The History of Trans & Non Binary Lesbians
The definition of lesbian isn’t simply “a woman attracted to other women”-- it never has been. As long as lesbians have been around, not every lesbian has identified as a woman. Naturally, part of the reason for the very limited modern definition of lesbian stems from the rigid gender binary and the systematic elimination of other gender identities from non-European cultures. The more correct definition of a lesbian is a non-man attracted to exclusively non-men to encompass the many lesbians that do not identify with the term “woman” for one reason or another.
There is an extensive history of lesbians purposely abstaining from the gender binary in one form or another whether it be for stealth purposes or because it felt right to them. So, in honor of Lesbian Visibility Week, I want to highlight the range of trans and gender nonconforming lesbians both throughout history, within my own personal experiences, and through the knowledge of other lesbians I’ve spoken to or read from.
Portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner, ca. 1830, promotional photo of Stormé DeLarverie
While people that would fit the modern label of a “gender nonconforming lesbian” have been around forever, the more modern history begins with some lesbians dressing in a masculine fashion as a safety measure. One of the more notable historical examples is Anne Lister who gained the moniker “the first modern lesbian”. Her diaries described her relationships with multiple women in excruciating detail and she was known for dressing in an extremely masculine fashion.
However, the more notable contributions to the history of lesbians eschewing the gender binary come from Black lesbians in the 1900s. Black lesbians created the majority of labels some lesbians use to identify themselves today, the most prolific being butch, femme, and stud and stemme -- the latter two used specifically and exclusively for Black lesbians.
Naturally not all lesbians identify with these labels, but their proliferation for nearly a century is a testament to the impact trans lesbians have had on the lesbian community as a whole. Stormé DeLarverie, a Black self-described butch, is credited with throwing the brick that incited the Stonewall Riots. Audre Lorde published essays and poems deconstructing the relationship between her Blackness and her sexuality. Leslie Feinberg, author of the seminal Stone Butch Blues, used hir platform to boost the voices of trans lesbians. These are just recognizable examples of Black and/or trans lesbians that prove that trans and gender nonconforming lesbians have been around for centuries and aren’t some new concept. Erasing their identities outside of “lesbian” is disingenuous and historically inaccurate.
Audre Lorde: Dagmar Schultz/Freie Universität Berlin, University Archive, Lorde estate
Personally, I identify as a nonbinary lesbian and my gender and sexuality have a near inextricable link.
I realized I was a lesbian somewhere around summer 2019 after a year and a half of struggling with a label and a decade of trying to figure out if I really liked men (spoiler: no, just liking fictional men doesn’t count). Less than six months after coming out I began experimenting with my presentation and pronouns because something about being called a woman, girl, etc was rubbing me the wrong way more so than it did previously. Being referred to with strictly feminine-associated terms my whole life never really felt right, but after coming out they simply felt wrong. I couldn’t put it into a coherent explanation at the time, but realizing that I had no desire to impress men shifted my whole relationship with gender as a whole. At first I thought this was because of previous traumatic experiences tied to men, but then I had the epiphany that performing femininity for men in the past never felt right but performing gender for myself made me feel comfortable.
Now, men do not play any major part in my life aside from a few close friends. To me gender is a performance and I am simply sitting in the back of the theater on my phone. I’ve heard similar experiences from other lesbians I’ve interacted with: once they realized they were lesbians suddenly their gender identity came into question. Why try catering to a demographic you have no interest in pleasing? A lot of Black and Indigenous lesbians I’ve talked to also already felt a disconnect with the colonial gender binary because it was forced upon their ancestors. I personally don’t experience that form of disconnect because I’m white, but it’s important to highlight that there is no one way that a trans lesbian experiences their gender. Researchers like Danielle Kerr and Bianca M. Wilson have also explored the relations between Black lesbians and gender through the labels butch, femme, stud, and stemme in more depth. What all of this proves is that the lesbian community is diverse in every way, shape, and form.
While the concept of non-cis lesbians has steadily gained visibility, unfortunately widespread recognition hasn’t quite hit yet. Yes part of the reason is TERFs (not just cis lesbians mind you, TERFs are absolutely present in every community) but also because there’s still a very white, cisgendered view of lesbians permeating the general zeitgeist. Most people hear “lesbians” and think of two thin, white, more or less feminine white women á la Booksmart, Ammonite, Blue is the Warmest Color etc. Even still, some portrayals of lesbians like in She-Ra never even say the word “lesbian”.
Lesbianism is not blonde hair/brown hair femmes exclusively and though films like The Watermelon Woman do challenge this, unfortunately the focus on white femme for femme relationships is regressive and false. The lesbian community is built on gender nonconforming members, especially Black and/or trans lesbians, and the centering of a more palatable brand of lesbian is disingenuous. While representation isn’t the answer towards acceptance, or honestly if general acceptance is a genuine goal to chase, it’s still dishonest for the LGBTQ community as a whole to ignore the presence of people that helped make our community what it is.
Lesbians are not a monolith -- as Bianca M. Wilson puts it, we’re more of a microcosm composed of several different communities. It is a beautiful, diverse thing that deserves celebration.
This article was written by Red Broadwell (they/them). Red is a history student and freelance writer based in central Florida. Their hobbies include consuming copious amounts of cartoons and reading LGBTQ analysis on cinema.
I felt a huge disconnect when I came out as a lesbian, especially because I grew up being a tomboy. I live in a very transphobic house (especially towards non-conforming and non-binary people), so experimenting with myself wasn’t easy. I’m glad that at least there are others like me out there. :)