“Lesbian relationships” and bi visibility

I was talking with my girlfriend the other day while she and her wife Lee drove through West Virginia, and we were speculating as to why a guy in a pick-up truck had given them the finger. The relevant information here, which I’m sure you all were about to figure out for yourselves, is that my girlfriend is a lesbian and her wife is bisexual.

Me: Maybe they were like, “Fucking lesbians, wasting it on each other.”
GF: We weren’t smooching or anything.
Me: But you were being gay, weren’t you? Well, you were, anyway; Lee wasn’t.
GF: Yes, it’s true, I was being gay. And Lee was, too, she was just half-assing it.
Me: Oh! You’d better watch it! I have a blog now!
GF: A blog! Now I’m scared. I’ll never have dinner on the internet again?

Hmph. Half-assing it indeed. At first I just thought I’d share the giggle, but this also reminds me of something I’ve been meaning to write about.

Every once in a while GF refers to ours as a lesbian relationship – which, what with it being between two girls, makes a certain amount of sense. And it’s a phrasing Lee doesn’t have a problem with, so of course GF used it with me without thinking it might be problematic for me. But I can’t quite figure out how I feel about it.

(Note: this entry is not to be interpreted at “My girlfriend does this thing I hate, and I’m airing it on the internet because I can do that now.” I really haven’t figured out how I feel about it. I’m thinking it out here, where I can get feedback and opinions from other bisexuals and queers of various flavors.)

The thing is, obviously, that I’m not a lesbian. And yet, does that necessarily mean that what I’m in is not a lesbian relationship? It is a relationship made up entirely of women, which seems to fit the definition. I understand why it doesn’t bother Lee; it seems accurate. Hell, even I defaulted to the phrasings “fucking lesbians” (even if I was speaking for a most likely straight dude who most likely wouldn’t know any better) and “you [collectively] were being gay” before I specified. And I’m not coming up with anything when I try to brainstorm other things it could be called – while I always refer to “same sex marriage” rather than “gay marriage,” to say I’m in a “same sex relationship” seems awfully cold and detached. But I manage to get by somehow not only never referring to it as a lesbian relationship but also never thinking “This would be so much easier if I could just give in and refer to it as a lesbian relationship!” I refer to my girlfriend, or say “relationship with a woman,” and I can’t remember it ever coming up in such a way that my vocabulary seemed lacking. Possibly I’ve even referred to it as a queer relationship, which is true on so many levels. And I tend to think that referring to relationships that contain at least one bisexual as “gay” or “straight” erases bisexuals in a way I’m not comfortable with. Bisexuals are so invisible already that it never crosses anyone’s mind unless you say it straight out. You hear someone say “lesbian relationship” and you think, “Aha! Two lesbians!” I’m not willing to play into that. It reminds me of the commentary on all of the straight allies at Pride, which misses the possibility that many of those supposed straight allies are actually queers in different-sex relationships.

And there’s another particularly awkward construction for you – “different-sex relationships.” And yet all of this is complicated by the fact that I would never, in a million years, refer to (or let anyone else refer to) a relationship I was in with a boy as straight. (And I’m not going to refer to an opposite-sex relationship, since that assumes that there are only two sexes and they’re, um, opposites.) There’s just nothing straight about me, including my relationships with boys. I used to walk around with my cock-sucking faggot boyfriend and think with frustration that, if the people around us thought anything disapproving, it was probably that he seemed a bit old for me. And yet we were as queer an item as it’s possible for a (mostly) cisgender man and a cisgender woman to be, and the sex we had was completely unrecognizable as straight. And that’s pretty typical, really, of my past relationships with men; I don’t think I’ve had anything that could be recognized as straight sex since I was 19, and I’ve been with precious few straight boys. I want that to be reflected in the language I use to discuss those relationships. I don’t want to tuck it away into “straight” because it was with a boy.

“Lesbian” at least recognizes my queerness, seems less to erase my identity than “straight” would. But it still seems to overlook not only my bisexuality, but all of the other ways I’m subversive and queer. Perhaps I could fold all of those into “lesbian,” or use it in conjunction with other words, if I only dug chicks. But that’s not the case, and it just doesn’t feel like the kind of word that speaks about me. I don’t know if the way it leaves so much out as a description of me also leaves a lot out in its description of my relationship. I just can’t tell.

And can you imagine the reaction if someone referred to their “bisexual relationship”? I imagine a lot of confusion, and I wonder if all of it is due to the way that the name doesn’t tell you anything about the gender of any of the participants. That is the kind of thing many people are uncomfortable with, and I think that’s worth challenging. I also imagine the non-bisexual partner (if there is one) objecting (although that seems less likely from my particular non-bisexual partner), and that in and of itself tells me that I’m not crazy to object myself. I think your average non-bisexual person would not only have a problem with the way “bisexual” in regards to their relationship failed to describe their identity, but would also strenuously object to the possibility of being mistaken for a bisexual. And whether something could be turned around is a great litmus test for whether it’s acceptable.

So what do you all think? Do you have a better way to refer to a relationship between two girls than the cold “same sex” or the sometimes inaccurate “lesbian”? Is this one of those things I should just let go, accepting that a description of my relationship is not the same as a description of myself and we’ll never have all of the language we need to represent our varied, uncategorizable selves? What terms do you use, and how well do they work for you?

(PS: reading this, GF suggested both “queer relationship” and “sapphic relationship.” I use the former, and am absolutely delighted with the latter. I want to go out and use it right now. But I still want your opinions and suggestions.)

14 Responses to ““Lesbian relationships” and bi visibility”

  1. 1 Alicia
    16 August 2008 at 12:54 pm

    Thank you for posting this. My girlfriend and I are both bisexual (well, if you want to get really techincal I’m pansexual), and while I’ll never have sex with a man both because she’s The One and because of physical problems I have, I have issues with what we are being referred to as a ‘lesbian relationship’. And yet, there really is no better term outside of the cold ones unless I want to take five minutes to define us to a stranger.

  2. 16 August 2008 at 1:27 pm

    I’m a lesbian in a relationship with a bisexual woman, and the “lesbian” label works for us (I asked after reading this post to be sure! ha). I’m pretty sure that when I hear “lesbian relationship,” I think “relationship between two women,” not “relationship between two lesbians.” It’s really just a technical thing for me — I mean, if I were, for whatever reason, in a relationship with a man, that relationship would be properly described as heterosexual,* even though I’m a lesbian. They’re two different axes, with overlapping labels.

    But, you definitely shouldn’t accept or use a term that makes you feel invisible — there’s no need for that. And you know, I don’t think I’ve ever needed to use the phrase “lesbian relationship” to refer to mine. I say that I’m a lesbian and I talk about having a girlfriend, but that particular phrase isn’t really necessary.

    * A less awkward way to say “different-sex relationship.” : )

  3. 17 August 2008 at 12:21 am

    Sapphic! SAPPHIC! That’s a word that needs to be brought back.
    In all seriousness, it’s funny that I never even wondered what it would mean to describe a relationship as bisexual. It sort of works, in an odd way, and I like how it leaves people guessing as to the genders of those involved.
    I think it’s actually pretty interesting that our language gets all clunky and inaccurate when we try to use the same words to describe relationships and individuals. It becomes very difficult to separate your individual identity from the categorization of the relationship you’re in, and that’s exactly the kind of generalization that makes bisexuals invisible.
    Of course, I still think it’s weird sometimes that we generalize the genders of our sexual partners into individual identities at all, but that’s another post.

  4. 4 Amanda
    17 August 2008 at 12:26 am

    I’m dating a guy but if I was with a girl right now I would for sure call it a sapphic relationship! I love it. For me, it fits better for a bi/queer/term-of-choice woman in a relationship with another woman than a lesbian relationship and is less clinical than same sex, as you said.

  5. 5 Aviva
    17 August 2008 at 1:16 am

    Daisy, I agree – there’s so little need to refer to a ____ relationship that I have no need to use a term that doesn’t work for me. And for the record, while “heterosexual” is arguably less clunky than “different-gender,” it falls with “straight” into the category of “things I would never let anyone describe anything I do as.” So perhaps not the best option for me.

    PS Thanks for being a lesbian who dates bisexual girls! We love ladies like you!

    And Sarah, definitely, the way words about identities and words about relationships intersect is a weird one. Your comment is so spot-on that it makes me feel I failed to zoom out at the end and get the big picture?

  6. 17 August 2008 at 11:02 am

    I’ve had people describe my relationship with my girlfriend as a lesbian one, which is just ridiculously awkward because I’m FTM genderqueer and my girlfriend is bisexual. So a) neither of us is a lesbian and b) I hardly ever identify as “woman.” Female, yes–that’s technically inevitable at the moment. But “lesbian relationship”? No, not really.

    But while I don’t think “sapphic relationship” would apply to me either, it is an awesome phrase. 🙂

    Speaking of lesbians and bisexual girls who date each other, two of my friends who fit that description are getting married (to each other) in October; they’ve been together for five years. A couple of years ago I asked the bisexual member of the couple how it affected her to be a bisexual in love with and dating a lesbian exclusively, but she said she’d have to think about it and we haven’t managed to discuss it again since.

  7. 7 Aviva
    17 August 2008 at 1:13 pm

    DDog – that does sound especially awkward! I think anyone describing your relationship as lesbian is missing something even more essential than bisexual invisibility. Maybe “queer relationship”? That seems to cover it to me.

  8. 18 August 2008 at 3:30 pm

    And for the record, while “heterosexual” is arguably less clunky than “different-gender,” it falls with “straight” into the category of “things I would never let anyone describe anything I do as.”

    Oh, okay. Good to know.

    Thanks for being a lesbian who dates bisexual girls! We love ladies like you!

    : )

  9. 21 August 2008 at 5:31 pm

    I spent a good long time referring to myself as a dyke, and to My relationships with women as dyke relationships. People still assumed I was a lesbian, and I would correct them, and they would object to My use of the term dyke. Similarly, if I refer now to Myself as a fag, I get similar responses when I talk about dating women, that calling Myself a fag is a misuse of the word. If fag=queer man, and dyke=queer woman, these labels would work…but somehow adding gender makes it feel like it’s just another word for gay/lesbian. Or, in all probability, even though I say queer, most folks assume that means I am gay/lesbian anyway.

  10. 10 Aviva
    21 August 2008 at 6:53 pm

    TG – I’ve definitely heard a lot of opinions on whether dyke=queer woman or lesbian. I tend toward the former, but haven’t tried to claim it for myself. But I think a lot of people assume gay/lesbian when they hear not only fag/dyke but also queer. I’ve definitely accidentally been out as a lesbian that way myself; I said queer, and people made their own assumptions.

  11. 11 j00j
    27 August 2008 at 11:30 am

    “Different-sex relationship.” Awkward, yes, but preferable to the alternative. I shall use where appropriate, I think.

  12. 12 Lyn
    2 September 2008 at 10:35 pm

    It sounds like part of your struggle is that you want to identify certain things to the world and not others, and that those two sometimes conflict. On top of which, when revealing things to the world at large, labels are generally the easiest to use, but are never terribly accurate. The question always becomes to me whether I should sacrifice a legitimate description of my relationship habits in order to give someone an inkling of how I operate, or to choose to leave them mostly in the dark in favor of preserving the integrity of my identity. And, really, whether I care if someone knows all about my relationships. But this is not a new dilemma.

    I have definitely succumbed to the world of labels, for the benefit of those around me. While I choose not to put many words to what I am in my private world, for purposes of discussion it’s just easier.

    So while, for all intents and purposes, I identify as bisexual, I call my relationship straight, because it comprises two people who identify, respectively, as male and female. I also would like to point out that defining a relationship as something (such as a lesbian relationship or a straight relationship) automatically implies that you yourself are something different than that. So if someone defined to me their relationship as “straight” I would take it to mean their relationship, not them, because they took time and effort to describe their relationship. Whereas one would assume that two lesbians would automatically be in a lesbian relationship which would therefore not require the modifier.

    That’s my million cents, convoluted though they are.

  13. 13 Lyn
    2 September 2008 at 10:38 pm

    Oh, and thanks for doing this. I spent a lot of time in college talking about this, but never really with my peers. Mostly, in fact, to people who had questions about the queer world. So it is very comfortable to have a place where these issues can come out (haha).

  14. 14 Aviva
    4 September 2008 at 4:37 pm


    That’s a really interesting way of looking at it, I hadn’t thought of that. I’m not sure I agree – there are plenty of times I identify my relationship when my partner isn’t present, or to people who don’t yet know (and are finding out through whatever identifier I pick) that I have a girlfriend. But I see what you’re getting at, and while I’m not sure most people hear it that way, I wish they did.

    And I definitely hear you about labels and struggling to figure out how much you want people to know about your self and your life, especially information about the two seem to be in conflict. I guess it’s pretty from the existence of this blog what I’ve decided to do about that, but I’ve definitely felt the conflicting pulls.

    And you’re welcome! (It’s my pleasure!)

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