Living Beyond Stereotypes about Lesbians

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and talking about “lesbians” lately. How “typical lesbians” do this and do that. I even got some feedback from a clerk in a furniture store the other day about the way lesbians commonly make their home decor decisions. And there was that comment in another store alluding to the proliferation of cat hair present in all lesbians’ homes. The infinite stereotypes of lesbians have been assailing my senses from every conceivable direction: the magazine article about the U-Haul girlfriend; the movie caricature of the closeted dyke; the semi-viral video highlighting the predictability of “lesbian bed death”. The assumptions around normalcy for this community are rampant.

It seems to me that many lesbians buy into and self-actualize these stereotypes. Our community’s take on gay pride, perhaps: embrace and live to the fullest what they all expect us to be. Is this a statement on our general progress as a group toward accepting our cultural identity? Are we collectively at Stage 3 on the R/CID? That’s actually just me being funny, but there’s always a little bit of truth behind every joke, isn’t there? As a cultural community, lesbians continue to be marginalized and oppressed in many ways: there’s the ongoing marriage struggle, the biased and baseless firings, not to mention the subtle social rejections related to the tasteful public affection that heterosexual couples take for granted. I am concerned that, as a result of these challenges, we may unconsciously devalue ourselves. What’s more, by accepting and perpetuating the stereotypes used to define us, we corroborate with the minimization of our genuine humanity.

Disguised as individualized personality and gender expression, many of the stereotypes contributing to the community’s debasement involve the style of dress and carriage of an “identifiable” lesbian. The community itself labels and identifies “types” of lesbians (e.g., stone butch, high femme, tomboi, chapstick lez, etc.), making them easy to pick out of a crowd— a helpful practice for women seeking to connect with other lesbians, but also a support for the hateful folks looking for target practice. When Elena Kagan was nominated for the high duty of Supreme Court Justice, the biggest flurry was around her masculine appearance and potentially hidden homosexual persuasion. Regardless of the truth of her personal life, her looks and presentation made her the object of derision and suspicion, even in spite of her accomplishments and professional status.

Many lesbians see identifying themselves clearly through their dress and manner as an expression of gay pride and hardiness of spirit. Which is, in fact, a very normal step along the path to fully accepting a cultural minority identity. I believe that, as much as we long for full societal acceptance and support, our group’s level of sociological and psychological development may contribute to maintaining us in a secondary (tertiary?) social status.

Other stereotypes that minimize our worth revolve around our interpersonal politics. There is certainly some truth to the popular conceptions around lesbians’ relationship boundaries. Common practices include: sex and dating within friendship circles; former lovers maintaining primary positions in each other’s lives; newfound partners shacking up in the blink of an eye. These dynamics are common within the lesbian community, but as we look around at (“normal”) heterosexual behavior, we see the same things taking place. I admit to entertaining some judgment around a lot of lesbian behavior, but it is just that — my definition of it as lesbian behavior — that I think offends me the most. I am not a fan of unhealthy boundaries in my personal life, and as a professional I see the damage they can wreak in other people’s pursuit of happiness. It is the unhealthy behavior that turns me off, not the lesbian quality of it. However, our community accepts these interpersonal patterns as our own, diminishing our own mental health and wisdom even as we are crying out for equal rights and social acceptance.

Communities are made up of individuals. The way to improve our overall health, support our cultural identity development, and step forward as deserving human beings is for each one of us to find strength within ourselves. Elena Kagan didn’t chuckle or lash out at the insults hurled her way. She kept looking forward, standing firm in her right to be where she was, and exuding personal strength and self-assuredness throughout her inquisition. When we have personal self-esteem and acceptance, it is easier to claim that out in the world. When we know who we are and fully accept our individual strengths and limitations, we no longer need to utilize stereotypical ways of being to identify ourselves and derive self-worth. Some women seek acceptance within our community because they don’t believe in the possibility of being loved and valued by the larger society. But hiding within an insulated and stereotyped community supports lesbians’ separation from the equality they so dearly covet.

Each one of us, personally and quietly, can revolt against stereotypes (no matter how true or fictitious) by reminding ourselves of our coexisting individuality and humanity. We don’t have to internalize the real or perceived hatred that plagues the homosexual community in order to find our place in society. We can do individual work to reject the hatred we have experienced in our lives and refuse to turn that ugliness against ourselves and our community. A further step involves acknowledging that we don’t have to love all lesbians as a sign of group loyalty, just as we don’t love all humans just because they breathe. The key is to realize that lesbians are human beings who share qualities with gay men, heterosexual ladies, and all the genders and genderless in between. When we get past the need to cling to stereotypes and other self-judgments to assert our worth, we will become ready to accept the liberty that is rightfully ours.

© Copyright 2011 by Karen Kochenburg. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Robbie

    June 3rd, 2011 at 12:46 PM

    It’s just like any other minority group…They do certain things or use certain things because they feel proud with it or maybe it’s just to identify each other. But as soon as someone outside of the group speaks of it,it becomes discrimination,is it?!

    This is not good!

  • Glenda Ellis

    June 3rd, 2011 at 7:58 PM

    A typical lesbian loves other women. That’s the only typical thing about a lesbian.

    There is no such thing as gay tastes, gay behavioral traits, dressing gay, talking gay etc. etc. They’re all simply stereotypes directed at a group and misguided ones at that.

  • S. Bettany

    June 3rd, 2011 at 8:33 PM

    Karen, an excellent article there! Thank you.

    Your comment on the style of dress reminded me of a quote by Coley Sohn.

    “My mom blames California for me being a lesbian. “Everything was fine until you moved out there.” “That’s right, Mom, we have mandatory lesbianism in West Hollywood. The Gay Patrol busted me, and I was given seven business days to add a significant amount of flannel to my wardrobe.”

    A joke obviously, but its roots are in what I’d term as a stereotype. But if some of the lesbian community embraces that style as a symbol of their gay pride, is it still considered so? Because to me a stereotype isn’t something those being targeted would embrace consciously.

    So if it’s not a stereotype, what is it?

  • RS

    June 3rd, 2011 at 11:58 PM

    There’s stereotypes all over us…we see it when we observe…that’s it…if we don’t pay attention to it and treat every person the same way then no such thing will pop up in our heads!

  • Lisa D

    June 4th, 2011 at 4:34 AM

    It sometimes seems that the world is more accepting of gay men than they are of women. Like they are looking at lesbians and thinking why on earth would they want to give up a woman when they could have a man?

  • selena h.

    June 4th, 2011 at 12:52 PM

    “Classifications” of people exist in all types of groups. Everyone has heard of bear gays at least once, and you’ve heard of many types of men and women who have specific tastes (Gold digger, skirt chaser, toy boys etc.). Labeling is not exclusive to the homosexual community.

    The tendency is there in society to put men and women into neat little boxes because it saves us the work of getting to know them on a more personal level. It suits our superficial little ways nowadays.

  • Kathleen Daniels

    June 4th, 2011 at 2:06 PM

    People think Elena Kagan looks masculine? I looked her up and even though she’s not exactly that good-looking, she in no way looks masculine at all. It’s very clear she’s a woman.

    That really bugs me that she was judged on her looks and possible sexual orientation before her resume. I wish such hysteria would die a death before it’s ever broadcast because all it does is feed bigotry.

  • jo elleln

    June 5th, 2011 at 3:54 AM

    The fact that we still have to talk about gays and lesbians at all as if it is somehow “abnormal” baffles me. I would have thought that by now we would have all realized that lifestyles are different for different people, but that maybe that is how God intended things to be. What is the big deal? What are people so afraid of that they cannot be open minded enough to accept that someone has found someone to love, so just be happy about it.

  • Gail Jameson

    June 5th, 2011 at 3:28 PM

    An advantage of accepting a dress stereotype is that it sends a subtle invite, saying “Yes, I’m a butch lesbian if you’re interested in me.”

    Let’s face it, even if you’re straight, it can be rather awkward to approach a potential date to ask them out if you’re unsure of their sexual orientation. Most wouldn’t have the nerve.

  • Jeni p

    June 6th, 2011 at 4:37 AM

    I try to never live my life dictated by stereotypes and I have tried to teach my kids the same thing. This can be about gays and lesbians, racially motivated, culturally centered, whatever. Stereotypes are dangerous, not just what we think about them but also what they then come to think about themselves.

  • Patrice Watt

    June 9th, 2011 at 12:56 AM

    @Robbie: No, that’s incorrect.

    Discrimination is when you act negatively against a person for a reason that is completely harmless or irrelevant.

    Like not hiring a white or black guy for a job purely because of his skin color, not his qualifications/experience (or lack of them).

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