Lesbian is the term for a gay woman, meaning a woman, or woman-aligned person, who is attracted to women and woman-aligned people. The term is also sometimes used by non-binary people who are attracted to women.
The word lesbian comes from the name of the Greek island Lesbos, the birthplace of the poet Sappho (the origin of the word sapphic). The use of lesbian to mean gay woman or female homosexuality dates back to 1732. Before this was used, the word lesbian meant 'of Lesbos', such as 'Lesbian wine' or 'Lesbian culture'.
Romantic and sexual relationships between women go back far in human history, including to ancient times. Most ancient civilizations were surprisingly LGBTQ+ friendly, thinking that it was just human nature to crave sexual or romantic contact from the same gender.
As mentioned above, the Greek poet Sappho was a major part in developing the terms lesbian and sapphic. She was believed to love women or be a lesbian. Little of Sappho's poetry survives, but what has survived provides deep description of women's daily lives, relationships, and rituals. Many of her poems proclaim her love for girls, as she deeply studied the beauty of women.
Ancient Greece had thriving homosexual culture, as men were sequestered with other men, and women with other women. Sexual relationships between men were recorded, but almost nothing about relationships between women were recorded. Records of female sexuality are often few and far between in this society. There is generally no clear evidence to suggest that women were encouraged to have same-sex relationships with each other, but with the poetry of Sappho, many historians believe that lesbians were quite abundant in Ancient Greece.
Lesbians and same-sex relationships between women were viewed in a negative light in Ancient Rome. Women in ancient Rome were subject to male sexuality. In modern scholarship, it was revealed that men viewed relationships between women with hostility. They viewed these relationships as 'biological oddities' that completely shattered a man's view of his sexuality.
Ancient China and Japan
In these societies, homosexuality was commonplace in comparison to heterosexuality. Erotic art prints called shunga depicted sexual relationships between people of the same gender. This was just considered regular art for many citizens.
With the term 'sodomy' growing to describe homosexual men, same-gender relationships were viewed in a negative light. This was usually only to describe men who would partake in sexual relationships with other men, though. Female homosexuality went unnoticed - and therefore was not discriminated against in the early stages of modern Europe. The earliest law against female homosexuality appeared in France, circa 1270. In Spain, Italy, and the Holy Roman Empire, sodomy between women was put on the list of acts punishable by death, although few instances of executing lesbians have been recorded.
Relationships between Catholic nuns have surprisingly been recorded during this time as well. Forty days' penance was demanded of nuns who 'rode' each other (engaged in sexual behavior) or were known to touch each other's breasts. An Italian nun named Sister Benedetta Carlini was documented to have seduced many of her fellow sisters when being possessed by a Divine spirit. To end her relationships with other women, she was placed in solitary confinement for the last forty years of her life. However, contrary to this, female eroticism was almost fashionable during this time in England.
Victorian era (17th-19th century)
Same-sex relationships between women were also fashionable and encouraged at this time. Other terms for 'lesbian' to describe these relationships were 'romantic friendships', 'Boston marriages', and 'sentimental friends'. Whether genital contact was present in these relationships or not was not a public matter for discourse, but these relationships were still considered innocent and chaste either way.
World War II-era
As military mobilization engaged millions of men, women were also enlisted. Plans were in place to screen out male homosexuals, but nothing was present for lesbians. Discharge was presented to lesbians if found in sexual contact with each other.
Many women were also at home without their husbands, which gave birth to a wave of education on what being a lesbian was. Independence of these women gave them an opportunity to shape lesbian networks and environments. This fueled the gay rights movement post-war.
Post-war & Stonewall
Homosexuality became an undesirable characteristic for women in the workforce, which further silenced the lesbian community. Some homosexual women still persisted, and reclaimed the pink triangle, a symbol given to gay men in Nazi concentration camps.
A solution to isolated lesbians became lesbian pulp fiction in the 1950's. It was also a replacement for the little knowledge of female homosexuality. It started with a paperback titled Women's Barracks which described a woman's experience in the Free French Forces. It was published in 1950. The book contained a description of a lesbian relationship this woman witnessed. When this book sold 4.5 million copies, more lesbian-themed fiction arose. Between 1955 and 1969, over 2,000 books were published with the main topic being lesbianism or lesbian relationships. They were sold in corner drugstores, train stations, bus stops, and news stands. Surprisingly, most were written by heterosexual men and also marketed to heterosexual men. Lesbians did enjoy this fiction and create an identity out of it. Coded words and images were used on the covers of these books, such as instead of the word 'lesbian', words like 'strange', 'twilight', 'queer', and 'third sex' appeared. As a result, lesbian pulp fiction helped to proliferate a lesbian identity to closeted and isolated lesbians.
The Stonewall Riots was the first gay rights movement recorded in history. This started when a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in New York was attacked. This is when many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals started fighting for their rights.
Gay rights parades, or gay and lesbian pride days, took place all the way through the 1960's to the mid-1980's, when it became more mainstream and were just called Gay Pride Parades or Pride parades.
Many lesbian characters appeared in sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends, but only in relation to previous male lovers ("My wife's a lesbian!" and other phrases were common). Pride parades still took place. Lesbians were still accepted more than gay men.
Lesbian-feminism was another movement that appeared. It is now frowned upon, as one of its stereotypes is 'man-hating' and misandry.
In the 2000's and 2010's, many lesbians identified themselves and developed a distinct community, creating their own pride flags and slang words. In Western society, being a lesbian is mostly accepted.
The Kinsey report
In 1953, more than 8,000 American women were interviewed for an in-depth report on female sexuality (Sexual Behavior in the Human Female), led by Alfred Kinsey and his staff. They reported that 28% of women had been aroused by another female, and 19% had sexual contact with another female. Of these women, half to two-thirds of them had experienced an orgasm. Single women had the most prevalence of homosexual behavior, the next being widowed, divorced and separated women.
Most of the women who reported homosexual behavior had not experienced it more than ten times. 51% of women reporting homosexual behavior had only one sexual partner.
Based on Kinsey's scale where 0 represents an exclusively heterosexual response and 6 represents an exclusively homosexual one, 6% of those interviewed ranked as a 6 (exclusively homosexual). In between 1 and 6, the most common response was 1.
The Hite Report
In 1976, sexologist Shere Hite published a report on the sexual encounters of 3,019 women. Hite's questions were different than Kinsey's, and focused on what these women identified as and what they preferred rather than experienced. Her respondents indicated that 8% preferred sex with women and 9% answered that they identify as bisexual and refuse to indicate preference.
Lesbians in the U.S. are estimated to be about 2.6% of the population. A survey of same-sex couples in the U.S. showed that between 2000 and 2005, the number of people claiming to be in same-sex relationships increased by 30%.
At present, there have been at least sixty four different lesbian flag design proposals.
The earliest flag to represent lesbianism is the original rainbow flag, created by Gilbert Baker in 1978 to represent the entire LGBT community. In 1999, Sean Campbell introduced the first flag design specifically for lesbians, with a white labrys and a black triangle on a purple background. In 2010, Wordpress blogger Natalie McCray announced her proposed design for a lipstick lesbian flag, using a design plagiarized from Fausto Fernós' 2008 cougar pride flag. McCray's lipstick lesbian flag is not intended for all lesbians, just lipstick lesbians, meaning all other kinds of lesbians are excluded. Variations upon this stolen design have since become very popular on Tumblr.
There were a large amount of alternate lesbian flags made around 2018, one of those flags was the orange and pink version, created by Tumblr user Sadlesbiandisaster on out before June 6, 2018. The color meanings are as follows: Dark orange is for gender non-conformity as many lesbians are gender non-conforming. Orange is for independence from men and individuality. Light orange is for community. White represents unique connections to womanhood, and how lesbians are all connected to womanhood in their own unique ways. It encompasses trans and non-binary lesbian experiences, and butch and femme experiences with womanhood. Light pink represents serenity and peace. Pink represents love and sex. Dark pink represents femininity. A five stripe design was created for the purpose of more easily producing merchandise with it. According to polls conducted by @lesbianflag on Twitter a large amount of people prefer this design for the lesbian flag. This is one of the more commonly used lesbian flags on the internet. Another flag design is by Tumblr user Apersnicketylemon. The color associations are as follows: purple for non-binary and trans lesbians (also to represent how violets were historically given between women to represent their love), pink for lipstick and femme lesbians (and to represent the beauty of feminine love), grey for aspec lesbians (and to represent the difficulty to navigating a 'grey area' of society). and blue to represent butch lesbians and gender nonconformity. At present, there is no clear consensus about which lesbian flag design to use.
- Etymonline: lesbian (adj)
- Merriam-Webster: lesbian (adj)
- The Lesbian Flag: How did we get here?
- Gilbert Baker - Rainbow Flag
- How Did the Rainbow Flag Become an LGBT Symbol?
- The Complete Guide to Queer Pride Flags
- Lipstick Lesbian Flag
- The Lipstick Lesbian Flag idea was stolen from a drag queen
- Cougar Pride Flag designed by Fausto Fernós
- Lesbian Flag by apersnicketylemon