As a part of early celebrations for my 19th birthday, I went to a queer dance club in West Hollywood with a trusted friend. I was having fun. Everything was great. I was wearing a black short dress and a pair of heeled sandals. At the time I was also rocking a fresh buzz cut. The music was tasteful. The queer couples were giving me so much hope and so much joy. The alcohol was served exclusively for the over-21 crowd. The drag performances were out-of-this-world amazing. And then something strange happened. While I was dancing to “Wild Thoughts” by Rihanna and truly feeling myself, I noticed a fellow clubber, dressed similarly to how a butch stereotypically would, approach me. She complimented my piercings and I thanked her. Then, she asked if I had any tattoos. Naïvely, I thought this was a well-intended question so I said “no.” In response to my “no” she rolled up the sleeve of her t-shirt to reveal a golden star. She looked up at me and cracked a grin. I was taken aback. I looked at her tattoo, I looked at her face, I said “cool” and I turned around and continued dancing with my friend. I tried to shake it off but it just wouldn’t leave me. I kept wondering — I still do — who the fuck decided to give away gold stars to lesbians?
If you do not know, a gold-star lesbian is a lesbian who has never had sexual contact with a penis. There are other classifications to lesbianism that you can look up for yourself on Urban Dictionary but I am only going to focus on the gold star and why it is problematic in this column. Now, there are a lot of things wrong with this term. I want young queers, young lesbians and young non-binary trans folk to know that it is not an OK term to use. “Traditions” are not always the best and we don’t always have to uphold them. The term “gold-star” might’ve meant something nice a couple years ago and may have been a point of pride but it shouldn’t be anymore and it’s not something that we should keep within our community. Let’s discuss why.
Trans women and intersex folk
The very definition of the term “gold-star” excludes trans folk. Trans women have penises. Not even all cisgender women have vaginas and vulvas. Some cisgender women are mutilated at a young age, some are born with disorders, some undergo traumatic experiences of cancer or other diseases. Bodies come in different shapes and forms and reducing lesbianism to vaginas erases the whole community of lesbians that have existed since the beginning and have been the pioneers of this movement: trans queer women.
In addition, intersex bodies have been recognized in science and in social justice for a very long time. Not all people who are born with vagines, penises, neither or both identify following the cisgender pattern of genital association.
Bisexuality, pansexuality and asexuality
At its core, “gold-star” classification creates a hierarchy of value for sexual interactions. The term also assumes a sexual binary: straight or lesbian. What is in fact closer to reality is that bisexual, pansexual and asexual women and femmes exist. And these women are allowed to like and love other women without having to be subjected to a ranking system that devalues them as women who love women (WLW) based on their sexual orientation.
Not all WLW or lesbians came out of the womb knowing they wanted to eat pussy. Some queer folk do not have the privilege of having supportive families and environments. In fact, many queer folk spend their teen years in denial and in hiding, fearing for their safety. I personally have many lesbian and otherwise queer friends who have had boyfriends in the past with whom they sexually engaged. They did this to convince their families, friends and selves that they were straight. So even in being exclusively lesbian, not everyone has the access to acting exclusively lesbian.
Sex work is a big taboo and sex workers have to live with a lot of stigma surrounding their work. As a part of their job, sex workers may suck dick, send nudes, spank folk, eat pussy or talk dirty. And just like any other professional who does not necessarily merge their life with their career, a sex worker’s work does not always reflect their personal preferences. Therefore, to assume a hierarchy of lesbianism that values not interacting with penises shames sex workers and disrespects their line of work. True intersectionality not only supports the decriminalization of sex work but also its destigmatization and there is no doubt that both are needed in the lesbian community.
Survivors of assault and abuse
Not everyone gets to choose who they sexually interact with. Although sexual assault is an act of power and not of sexual desire, survivors and victims can still end up blaming themselves for what happened to them. For lesbian survivors whose assaulter was someone with a penis, the gold-star hierarchy closes its gates. This can potentially lead to victims feeling ashamed of their story, feeling at fault or feeling invalid in their lesbian identities.
In conclusion, I want to encourage all of the queer community to call each other out when they hear some use the term “gold-star” but I also want lesbians who choose to identify as “gold-star” lesbians to understand that in real life there are no medals for bigotry and insensitivity.
So much of feminism and queer theory owes its existence to the hard work of trans women, lesbians, survivors, sex workers and bisexual women. The least we can do is uphold their legacy of inclusion.