It’s 2020, And Australians Still Can’t Say The Word 'Lesbian'

Growing up believing the right to love women was reserved for men, heterosexuality didn't just become the norm for me, there was nothing else.
Elly Westaway today and at age 12.
Elly Westaway today and at age 12.

My fiancée handed me her phone, her email was open to the wedding checklist our venue planner had just sent us, nine weeks out from our pending nuptials. It read “Bride and Groom”. As I breathed out a deep sigh, she recognised my frustration. This was not the first time we’d sent back an email asking for the version that addressed us correctly as “Bride and Bride”. I felt deflated.

Being in a same-sex couple who both identify as lesbians, our relationship is consistently minimised or not even considered without us having to call it out. Everything from requesting birth control at the GP to colleagues asking what your “husband-to-be does for a living” when they catch a glimpse of an engagement ring.

We are at a point in history where I shouldn’t feel a lump in my throat when public figures “come out”, whether through a planned announcement or kissing their girlfriend publicly after winning the World Cup. But I do, because the conversation around gay rights in Australia has only just begun. From September 12, 2017, my country was given the opportunity to vote on whether or not myself and the rest of my community would be allowed to one day marry the love of their life.

In the lead-up to Australia's Marriage Law Postal Survey, I felt safer walking home legless from the pub than I did holding my girlfriend's hand in public.
In the lead-up to Australia's Marriage Law Postal Survey, I felt safer walking home legless from the pub than I did holding my girlfriend's hand in public.

During the course of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey and long after, I stopped feeling safe holding my girlfriend’s hand in public. Australians felt protected in their homophobia and their right to outwardly discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community. Now that same-sex marriage is legal in Australia, the discrimination hasn’t stopped.

I can only speak to my own coming out experience, but for me, compulsory heterosexuality wasn’t just the norm, there was nothing else. Growing up in Far North Queensland, where footy and farming ruled, it took me to the age of 15 to even meet another lesbian, and I was fortunate enough to meet two out lesbians through my high school friendship circle. These friendships were what started to break down my internalised homophobia, internal self-hatred and the ongoing battle with my femininity and identity.

Me in my older brother's football gear at age three.
Me in my older brother's football gear at age three.

A major sticking point for me as I started to realise my sexuality was that I believed the right to love women was reserved for men.

When I was 14 and living in central Queensland, I had the biggest crush on a girl in my grade. We shared maybe two classes but would chat on MSN Messenger after school about the emo bands we loved. I told myself I wanted to be like her, to be her friend. But not once did I allow myself the possibility of loving her.

I remember conversations my cis het friend and I would have during sleepovers before we went to sleep, and one question we’d ask each other has stuck with me. I used to ask, “If you were a guy, who would you date from our grade?”

I couldn’t even fantasise about women without embodying a man.

My battle with my femininity started young, I gravitated toward shorts over dresses and never felt comfortable in my own skin.
My battle with my femininity started young, I gravitated toward shorts over dresses and never felt comfortable in my own skin.

As a young woman, coming to terms with my lack of desire for men involved spending hours secretly seeking out media and fictional characters to align myself with and that I could look to as role models. But finally finding that representation came with its own set of problems. I was presented with two choices: damaging misrepresentation of lesbians and the community or no representation at all.

Both have had lasting effects on my identity and how I perceived and treated other women in the community. Like many, my first exposure to the community before I had even admitted I was a lesbian was ‘The L Word.’ From its biphobia, the damaging portrayal of trans characters, Max and Ivan, and the inclusion of the predatory lesbian trope, it wasn’t the best introduction to my new normal.

For years, my own internalised homophobia and the inability to say the word “lesbian”, let alone identify myself as one, left a sour taste in my mouth. I was scared of my own community, I had a really low self-worth and I eventually found myself in incredibly toxic romantic relationships. Things that I can partially attribute to the lack of positive lesbian representation in the media and my life.

My choice of sports was alway considered masculine. I wasn’t afraid to get rough or dirty.
My choice of sports was alway considered masculine. I wasn’t afraid to get rough or dirty.

The damage of lesbian misrepresentation and even erasure can still be seen among lesbian millennials who instead find comfort in referring to themselves as “gay” or “queer.” I have very close friends whom I consider allies who don’t default to the world “lesbian” when describing my relationship. While the LGBTQ+ community coming together under one rainbow flag may work for brands trying to drive sales during Pride, it doesn’t work for maintaining the identity and stories of the individual communities under that banner. But why can’t we say the “L word”?

“Lesbian has been historically hijacked, warped to distortion by the male gaze: no more,” Miranda Stephenson poignantly writes in her Variety UK pride piece “Why Is Lesbian Still a Dirty Word?” I wish Stephenson’s piece was not something that had to be written in 2020, during Pride month, but my own experience as a human woman on the internet can attest to the fact lesbian women unfortunately still need to defend their sexuality as something more than the demoralising sentiment perpetuated on and off-screen as nothing more than oversexualised, two-dimensional women who serve only to satisfy some pornographic fantasy of a cis het man, and if they aren’t doing that, then they are called a “fat lesbian” who cannot satisfy the needs of cis het men. Sir, like most things women find enjoyable, lesbians are not for you.

It’s telling that being gay is still only OK for men.

Looking back at this 12 year old in an AFL kit, I am finding it hard to believe mum didn’t know I was gay.
Looking back at this 12 year old in an AFL kit, I am finding it hard to believe mum didn’t know I was gay.

I vividly remember the day I shut that closet door for the last time. The need for finding myself didn’t just stop at declaring myself a lesbian. I still slept with men years after, and I still felt confused, but I started to piece together a big part of myself. It’s taken ten years, a lot of education and planning a big fat lesbian wedding to finally feel confident enough to be a voice of visibility and pride for the lesbian community. No matter what stage of life you are at, questioning your sexuality and finding peace in your identity isn’t straightforward or the same for everyone, but knowing you have members of the community willing to protect you through that journey and show you how worthy of love you are is something I desperately needed.