Why are lesbians facing deteriorating mental health and loneliness?
High levels of loneliness and worsening mental health have always been experienced disproportionately by the LGBTQI+ community, but these struggles have been intensified by the pandemic. Recent studies find that out of all the identities in the community, lesbians have had the hardest time dealing with these issues. According to a study by Just Like Us, a charity for LGBTQI+ youth, lesbians are the demographic under the LGBTQI+ umbrella that is most likely to experience loneliness. Almost 9 in 10 (87 per cent) of lesbians felt this way, and often reported feeling detached from the people they were closest to, 60 per cent of them experiencing this on a regular basis since the pandemic began. In another survey by Just Like Us that included over 1000 LGBTQI+ secondary school pupils, more lesbian girls reported their mental health was getting worse (78 per cent) than any other group, like gay boys (71 per cent), bisexual people (74 per cent) and trans people (70 per cent).
Lesbian erasure is one of the biggest problems facing young queer women. In an interview for Cosmopolitan, Amy Ashden, Head of Communications and Media at Just Like Us, talks about the dismissal of the word ‘lesbian’ and how lesbian women are "either fetishized, disregarded as not worthy or perhaps even as old-fashioned". She also touches on how lesbians are thought to be anti-trans and how this narrative has been picked up by the media in order to pit communities against each other: "I know that for me, and other lesbian friends, that rhetoric seems absurd, frustrating and doesn’t help our general wellbeing."
To a great extent, women are still regarded as an object of male desire, with lesbians in particular being highly fetishized by straight men and seen as a challenge for men to "convert". The lack of safe spaces adds more to the fear of going out as a lesbian and leads to increased levels of loneliness. Talking about safe spaces for queer people, Amy says that "most are catered to men", stating, "As a lesbian, I’ve often found straight women feel uncomfortable or awkward around lesbians or even using the word lesbian, which is vastly different to the way they stereotypically embrace gay men. That can be very alienating, especially growing up, and adds to the horrible idea that being a lesbian is somehow wrong or disgusting or shameful."
Patriarchal attitudes undermine the use of the word lesbian, favouring terms such as "queer" or "gay". In an article for An Injustice Mag, Itxy Lopez talks about why "lesbian" has come to be perceived as a negative word, and why so many lesbians "dislike identifying themselves as who they are". "When characters on TV would use the term lesbian, they'd refer either to a woman who was being over-sexualized or a woman who had something wrong with her because she wasn’t interested in men," she says.
A 2016 study from Variety proved the disproportionate representation of women in movies and television and stated that "almost 80 per cent of showrunners for new scripted shows were men". This, paired with the noticeable lack of lesbian characters, leads to harmful stereotypes of lesbians: "that of the oversexualized, two-dimensional woman who serves only to satisfy some pornographic fantasy of a straight man, and that of a bland, largely disinteresting woman who serves just as hollow a purpose. The former is the projection of the only way a lesbian can serve as meaningful to a straight man, and the latter is the straight man’s reaction to a woman being completely uninterested in him sexually by making her as boring and unimportant to the plot as possible".
In an article on Gay Star News, Matilda Davies talks about her struggles after coming out and how she lost many straight male friends. She tells a story about a friend of hers who she had met in her first term at university and hung out with regularly for over two years. However, she said: "When I came out, he admitted to me that he’d always hoped something would happen between us. After that, he never spoke to me again." In the same article she confesses that it was difficult to realize that many of her friendships were not real and that she struggled with loneliness after losing them. She also shares that it was hard for her to make female friends because they would think that she is "uncontrollably attracted to them", which is an unfair assumption that a lot of lesbians face every day. Matilda also talks about what it's like living in a male-dominated world as a lesbian: "As much as I didn’t want to admit it, after I came out, I still intensely wanted straight men to think I was beautiful. I think for many years I mistook this desire to be genuine attraction," she says.
In the end, Matilda found "a sense of belonging and acceptance" within a new group of LGBTQI+ friends and concluded that: "You only find true friends by being your true self. This is how you build a community around you that appreciates you for who you are. You just need to find the courage to be yourself."
Although we've certainly seen progress when it comes to representation for women in the LGBTQI+ community, we need to put an end to lesbian erasure and the taboos surrounding the word by advocating for more inclusivity.
Ioana is a student studying BA Arabic and Linguistics at the University of Leeds. She is interested in writing, journalism, and foreign languages. Her Instagram handle is @ioanahahaha.