts.
This part of a series on lesbian identity. For the second half of this discussion, click here.
Have you ever thought about the concept of lesbian identity? Truth be told, just exploring the concept of identity is difficult. Do we narrowly define ourselves through our sexuality, through the way we dress or is there more of a global approach of what it means to be a lesbian? These questions leave me thinking that not only is the concept of lesbian identity vast, but it also leads me to ponder the evolution of my own lesbian identity - even at the risk of being misunderstood.
I’m not going to lie; often I fall into the trap of imposing lesbian identities on others based solely on visual appearances. It’s easy to look at someone and say, “Wow, she is so butch.” But the question is (trust me, I’ve been wrong on a number of occasions) does she consider herself to be butch? Pointing a similar question inward, do I consider myself to be butch, femme, a dyke, queer, a feminist, a womanist, a humanist or someone who performs within a society’s pervasive gender roles? In order for me to try to identify my own lesbian identity, I must first explore my very own experiences.
To give you a geographical and linear map of my own evolution, think Texas, California and France. Each social and cultural environment had tested and continues to test my mutability as I interact within sub-cultures of multiple self-constructed and visually imposed identities.
Dallas, Texas is a place where I really had to weed through all of the narrow-minded individuals to seek out the community to where I felt my lesbianism was safe and celebrated. Assessing personal risks on an everyday basis, I was forced to contemplate holding my girlfriend’s hand in the grocery store, I had to consider as to whether or not I could tell the guy who was hitting on me that I’m gay and I had to take into consideration my visual appearance when I was pumping gas in the “gay-borhood” late at night. Sadly, in Texas my lesbian identity was partially constructed by disguising myself within the prevalent heteronormative gender and sex roles.
When I first moved to San Francisco I remember thinking, “What took me so long to get here?” Undoubtedly, San Francisco has a much broader acceptance of sexual and gender identities and this is the magical place to where I was socially free to embrace my lesbianism to the fullest. Whether visually or sexually, I was not afraid to play within the loosely dictated gender and sex roles. There, I was free to push boundaries and I was allowed to expand my concept of what it means to be a lesbian. San Francisco is also the place where I found the love that recently delivered me all the way to Bordeaux, France.
I am still learning about the French social psychological attitudes towards the lesbian community and how I, as a lesbian in this culture, can play with and expand upon my evolving identity. Here, civil unions exist whereby affording gays and lesbians to assume many of the same rights as heterosexuals. When I engage in my civil union next month, will this in turn progress my self-constructed lesbian identity via French culture? Honestly I’m not sure yet, but I will let you know.
In sum, through the continuing evolution of my own lesbian identity, I realize how larger society imposes such identities on marginalized groups and how this acts to disempower. I have also learned that we can yield certain types of power from claiming specific locations within society.
I have come to another conclusion such that a woman who loves other women needs to explore her own identity and allow herself to proclaim and occupy her own subjective position. By developing our own concept of lesbian identity, we can then claim our position within society, whether visually, sexually and/or globally despite what others may impose upon us.
Through my own exploration I have found that my current lesbian identity is defined through affirmation. I see a portion of my identity as a woman who has interacted with multiple societies and cultures. I view my lesbian identity through loving women and celebrating the bonds that unite us all. Here, I create a life-bond with a woman, which evolves into pride and strength through every aspect of my life.
So here, I ask you, how do you identify?
Melissa Flewelling grew up as a farm girl in Iowa and then immigrated to Texas to finish out her education. Obtaining a MA degree in gender studies from Texas Woman’s University, with a special focus in whiskey, she then escaped to San Francisco to work in the nonprofit human rights sector only to fall madly in love with a French girl. Navigating the murky waters of LGBT immigration laws, she currently lives in Bordeaux, France and is working on her freelance career. This is her first piece for lotl.com.