‘It felt embarrassing’: Lesbians are delaying coming out because of harmful stereotypes

‘I felt like calling myself a lesbian would take away my femininity’


21-year-old Oxford student Emily remembers the first girl who came out at her all-girls’ school. She was called “gross and weird”, and anyone who did anything “remotely masculine” was called a lesbian, too. Emily waited until Sixth Form to come out “properly” – as that was when they no longer had to do PE, and she didn’t want to be “accused of peeping”. As well as making her wait to come out to others, Emily says these ideas about lesbians also delayed her coming to terms with her own sexuality.

But Emily’s not alone. New research from Just Like Us, the LGBT+ young people’s charity, has found that a huge majority of lesbians (68 per cent) delay coming out because of harmful anti-lesbian stereotypes, such as that we are “man-hating”, “over-sexualised”, “unattractive” or “masculine”. Being a lesbian is still seen as “cringey”, “embarrassing”, and even “wrong”.

This week is Lesbian Visibility Week. The Tab spoke to young lesbians, all of whom feel like their coming out process was delayed because of these harmful, outdated stereotypes and ideas about our sexuality. Here’s what they had to say:

‘It probably cost me a year in coming to terms with myself’

Speaking about her experience at school, Emily says: “I wasn’t the ‘martyr gay’ (first out) so I remember vividly what was said about her [at school]. Everyone was saying things about how gross and weird it was. Her twin sister didn’t even defend her. You were called a lesbian if you did anything remotely masculine so that wasn’t helpful either. We also had the PE teacher who people thought was a lesbian and that whole mess.”

Emily says this delayed her not only coming out to others, but also delayed her coming to terms with her own sexuality. “I remember it making me horrifically uncomfortable but I didn’t even know then. So I think it made me subconsciously repress a lot. I would say it probably cost me a year in coming to terms with myself.

“I very specifically didn’t come out properly until Sixth Form because we didn’t do PE anymore and I didn’t wanna be accused of peeping.”

‘It feels like calling yourself ‘lesbian’ is the same as sharing details about your sex life’

25-year-old Pippa started realising they were gay aged 15 – “but didn’t really feel comfortable calling myself anything until I was 20.” Pippa says part of the reason for this is because of how sexualised the word “lesbian” is. “Lesbian” is the most searched-for porn category and the word feels tied to porn in a way almost nothing else does.

Pippa says: “A lot of people made me think that I couldn’t be sure that I was gay, especially because I’d had a boyfriend before. I didn’t really know how to talk to people about it, because the word lesbian is so tied to sex and pornography that it always feels like calling yourself ‘lesbian’ is the same as sharing details about your sex life.”

‘I felt like calling myself a lesbian would take away my femininity’

Georgia, 21, didn’t call herself ‘lesbian’ for about four months after coming out, as she didn’t want to be seen as masculine. “I felt like calling myself a lesbian would take away my femininity from the perception of other people,” she says. “I thought people wouldn’t see me as a woman for liking other women.

“Growing up it felt like it was like ‘lipstick lesbian’ vs ‘butch’ and I knew I wasn’t ‘lipstick’. I knew butch lesbians always found it harder being accepted as they stood out more, and I didn’t want to stand out.”

”Lesbian’ was used as an insult’

Oxford student Mara, 20, came out as bisexual at 15, lesbian at 17, and non-binary at 19. At school Mara experienced the word “lesbian” being used as an insult and viewed with “disgust”. People would also feel like they could assume things about Mara and ask them intrusive questions.

They say: “My high school experience was quite challenging at times, as the word ‘lesbian’ was often used as an insult, so it was difficult to come to terms with being a lesbian when most of what I had heard about them was in a negative light. People would also often ask questions about my sexuality and try to assume things before I even properly knew myself. Boys would often try to ask rude questions, and girls would be disgusted at the idea of a lesbian.”

‘It felt embarrassing to come out’

Both times Niamh came out – at school when she was 15, and then at home when she was 19 – she says it felt “embarrassing”.

Now 23, Niamh says: “At school it was already a rumour, and I knew people would gossip about it, and they did. I was always scared it would get back to my sister who was at the same school. At home, I didn’t really want to tell my parents, but I felt like I had to, because that’s what’s expected.”

Alexa, 24 from Buckinghamshire, was bullied at school. They say: “I luckily didn’t come to understand my sexuality until my last year of school, but I was still bullied due to the suspicions/inklings of others. It’s also important to make clear that some vocal anti-trans lesbians that receive media coverage do not represent all lesbians under any circumstances.”

‘The majority of lesbians are delaying living their lives to the fullest because of tired lesbophobic stereotypes’

Amy Ashenden, a lesbian and Director of Comms at LGBT+ young people’s charity Just Like Us, says: “It’s heartbreaking to see that the majority of lesbians are delaying living their lives to the fullest and feel unable to come out because of tired lesbophobic stereotypes that continue to be perpetuated, and this is something I regularly see lesbians struggling with.

“It is especially sad to see that lesbians are delaying coming out because they fear being seen as butch, masculine and unattractive – societally there is a lot of work to be done around embracing women of all gender expressions and bringing positive messaging around being a butch lesbian to the forefront.

“To paint lesbians as ‘man-hating’, ‘unattractive’ or ‘anti-trans’ is to unfairly stereotype an entire community – these stereotypes are rooted in misogynistic ideas of what a woman should be and we can see the damaging effects of these stereotypes, particularly on young lesbians, in the research.”

Dominic Arnall, Chief Executive of Just Like Us, said: “It is deeply saddening to see that the next generation of young lesbians are still suffering from these harmful and damaging stereotypes about lesbians.

“All young people deserve to know that being LGBT+ is something to be celebrated and through our work with schools, we want to smash these stereotypes and show that being a lesbian is a wonderful, positive thing.”

The Tab’s Pride reporting series is putting a focus on highlighting LGBTQ+ issues and celebrating queer voices across UK campuses.

If you or someone you know has been affected by this story you can contact Switchboard, the LGBTQ+ helpline, on 0300 330 0630 or visit their website. You can also find help through young people’s charity The Mix, and Galop, the LGBTQ+ anti-violence charity. 

If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s an incident of homophobia on campus, an experience you’d like to share, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]

Related stories recommended by this writer:

You can’t call yourself an ally if you post photos of you kissing your mates

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‘I wish I was a lesbian’: 31 things queer women are sick and tired of hearing

You can find all articles from The Tab’s Pride series here