What Does It Mean to Be a Lesbian?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on March 20, 2024
7 min read

A lesbian usually refers to a woman who is physically and romantically attracted to other women. But you can also identify as a lesbian if you're nonbinary – someone whose gender identity falls outside the two categories of man and woman – and you're attracted to women.

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 lesbian themes. The term “Sapphic,” named for this poet, also refers to lesbian orientation. 

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

In the 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 lesbians know from an early age that they're attracted to girls rather than boys. For others, their sexuality is more of a process of discovery. You might have relationships with men before realizing your attraction to women. Every person is different, and it's not unusual to have questions about your orientation or change how you identify. Your sexuality may take time to develop, and that's normal. 

Asking yourself these questions can help you clarify whether you're a lesbian: 

  1. When I dream or fantasize sexually, who am I thinking about?
  2. Do I picture myself dating, loving, having sex with, or marrying a woman?
  3. Have I had a crush on another girl when I was young or a woman as an adult?
  4. Are my feelings toward men and women different? If so, how?
  5. When my straight friends talk about people who are their crushes, do I feel uncomfortable? 


Flags are an important part of the LGBTQ+ community; they're used to express support and pride, to celebrate progress, and to encourage political action. 

The lesbian flag, created in 2018, has two versions. One has seven stripes, and the other has five. These are the colors in the seven-stripe version and what each signifies:

  • Dark orange: gender non-conformity
  • Orange: independence
  • Light orange: community
  • White: unique relationships to womanhood
  • Pink: serenity and peace
  • Dusty pink: love and sex
  • Dark rose: femininity

The colors and symbolism of the five-stripe flag are similar: 

  • Dark orange: gender non-conformity
  • Light orange: community
  • White: unique relationships to womanhood
  • Pink: serenity and peace
  • Dark rose: femininity


Although society has made progress in recent decades, some misconceptions about lesbians continue.

Stereotype: 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. 

Stereotype: Lesbians are masculine.

Sexual orientation (whom you're attracted to) is different from gender expression (how you dress and present yourself). All lesbians don't wear flannel shirts, just as all gay men don't wear pastels. You're like everyone else – a complicated person with many facets to your personality. 

Stereotype: Lesbians work only in certain jobs.

Not all lesbians are athletes, coaches, or construction workers. Nor do all gay men work in the arts or fashion. It may seem that some careers have a higher percentage of gay or lesbian workers, but that might reflect how welcoming those fields were when people were starting out. As society grows more accepting, people may feel more free to follow their interests and choose jobs for a variety of reasons. 

Stereotype: Gay relationships are unstable.

Gay and lesbian couples are like anyone else. Some have stable, long-term relationships. Some fight, break up, and make up. A lack of acceptance from society can put extra strain on gay and lesbian relationships. 

If you're a lesbian, you may be at a higher risk of certain health problems, including obesity, heart disease, and asthma. Researchers attribute some of this to what's called minority stress theory, the idea that people from communities that face discrimination are prone to long-term stress. contributing to health problems. 

Lesbians 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.

Lesbians are more likely to misuse drugs and alcohol, which can lead to health problems like cancer. Minority stress theory may also account for higher rates of substance use.

Lesbians 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.

The movement to raise awareness about domestic violence has focused a lot of attention on how it happens in straight relationships. But intimate partner violence can happen in lesbian relationships, too. 

Studies show that members of the LGBTQ+ community can face all types of intimate partner abuse, including: 

  • Physical violence
  • Threats
  • Verbal harassment 
  • Sexual violence such as rape

Some elements of domestic abuse are unique to same-sex relationships, though. Threatening to "out" you to people who aren't aware of your sexual orientation is a way to intimidate you. Fear of being outed might make you less likely to ask for help from friends or family or seek out support services. If you've had negative experiences in the past with the police, been bullied, or faced discrimination, you may be dealing with psychological trauma that makes it hard for you to seek help.

Other barriers to seeking help for domestic abuse include: 

Stereotypes. Other people may believe that domestic violence doesn't happen in lesbian relationships.

Anti-gay bias. You might encounter this from service providers, at shelters, and from other victims of domestic abuse.

Lack of training. Service providers may not know how to address issues specific to same-sex relationships.

Lack of information. You may not know about services geared toward LGBTQ+ domestic violence survivors.

Lack of confidence. Because of past experiences, you may not believe that social services and other systems will work well for you.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline (thehotline.org, or 800-799-SAFE) offers advice to anyone dealing with domestic violence, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. You can talk to someone about your situation and get referrals to services in your area. The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence maintain lists of organizations that deal specifically with the issue in the LGBTQ+ community.

Coming out is the process of revealing your sexuality to friends and family. It should always be your own 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 your 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. PFLAG is a national organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ people and offers support and services for their friends and loved ones. Their Resources page might help you – or the people you're telling – process your coming out.

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. 

If you're a lesbian, you're a woman or nonbinary person who is romantically and sexually attracted to women. The word "lesbian" comes from the Greek island of Lesbos, which was the home of the poet Sappho. You might know your sexual orientation from an early age, or it could take time and experience for it to become clear. There's no one right way to experience your developing sexuality. Lesbians are at higher risk for certain health problems, in part because discrimination might create stress that undermines your health. Being aware of the risks can help you take better care of yourself.

What does LGBTQI mean?

This is a broad term that's used to refer to the community of people who are not straight and who aren't cisgender, which means comfortable as the gender they were assigned at birth.

 The letters stand for: 

  • Lesbian
  • Gay
  • Bisexual
  • Transgender
  • Queer, or this can also stand for Questioning – those who are exploring their sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Intersex, people who are born with a medical condition of having chromosomes or reproductive systems that don't exactly match the medical definition of "male" or "female."

Some people and organizations use LBGTQ+ to encompass a wider range of sexual orientations and gender expressions.

When did homosexuality start?

Experts agree, for the most part, that same-sex relationships have existed across cultures and throughout time, whether they were accepted by society or not.