To mark LGBT rights charity Stonewall's 30th birthday, Cosmopolitan UK spoke to Young Campaigner of the Year Ellen Jones, 20, about lesbian identity in 2019.
I care hugely about my identify and I identify as a lesbian very strongly. Go away if you want to fight with me on that.
I came out at 14 and had a pretty rough time of it. I got badly bullied with death threats, cyber bullying, you name it. I was "out", but in hindsight I wasn’t really comfortable with my identity.
And then, I started to really cling to it. My sexuality became my whole identity for a while. There's nothing wrong with that, but I feel like it was defence in some ways. I was known as "the gay one", and it was hard because people would only focus on that. Now, I know there are other parts of me.
I was invited to talk at events as "a bullied kid" and I realise now that was mildly traumatic. You basically have to go and tell these stories of how people told you to kill yourself - and having your identity wrapped up in trauma is really complex.
The linguistics of the word lesbian are really interesting. Lesbian is a noun, and it’s the only one of the sexualities that is. You are "a lesbian", you’re not "a gay", or "a trans". I think there’s something in that, and that it makes you at risk of your sexuality becoming the sum of you. It's interesting that by calling yourself a lesbian, your whole identity changes.
Being a lesbian in 2019 is a really challenging thing to navigate. I personally identify more as a lesbian than I do a woman. If I had to say a hierarchy of my identities, I would see myself as a lesbian first. I really struggled to feel connected to being a woman until I knew I was gay. I have a theory that historically, womanhood - and our role in society - under patriarchy has always been about how you relate to men. Women are often still defined by the most rich and successful man they’ve slept with.
And if you’re completely removed from that, how does that impact the way you view your gender? Obviously the conversation is much more complicated than that, because there are non-binary lesbians and trans lesbians.
I also worry about being associated with TERFs [a term meaning "trans exclusionary radical feminists" aka cis women who call themselves "feminists" but don't consider trans women to be women]. And for a while, I felt really uncomfortable using the word lesbian because of TERFs within the lesbian community.
I know that not all lesbians are TERFs, and I also know that the TERF and lesbian link is exaggerated. But I fear that when people hear I’m a lesbian, they think I’m trans-exclusive. Last weekend alone, I had 400 transphobes in my mentions on social media. I’ve been told I’m not a lesbian because I think trans women are women.
The irony is that it’s not trans women making lesbians feel unsafe, it’s TERFs.
Although I identify as a lesbian, [the language I use] depends on if I’m talking to straight people or not. I tend to go with queer when talking to other LGBT people.
I’ve always know that I am a lesbian. That hasn't changed. But circumstance and society and the environment I’m in does change. Sometimes I’m in a space where the fact I’m a lesbian isn’t so much as important as the fact I’m queer, as we share this united thing.
The word queer wasn’t used to me personally as a slur. Some people have traumatic memories of being called queer, and I’m not going to dismiss their distress. But lesbian was the insult of the day when I was growing up. So that for me was a dirty word.
For someone who’s not very good at being normative, queer works very well for me.
Moving beyond labels
In some ways I wish the conversation would move beyond labels. I wish the focus placed on the LGBT community was not about how we identify or policing how we identify, but instead on making changes to the mental health crisis, or LGBT homelessness.
As part of the Speakers Collective I've been talking about mental health for a while now and doing some research into mental health and LGBT people's access to care. The stories I’m hearing (and my personal experiences) are horrifying. It's not that mental health charities are anti-LGBT, it's just they don’t know anything and it’s not their area. I want to improve that especially because LGBT people are disproportionately affected by mental health issues.
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