In the season three episode of LGBTQ+ drama The L Word, “Lone Star”, the women sit around chatting about the term “gold star” and exactly who qualifies. The term, meaning a lesbian who has only had sex with women, is a status some lesbians take pride in, but it’s one that’s become controversial as our ideas of sexuality and gender have evolved.
What is a gold star lesbian?
Maria Kindstedt, therapist at LGBTQ therapy service Pink Therapy, defines it as “a lesbian who has only had sex with other women,” believing that, while you could frame it as a lesbian who has never had sex with men, “lesbian sexuality can be defined perfectly well without the involvement of men.” It’s understandable that many lesbians, particularly ones who have trauma relating to men, would find comfort in their status as a gold star.
If you search for the term “gold star lesbian”, the results are overwhelmingly negative. Headlines like, “5 Reasons the Phrase Gold Star Lesbian Needs to Die” and “6 Reasons We Shouldn’t Say Gold Star Lesbian” indicate that people have less-than-positive feelings about it. But why is it so controversial? The term relies on notions of “purity” in abstaining from (cisgender) men, which means that it can be wielded as biphobia or transphobia, often leans on cissexist notions of gender, and it fails to take into account that many lesbians can be victims of compulsory heterosexuality or assault.
Really, it’s less about what someone wants to call themselves, and more about whether or not they use it to exclude potential partners. Kindstedt wants to reinforce that if someone wants to define themselves as a gold star, that’s OK, providing they don’t hold others to the same standard. “We need to be mindful that women’s sexuality has a history of being defined and controlled by men in a patriarchal society and be very careful to question women’s sexual self expression and negatively interpret the labels they choose for themselves,” she says, adding that stigmatising the term could stigmatise lesbian sexuality further. “If a ‘gold star’ would like to open up to date women with more diverse experiences than herself, exploration should always be supported.”
Who who *counts* as a lesbian?
When we talk about who the term hurts, however, we can’t deny that it tends to infer a cissexist idea of what a woman is and what a man is. Ali, 23, is a trans lesbian who says that, while the term has died out since her days hearing it on Tumblr, the concept lives on. “I've had conversations on dating apps and dates where it [gold star] has been bubbling away underneath everything,” she says. Ali tells me that she was speaking to a woman on Her, a dating app marketed to queer women and non-binary people. After some back-and-forth and making plans to meet, the woman cancelled an hour before their date.
“Turned out she hadn't actually looked at my profile and had only just realised that I was trans. She then sent a follow up message saying that actually she would still like to meet up, but not sexually, because she didn't think she could be attracted to me.” While Ali says she wouldn’t want to be with someone who isn’t attracted to her, it hurt to be rejected because she didn’t meet the woman’s “exact requirements of lesbianism.”
Ali adds that, even if the concept were widened to include trans women, she still wouldn’t fit, as she has slept with non-binary people and people who’ve later come out as men, making gender and sexual identities more slippery than the term “gold star” allows for. “There are constantly arguments on Tumblr and on Twitter about who counts as a lesbian, if, say, non-binary lesbians count as lesbians (of course they do, but people on Twitter are wild and evil), if someone who has found any man attractive can count as a lesbian (yes, of course they do),” she adds. “The only person that can define your sexuality should be you, but Twitter and its discourses have meant that personal sexuality can become a point of public debate.”
M, 37, is a butch, genderqueer woman who came out at a time when the term was still more widely used. “I was familiar with it when I was younger and first learning about queerness, and attached some value to it, partly because I got swept up in a culture that did, on early lesbian forums”. However, she found that by the time she slept with someone for the first time and they commented that they were both gold stars, she found it weird and meaningless. “Sometimes my friends use the term, but mostly to marvel that people are still using it, because it's rooted in purity politics that they thought (or hoped) we were over and done with.”
She says, adding that the reason she rejects it is because it’s often interpreted as “never having interacted with a penis” and “makes being a lesbian more about what someone doesn’t like than what they do, which doesn’t feel like a great basis for romantic or erotic connection”. She adds, “To me, these days, using it is just indicative that someone has a weird, narrow perspective about sex and gender. The one person I've had PIV [penis-in-vagina] sex with is a trans woman, and the only binary-identified man I've slept with is a bear who mostly sleeps with men, and is a trans man. I fisted him (vaginally.) What does gold star even mean in relation to any of those deliciously queer experiences?”
Laura, 34, had a similar experience to M, in that it was fairly common when she was young, but that she now sees it differently. “I liked using the term gold star from when I came out at 18 until I was about 21. As a ‘baby dyke’ you’re kind of finding your way in the world and at that time I didn’t really know many lesbians who hadn’t slept with a guy so it felt some kind of achievement, oddly.” She’s no longer a gold star, after she “spontaneously and soberly decided I wanted to see what it was like to sleep with a man,” she laughs, adding that it “wasn’t great”.
Her friends now are more inclusive and don’t really use the term. “There was an interesting discussion about whether one of us who was a gold star was still a gold star after sleeping with a trans man (everyone deciding no, thankfully).” She adds that, when she came out 16 years ago, many women felt more pressured to hide their sexuality, which is why it was more common.
For trans lesbians, bi people, survivors and those who aren’t gold stars, the term and its rooting in purity politics can leave a bad taste. Kindstedt wants to remind anyone who’s been made to feel inferior by the term that it’s often not about them at all. “If there would be an individual who uses the gold star label as a way to make other women/lesbians feel inferior, I would consider that an individual issue for that person. Perhaps originated in insecurity and a need to assert themselves.”
If someone is using it in a way that excludes others from their sexuality or is hurtful, maybe just explain why it’s upsetting and move on. As Kindstedt says, we need to “be supportive and celebrate each other’s sexual identities and preferences, even if they do not match our own.”
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