Lesbian women face unique mental health issues — in addition to the ones all members of the LGBT community face — because they exist in a marginalized section of an already marginalized community. Exploring the effects of discrimination and prejudice only scratches the surface of their mental health challenges. To dig deeper, take a look at the issues in this article.
The Pressure to Identify and Label
More so than other members of the LGBT community, lesbian women feel pressure to label themselves with terms they are not necessarily comfortable with. This pressure comes from heterosexuals, gay men — often in the context of meeting lesbians at gay bars — the media and other lesbian women.
Here are some examples of those terms:
- Femme: a lesbian woman who dresses and acts like a stereotypical heterosexual woman
- Alpha: confident, bordering on arrogant, usually physically attractive
- Butch: dresses and acts like a stereotypical heterosexual man
These terms frustrate some lesbian women. Others embrace them, including women who proudly identify as butch. It’s difficult for lesbians to know whether they should reject or embrace such labels.
— Tonya M. BakerHughes (@tonyamhughes) May 21, 2015
There is a question of who owns these labels, if anyone. People who use terms such as “butch” do not necessarily identify as lesbian, further complicating the issue. There are many queer women who identify as butch and some heterosexual women who use that label.
Even the word “lesbian” can be controversial. Should we say “lesbian,” “lesbian women,” “gay women” or maybe something else? There isn’t a correct answer or anything close to a consensus in the lesbian community.
These identity and labeling issues cause stress and contribute to the social isolation lesbian women deal with.
Lesbian Feminism and Other Types of Feminism
“Feminist” is another label people pressure lesbians to consider. There are historical and current conflicts between lesbian feminism, mainstream feminism and radical feminism. This makes many lesbian women reluctant to engage in the conversation of feminism or consider feminism part of their identity.
Dealing with Assumptions and Stereotypes
People — usually heterosexuals — often make several assumptions about lesbian women that contribute to unwelcomed stereotypes:
- They hate men.
- They have “daddy issues.”
- They are more masculine than heterosexual women.
- Men molested them as children.
- There needs to a be a “man” in a lesbian relationship.
- Lesbians haven’t met the right man yet.
- Lesbian sex doesn’t count as “real sex.”
- Lesbians dress like men.
- Lesbians are not physically attractive.
- They are more interested in sports.
- They drive SUVs.
- They push commitment and establish their romantic relationships too quickly.
- They are “crazy.”
- They are trying being with women as some sort of trendy experiment rather than a legitimate sexual preference (this assumption is more common for lesbian women who came out later in life, especially if they were already with men, married, had kids, etc.)
The Objectification and Fetishization of Lesbian Sex
When heterosexual men treat lesbian sex as if it is naughty and taboo, it contributes to the feeling of shame lesbian women often cope with.
“Such messages invalidate their sexual orientation and suggest same-sex relationships between women are for the sexual gratification of men,” said therapist Kimber Shelton, who has worked with lesbian clients who have reported microaggressions from men, including the aforementioned assumptions.
The Lack of Dating Culture
Gay men have a dating culture. There are bars, clubs and well-known dating apps such as Grindr. Their dating culture has the problem of excessive superficiality, but it at least exists.
Lesbian women have no recognizable dating culture. There are gay bars that technically include lesbians, but “gay bar” or “gay club” usually means there will be a majority of gay men. Lesbians are not necessarily as welcomed as gay men in these places. There is the Her dating app for women in the LGBT community, but it isn’t specifically for lesbians.
This absence of dating culture and exclusion from prominent dating culture in the LGBT community exacerbates the social isolation and anxiety lesbian women try to overcome. There is also the possibility that the lack of dating culture contributes to the problem of some lesbian women being too aggressive in establishing a relationship.
The U-Haul Syndrome
The lesbian dating scene has the opposite problem gay men struggle with: there is too much pressure to commit and not enough casual dating. Lesbians coined the terms “U-Haul Syndrome” and “U-Haul Lesbians” after encountering women who wanted to move in with them around the second or third date.
The slang isn’t necessarily about moving in, though. Some lesbian women date people who want to discuss long-term relationship plans and goals far too early, according to Talkspace therapist Katherine Glick, who has also worked with lesbian clients. This mentality often leads to lesbian women rushing into relationships that turn out to be unhealthy.
Antagonizing Other Women
Because of the influence of patriarchal culture, it is difficult for some women to see other women as allies rather than competitors for men. This problem extends to lesbian women, although it affects them differently.
“I’ve heard lesbian women clients wonder if they can be in a relationship with another woman, because there can be so much ‘drama,’” said therapist Kristen Martinez.
Toxic Relationships and Domestic Abuse
People often assume there are less cases of violence in lesbian relationships because men are typically more violent and likely to be abusers. Domestic abuse is actually more common in lesbian relationships than heterosexual relationships and other groups within the LGBT spectrum — 44% of lesbian women reported intimate partner violence compared to 35% of heterosexual women and 26% of gay men, according to the results of a study by the CDC.
The reasons for higher rates of violence in lesbian relationships are not clear. Stories from lesbian women who survived intimate partner violence, however, provide insights into why lesbian relationships often become toxic, violent or emotionally abusive.
When relationships progress rapidly, it can be difficult for one partner to detect signs of the other partner’s potential to be unstable or abusive. The victim might condone dangerous or inappropriate behavior after interpreting it as a method of showing love and passion.
Therapist Amber Ault — who works with lesbian clients, is gay herself and wrote a book about lesbian relationships — wrote about a lesbian woman whose partner violated her privacy during their first few weeks of dating. Her partner entered her home without permission, found her credit card bills in a drawer and paid all of them. She accepted this as a grand romantic gesture and soon moved in with the woman. The relationship became emotionally toxic and took years to leave.
It can be difficult for lesbian women to identify their partner’s behavior as abusive, according to a study published in the Journal of Homosexuality. Ault explained a possible factor in this problem.
“[People in the LGBT community] work so hard for legitimacy,” Ault said. “It feels very vulnerable to acknowledge that the relationships we work to have recognized are sometimes toxic.”
When lesbian women realize they are in an abusive relationship, disclosing this information to others and seeking help can be challenging. In the case of Ault’s client, she worried professionals would not take the issue seriously and feared the shame and stigma of being out in her small town community.
In the instance of physical or sexual violence, some lesbian women reach out to authorities only to encounter dismissive, rude or homophobic comments. Therapist Ce Anderson saw a client who purportedly received the following response when she called police:
“You’re just two chicks who can’t get along. If you call the cops again, we’ll arrest you.”
Responses like the above delegitimize the abuse and prolong the suffering.
Issues All Members of the LGBT Community Deal With
- Internalized homophobia
- Coming out
- Social isolation and anxiety
- Terror attacks and violence targeted at the LGBT community
- Rejection or lack of understanding from family
- Lack of expectation to raise a family or have a structured life
To read more about these issues and learn how to support members of the LGBT community, check out the first article in our series on LGBT mental health.
How to Support the Mental Health of Lesbian Women
If you are not a lesbian woman but want to support the lesbian community in dealing with these mental health issues, you can do so in one or more of the following ways:
- Be mindful of the language you use. Some lesbian women might prefer you refer to them as “gay” or some other term.
- Support organizations or centers that provide resources for lesbian women. Here are some examples: National Center for Lesbian Rights, The Lesbian Herstory Archives
- Recommend they see a therapist. Use this article to do it in a way that won’t hurt their feelings.
How to Handle These Issues
If you are a lesbian woman, seeing a therapist is one of the most effective methods of dealing with these issues and preventing some of them from happening. Remember, you deserve to have healthy relationships and live the happiest life possible. Consider talking to someone who will take your problems seriously and know what to say.