Non-Binary Lesbians Have Always Existed

Gender identity and its rapidly evolving terminology bring up a lot of questions about LGBTQIA+ labels that seem inherently gendered, especially lesbianism. Where do non-binary people fit in? Can non-binary people identify with gendered terms, even sexualities?

The short answer: Yes. But in case you want the long answer, I’ll be breaking down the gender diversity hidden within the history of lesbianism, the origins of non-binary identities and gender non-conformity as a potential trans experience, and how all of this ties into the current existence of non-binary lesbians.

Non-binary is any gender identity that falls outside the binary experiences of manhood and womanhood. It falls under the trans umbrella (though not all non-binary people consider themselves or identify as transgender.) Non-binary is a term that covers any gender identity outside of the binary and is not a single gender.

Even though the terminology for it wasn’t coined in the U.S. until 1995, gender has existed outside the bounds of the binary for a long time in many cultures, including in lesbian culture.

Since the terminology didn’t always exist, how am I defining an experience which exists outside the binary? In terms of lesbian culture, I am defining this experience as gender non-conformity within lesbianism, a subversion of womanhood either through masculinity, androgyny, or even femininity when it’s not done for men. This isn’t to say that all gender non-conforming lesbians of the past were non-binary or would identify as such today. This is an exploration into the way gender non-conformity has always been a natural aspect of lesbian culture. Tracking its evolution (and the ways non-binary identity has been defined) to the present day creates an inevitability to the existence of non-binary lesbians, who are simply using the mainstream gender terminology that is now available to our community.

Lesbianism has always been a haven for gender non-conformity. If you’re a woman attracted to women, your sense of gender is already unique. This disconnection that many lesbians feel towards womanhood is so strong that it changes the way we experience gender, but is this new? Not even slightly.

According to “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America” by Lillian Faderman, women would dress up in men’s clothing and work factory jobs in the late 1800s and many of those same women had “romantic friendships” with other women. These women can be thought of as the earliest butches in American Lesbian culture. Fast forward to the 1940s and 1950s, and lesbian bar culture comes alive, a space where butch/femme dynamic took a strong hold on gender identity and expression within these growing communities. Due to the drag laws at the time, police officers would wait at the bars to catch women in two or less articles of feminine clothing. The butch lesbians who wanted to express their masculinity had to try to “pass” as men in public, using he/him pronouns and going by men’s names.

Gladys Bentley, a butch entertainer during the 1920s and 1930s.

In the bar, however, these butches were not trying to pass as men, but rather subverted the strict expectation of feminine womanhood. It was this masculinity outside the realm of manhood, providing strength in the community, that cemented butchness in lesbian culture to this day. The lesbians who were comfortable with their femininity identified as “femme” and this butch/femme dynamic quickly became a staple of lesbian culture. The rules of gender were different, they were redefined. Masculinity took on a new form and over time, it essentially became its own gender identity within lesbianism. One notable butch lesbian who used pronouns other than she/her was Stormé DeLarverie. The thrrad linked below, written by @BellaRizinti on Twitter, goes into his life story and his gender non-conformity. He/him lesbians have always existed.

In the 1990s, during a resurgence of butch identity, Leslie Feinberg, a butch lesbian and activist, began publishing novels based on hir life, transgender issues, and fictionalized accounts of a then obsolete lesbian bar culture. This changed the way we view lesbians and gender. Hir novel “Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come” widened the term transgender to include any type of gender variation, including gender non-conformity. Hir other book, Stone Butch Blues, explores the complexity of gender identity within a lesbian framework.

“Who was I now — woman or man? That question could never be answered as long as those were the only choices; it could never be answered if it had to be asked.” ― Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues

In the same decade, trans person and activist Riki Anne Wilchens coined the term “genderqueer”, the first non-binary identity label popularized in American culture. In 1995, they used the term to describe “anyone who is gender non-conforming” in an interview with In Your Face. Leslie Feinberg hirself once said “I like the gender neutral pronoun ‘ze/hir’ because it makes it impossible to hold on to gender/sex/sexuality assumptions.” Ze acknowledged that they were “female-bodied,” but did not identify as cisgender, stating in 2006 within the same interview, “I am a butch lesbian, a transgender lesbian.”

So, while some butches today consider themselves cisgender, as they still feel connected fully with their womanhood, others do not. Some butches even consider “butch” a non-binary lesbian identity, a gender in and of itself. In fact, I’m one of those butches. Gender non-conforming within lesbian culture has an overlap with trans identity because to live, love, and exist outside the bounds of gender expectation is to experience gender differently. This may affect your entire gender identity and for many lesbians, it does.

Now that non-binary identities have come into the modern lens, lesbians have taken that concept as our own in a major way, using it to finally ascribe an inclusive label to a phenomenon we’ve experienced through history: the disconnect from our assigned gender role, identity, and expectations at birth. Casey Legler, a French-American author and butch lesbian, called themselves a “trans-butch identified person — no surgery, no hormones” in an interview by Kerry Manders in the New York Times. Transmasculinity is a non-binary concept within lesbianism too, capturing the experience that many lesbians have of transitioning into the masculine gender identity.

Infographic on lesbian transmasculinity by Jules Rylan.

If you acknowledge that transgender identity includes gender non-conforming experiences, according to both the person who coined the term “genderqueer” and the many lesbians who don’t feel fully connected to traditional cisheternormative womanhood, it’s easy to see that non-binary lesbians have always existed and we always will, and this goes way beyond butch culture. Identities like femme, butch, and even lesbian itself can serve as gender experiences and these can be outside the binary. Lesbianism and gender non-conforming/non-binary experience are married concepts.

Lesbianism is inherently subversive of traditional cishet womanhood. Some lesbians feel that subversion so much that it feels like disconnect, so they feel agender, or express that subversion through masculinity, or they identify as non-binary and use pronouns other than she/her. If you aren’t a lesbian, it’s hard to understand how complex our relationship with gender is.

Being free from society’s strict binary constructs rooted in cisheteronormativity is one of the most beautiful, empowering things about lesbian culture. It is safety. It is home.

A lesbian subverting gender expression with he/him pronouns deserves just as much respect as a cis feminine lesbian, and they are both real lesbians. Our culture allows different rules when it comes to gender and an expansive freedom to express that. Above all: Lesbianism is liberation.

He/him lesbians in particular are historically tied to lesbian gender identity. Even if this was initially for safety purposes, it slowly became ingrained in our culture. He/him lesbians may still identity as cis lesbian women, but many do not, and they are still real lesbians. When the most common gender neutral pronouns were ze/hir, a lot of butch lesbians (and even non-butch lesbians) used them, and this is evident within the book “Butch Is a Noun” by S. Bear Bergman. Since the popularization of they/them, there are more they/them lesbians than ever.

When people say things along the lines of “you’ve shown me no sources for the existence of them in history,” I ask them to keep in mind that modern lesbians alive today are also a part of lesbian history. We exist right now and we’re telling you who we are. Not all gender non-conforming lesbians consider themselves non-binary, but many do, and there’s more of us than you might think.

At the end of the day, it’s more important to respect how people identify than to try to box them in. Respect all non-binary people, including non-binary lesbians, and believe us when we say: we’ve always been here.

Fat, ashkenazi Jewish, non-binary butch lesbian writing about queer history, the Jewish experience, fat liberation, and anything else that crosses my mind.

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