A lesbian is a woman or girl who is sexually or romantically attracted to females, or who engages in same-sex behavior or relationships. The word lesbian was coined in the 17th century based on the Greek island of Lesbos, where the female poet Sappho wrote erotic poetry about love between women in the 7th century BC. In the late 18th and early to mid-19th century, lesbianism was considered sexually deviant by notable psychiatrists such as Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and Helene Deutsch (1884–1982), who viewed lesbians as manly or having penis envy. Even today, it is difficult to estimate the prevalence of lesbianism due to continuing negative stigma. Although some lesbians are “out” or openly identified as lesbian, many more are “closeted,” hiding their sexual orientation.
The 20th century broke new ground for lesbians because of the emerging urban subcultures such as Harlem in New York City and Berlin, Germany, where bars and parties created an early gay and lesbian community in the 1920s and 1930s. The late 1960s and 1970s were especially significant for U.S. lesbians (and gay men). First, in 1969, the Stonewall Inn Bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village became a site of activism that changed the gay and lesbian community forever. Police raided the bar, and for the first time in the United States, gays and lesbians fought back against discriminatory harassment. The modern Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Movement arose from this protest.
Additionally, in the 1960s and 1970s, the second wave of the U.S. Women’s Liberation Movement helped to further develop individual lesbian identity, connecting political affiliation and sexual choice together under Lesbian Feminism. Classifying oneself as a woman-identified-woman or a lesbian separatist became a political statement against, among other things, economic dependence on men.
In the 1980s and 1990s, third-wave feminists increasingly used the term queer to refer to all sexual minorities, including lesbians. There was also increasing awareness of the diversity of the sexual minority experience, including race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and cultural and national differences. A new development was the concept of gender as continuous, changing, and socially constructed rather than as binary, static, and biologically determined. Changing notions of gender identity influenced definitions of sexual orientation—someone who used to identify as a heterosexual man might now identify as a woman (still attracted to women, as before), thus as a lesbian.
Changing concepts of gender also influenced the meaning of masculinity and femininity. Before second-wave feminism, lesbians imitated the gender roles of heterosexual couples; a lesbian was either butch (acting, dressing, and identifying as masculine) or femme (correspondingly feminine). During the women’s movement of the 1970s, wearing androgynous, comfortable clothing, having short hair, and using no makeup were standard appearance for lesbians.
Now there is a reemergence of butch and femme roles among lesbians, although with more fluidity and flexibility than before. Thus, lesbians of different age cohorts may have different norms about appropriate and desirable ways to look like a lesbian.
Resulting from the explosion of gay activism in the United States during the 1960s and early 1970s, the psychiatric field began to reevaluate its classification of homosexuality. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a mental illness from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Social science research on lesbianism changed from a focus on pathology to an emphasis on the lesbian experience. Recent research has included the coming-out process, lesbian parenting, lesbians in couples, and issues facing lesbian youth, among others. There is still little research (and much controversy) about the origins of sexual orientation and developmental stages in the coming-out process.
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