What Is Lesbianism?

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on July 07, 2023
3 min read

A lesbian is a woman who is physically and romantically attracted to other women. Lesbianism is a form of homosexuality.

The first mention of lesbianism in history is in the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian code of laws from around 1700 B.C. that allowed women to marry each other. 

The word “lesbian” comes from the name of the Greek island Lesbos, where Sappho was born. She was an ancient Greek woman who wrote poems that included homosexual themes. The term “sapphic,” named for this poet, also refers to female homosexuality.

Lesbians may also refer to themselves as gay women or simply as gay.

In years past, “queer” was a derogatory term used toward lesbians, gay people, and others in the LGBTQ community. But some younger members of the community have reclaimed the term. Some lesbians may identify as queer. In general, queer simply means someone who isn’t straight.

Some people may think that because lesbians aren’t sexually or romantically attracted to men, they hate them. But most lesbians have friendships and professional relationships with men.

Another myth is that one person in a lesbian relationship must take on the role of the man. One partner may play a more traditionally masculine role, but that isn’t necessarily the norm. Each relationship is different. The gender dynamic depends on the specific people involved and how they interact with each other. 

There are also stereotypes that lesbians like to wear flannel shirts, or that they are athletic and enjoy playing sports. But you can’t identify a lesbian by what type of clothes they wear or what activities they choose.

Lesbians are at a higher risk for certain health problems than straight women. For example, they have higher odds of breast cancer yet are less likely to get a mammogram. Anyone with breasts should talk to their doctor about proper breast cancer screening.

Studies also show that lesbian couples are more likely to face domestic violence. This is in contrast to the public perception that there’s much less intimate partner violence in the LGBTQ community.

Lesbians are more likely to misuse drugs and alcohol, which can lead to health problems like cancer. They’re also more likely to be obese, a risk factor for health conditions like heart disease.

Lesbian women may be underserved by gynecologists and other sexual health providers who don’t understand the LGBTQ community and its needs. Many of these issues are brought on or made worse by discrimination and barriers to services like a lack of proper training about LGBTQ people.

Coming out is the process of revealing your sexuality to friends and family. It should always be your own personal decision. You might do it all at once with a big announcement, or you could tell people one at a time as you feel comfortable.

If you aren’t sure how someone in your life will react to you telling them you’re a lesbian, you might try finding out what they think about other lesbians. You can:

  • Ask them what they think about a celebrity lesbian
  • Ask them their thoughts about lesbians getting married or adopting children
  • Notice whether they talk positively or negatively about lesbians

If you choose to come out, remember that there’s no perfect way to do it. Some experts suggest picking the time and place that makes you feel the safest and most comfortable. 

Plan for difficult questions that may come up. Think about how you’ll respond to a variety of reactions from the people you’re telling. You may want to prepare a list of links to information that friends and family can easily and quickly read.

You might tell people that you’re a lesbian by:

  • Talking to them face-to-face
  • Sending a text
  • Making a phone call
  • Writing a letter
  • Writing an email

Many people who come out are accepted by their loved ones, but some aren’t. It can sometimes lead to unsafe conditions. If you think this may happen, consider having a plan for transportation, food, and housing where you can be safe after coming out.