The silent L in LGBT

November 6, 2017

OP-ED: The silent L in LGBT

Lesbian women still face a lot of discrimination. And too often, the L in LGBT is rendered silent. Last month Alexandra Bekker, advocacy officer at CHOICE, attended the The European Lesbian* Conference. In this op-ed she reflects on what she learned there and argues for a more complex of way of portraying lesbian women in the public sphere.

Mainstreaming Lesbianism

We have the L Word, Gossip Girl, Doctor Who, Glee, Grey’s Anatomy and the list only keeps growing. Lesbians in Europe and North America are increasingly visible in mainstream media: with almost every series now having some sort of “lesbian kiss” episode. We see lesbian couples running businesses, settling down, raising children, walking their dogs and spending generously on restaurants, traveling and concerts. This growing media validation of lesbian lives seems a great victory – obtained through successful advocacy, activism and better civil rights protections.

But when looked at more critically, this victory is all but straightforward. While the absolute number of portrayals of lesbian women has without doubt increased, its range has stayed far behind; it has been disappointingly narrow and exclusive. The lesbians everyone sees are successful women, who are beautiful, able-bodied, young, wealthy and white. They fit easily into heteronormative societal standards and gender norms. Their sexuality is non-threatening and pleasing, particularly to the male gaze.


Expanding the storyline

The real diversity of lesbian women’s lives continues to be a mystery to most, even to other lesbians like me. Their socialization in queer spaces, their activism, their marginalization, the complexities of their everyday lives remain in the dark. No spotlight is placed on working-class lesbian culture, queer women from ethnic minorities, or grassroots lesbian activists. Lesbophobic violence, street harassment, intersectional discrimination and sexual commodification do not make their way into the popular storyline.

To bring these untold stories to the fore, a core group of dedicated activists took the initiative of organizing the first European Lesbian* Conference early this month in Vienna. The sheer number of attendees alone – over 500 lesbians from all over Europe – visualized lesbian diversity on a scale never before seen. But beyond that, it exposed how the experiences of gay men and lesbians are different and how the invisibility of lesbian realities has extended far beyond the media alone.


The Silent L

While mainstreaming LGBTI issues into one catch phrase, the L has been rendered silent. Out of all the funding for international LGBTI work, only a meager two percent has gone toward projects for lesbian, bi and queer women. And out of the hundreds of recommendations put forward at the United Nations in recent years, only one has specifically addressed lesbian issues.

This invisibility has been one of the main enablers of overt discrimination. It has licensed widespread harassment and (threats of) sexual and physical violence, forcing lesbian women to deliberately avoid public transportation, parking lots, parks and bars. The severe “minority stress” that lesbians suffer as members of sexual and gender minorities (as well as other forms of prejudice against diverse aspects of their identities) exposes them to a higher risk of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harming behavior. Even in Iceland, the 3rd happiest country in the world, 45% of adolescent lesbian girls have attempted suicide one or more times (compared to 7% of heterosexual girls).


Building a movement

The invisibility has even gone as far as to become internalized. Many lesbians are reluctant to speak up and ask attention for their struggles out of fear for being judged selfish, whiny or whatever else women are called when they question the reality they live in. Lesbians are contributing to the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement and the pro-choice movement; they are standing up for the rights of others, but in the process they have been discounting their own unique issues and experiences.

The European Lesbian* Conference revealed that beyond the successes of the L Word and Glee, there are many different, complex and sometimes alarming experiences of lesbian women that require attention and action. These realities need to come out into the mainstream media, public policies, funding streams and human rights processes. But most importantly, lesbians need to come out into the public sphere, to provide positive role models, build a movement and set the agenda. Because we can’t only have straight actresses and male TV-show directors determine what lesbian lives look like.


In our op-ed's CHOICErs get the chance to shed their light on what they think matters in the fight for equal sexual and reproductive health and rights for all. This contribution was written by our advocacy officer Alexandra Bekker.

Earlier this year Alexandra delivered a statement on LGBTI issues for young people at the UN Meeting in Geneva. This statement is part of our International Advocacy Program.