So we can be clear on the terminology, I’m defining lesbian as a woman whose primary physical, social, psychological, and spiritual attractions are directed towards other women. This does not mean that lesbians lust after every woman we see or that we cannot control our urges. It simply means that when we do select a date or a mate, that person is likely to be another woman.
The definition for feminist gets a little trickier, so I turned to my old Random House Webster’s College Dictionary and discovered that “feminism” means the following: “A doctrine advocating social, political and economic rights for women equal to those of men.”
Hmmm…so a lesbian is a woman who connects to other women, and a feminist is a person (not necessarily a woman) who thinks women and men should have equal rights. When you think about it in those terms, being a feminist lesbian doesn’t sound so scary after all.
So, why do the words “feminist lesbian” strike fear into the hearts of so many young activists? Because the words have been co-opted (read: stolen) by people who are neither feminists nor lesbians but who seek to define both.
The late Jerry Falwell, for instance, was widely quoted as saying that, “Feminism encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” If that’s the definition you’re using of the word feminism, of course you’ll want to avoid that label at all cost. Who wants to be associated with the downfall of capitalism (well, I do, but that’s beside the point) and murdering innocent kids?
So, how can we reclaim the feminist lesbian? We could think of other words to describe the same concepts. Many lesbians I know now prefer to refer to themselves as “gay” or “queer” or even “dyke,” and many feminists, especially African-American ones, have started calling themselves “womanists.” There’s nothing wrong with changing the language to find friendlier labels.
But as a writer, I know how important the correct word is. (Mark Twain used to say that the difference between the right word and almost the right word was the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.) I also despise watching passively while people with agendas the exact opposite of mine take perfectly good, descriptive words from my culture and twist them into something ugly and frightening.
So, you can be a womanist dyke if you want, but I’m a feminist lesbian and planning to stay that way. Maybe I’m fighting a losing battle. But every time I identify myself with those two labels and gently explain that what the words mean to me, I chip away at the stereotypes a little. Maybe people think about our conversations later and even change their point of view a notch or two. Maybe they just chalk me up as one of those “crazy queers.” I can handle that, too. What matters is that I have used the language that is meaningful to me and, in doing so, have come a millimeter closer to reclaiming the words we coined and have every right to say aloud.