If you've ever asked yourself, "am I a lesbian?" (and I'm guessing that's probably what brought you here), you're definitely not alone. It's super-common to have questions about your sexuality or feel unsure about which label(s) best name your lived experience.
As is true with any personal identifier, the exact definition of lesbian varies based on who is drafting it. Most commonly, lesbians are women who are emotionally, mentally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to other women, according to sexologist Marla Renee Stewart, a queer-informed sex-expert. The term is also used by any non-men (women, non-binary folks, agender individuals, etc.) who are exclusively (or primarily) sexually or romantically drawn to other non-men.
Dictionary definitions aside, at the end of the day, only you can know if the term fits. “If it feels good to use to use the term for your sexual orientation or identity, then you’re a lesbian,” she says. Otherwise, you might choose to use or try on another label or label combo. Other words someone might use instead of or in addition to “lesbian” include: bisexual, pansexual, biromantic, panromantic, aromantic, and queer, to name just a few.
“Someone's culture and ethnicity can impact how they perceive themselves and the labels they prefer,” says Stewart. “For instance, some people embedded in Black lesbian communities prefer to use the word ‘gay’ over ‘lesbian’ because of some misconceptions around the word.”
Remember, these labels aren’t set in stone, either. "Sexuality can shift and change throughout someone's life," says Gigi Engle, a certified sex coach, sexologist, and author of All The F*cking Mistakes. "Human sexuality is far more complex than we give it credit for.
Still feeling confused? Ahead, queer sex educators share tips for exploring your sexuality and the labels you use for it. Then, 15 people explain how they came to realize their own sexuality, labels or not.
What If I’m Unsure Whether Or Not I Identify As A Lesbian?
1. Do a deep dive on definitions
“Anytime that you are venturing into something new, it's always best to educate yourself,” says Stewart. As far as labels are considered, that means taking time to understand what lesbian means, and also what some other sexuality and gender terms mean. You might, for example, read this explainer on the term "femme" and this explainer on the term "queer." This Human Rights Campaign glossary is another good resource.
2. Surround yourself with LGBT+ people
Spending time with people in the LGBT+ community can help get a better idea of who you are, and who you might be. If it’s accessible to you, Stewart recommends going out to Pride celebrations, hanging out at your local LGBTQ center, and talking to other lesbians about their experiences.
If you have a limited social battery or are COVID-conscious, another option is to listen to a queer podcasts, attend online sexuality trainings, or listen to audiobooks that feature lesbian characters—this will make you feel like you’re in the room with actual LGBT+ peeps.
3. Work with a queer-inclusive mental health professional
A mental health professional can help you create a safe space for exploring your sexuality, according to Stewart. More specifically: You'll want to find a queer-inclusive, LGBT+-informed, affirming therapist.
This expert can give you the tools you need to unpack your own desires, as well as what could be blocking those desires (like internalized homophobia and heterosexism, for instance). “If you’re feeling shame around your sexuality and the labels, they can also help you develop the tools and skills you need to make sure you feel safe and secure as yourself and in your exploration journey,” she says.
4. Go on dates
“You may also want to explore your sexuality with other people,” says Stewart. That could mean going on dates or just exploring hookups.
Both options are totally kosher, according to Stewart, so long as you’re upfront about your expectations. Adding a line to your dating bio like, “looking for experienced cuties to show me the ropes” or “newly out lesbian looking for mentors, mates, and dates” will do the trick.
5. Learn more about lesbian and queer sex
Speaking of having sex… if you’re going to be having sex with someone with a similar gender for the first time, Stewart recommends The Whole Lesbian Sex Book by Felice Newman. Girl Sex by Allison Moon and Queer Sex by Juno Roche are other good options. “Reading up on different kinds of lesbian sex can help you figure out what you need for yourself, as well as exactly how you want to navigate your sexuality in the bedroom.”
6. Don’t be afraid of fluidity
Throughout your lifetime, your sexuality will ebb and flow. “What we wanted 10 years ago may be different than what we want now and that's perfectly okay,” says Stewart. And ditto goes for 10 years from now. Even if you do a label that fits like a glove right now, “keep exploring and being curious about yourself so that you can continue to be fulfilled in the ways that you desire,” she suggests.
7. Remember: you can go forgo labels completely
Whether you're actively exploring your sexuality or not, you never have to label yourself. "We have this ingrained idea that you must choose a label, but that's not necessarily true," says Engle. "The only person who can choose your label—or to have no label, or more than one—is you."
15 People Share How They Came To Terms With Their Sexuality
1. "Women gave me butterflies."
“I read a lot of gay Wattpad smut in middle school, not going to lie. So, I knew something was up, but I suppressed it and thought it was just a ‘kink’ that I had. I confirmed that my interests were more than just a kink when certain women gave me butterflies when they said hi to me in high school! That’s when I was like, ‘Okay, yep, maybe I’m not straight.’” —Grace, 21
2. "I always felt like I was a little more open to exploring than all of my other friends."
“For now, I’ve currently settled on not having a label, but I like using ‘queer’ because I feel like all that really is is ‘not straight’ without trying to define what ‘not straight’ means. I came to that conclusion over quarantine, as a lot of people did, just because I was spending so much time alone thinking, but I had been questioning for a long time. I always felt like I was a little more open to exploring than all of my other friends and always sort of wondered what being with a woman would be like. Looking back after coming to the conclusion that I was ‘not straight,’ I recognized little bits of my childhood that sort of made more sense. Like once I was talking to my parents as a kid and said something like: ‘If people like each other for their personalities, then doesn’t it make more sense to like boys and girls?’” —Sarah, 19
3. "If my subconscious is trying to tell me this..."
“Honestly I thought that maybe I was but what solidified it was having dreams about girls, which started in high school. Eventually, I was like, ‘Okay, mhmm! This is definitely something if my subconscious is trying to tell me this.’ Then, after taking some time and exploring it more, I realized that, yes, I am in fact bi.” —Maddie, 23
4. "The first time I orgasmed was with a girl."
“I went to an all-girls Catholic high school, which wasn’t the best place for me to get to know my sexuality. However, I realized I was gay when I had girl crushes on my soccer team. I was attracted to their personalities as well as their looks. Being physically with a girl for the first time really was an epiphany. I was emotionally connected to women, something I never felt with the countless men I had been with. And the first time I orgasmed was with a girl.” —Julia, 22
5. "I found one of my classmates attractive and I wanted to kiss her."
“When I was 16 and in an all-girls boarding school, II found one of my classmates attractive and wanted to kiss her. That’s when I knew I wasn’t straight and had feelings for different people, not just men. Now, I find myself attracted to charm and personality, and not just the genitals. I do like more assertive personalities who lead, protect, and provide.” —Megumi, 37
6. "I thought it was just a ‘different’ type of friendship."
“Before I became friends with my current girlfriend, I had no idea I was gay—though looking back, a lot of things make more sense now. We knew each other for years before we really hung out and stuff, but as soon as we became close, it became more and more apparent that we liked each other differently than other friends. At first that was really confusing! I thought it was just a ‘different’ type of friendship or different emotions, rather than romantic and queer.” —Alex, 22
7. "I would Google, ‘Am I gay?’ to try to convince myself I wasn’t."
“I’d develop these mini obsessions with women on television or in movies and wouldn’t know if I wanted to be her, be friends with her, or date her. Megan Fox in Transformers, Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Sky High, Alexandra Daddario in Percy Jackson, and Anne Hathaway in Batman were the big crushes. Then, I got to the point where I would Google, ‘Am I gay?’ to try to convince myself I wasn’t. I finally accepted that those feelings and the need to Google, ‘Am I gay?’ probably indicated I was not straight.” —Dakota, 23
8. "I realized I felt 'trapped' when I imagined a future with a man."
“One thing that felt like a lightbulb moment for me was when I realized the difference between dreading and feeling 'trapped' when I imagined a future with a man—and the excited feelings that I had about being with women. Being with men made me wonder if I was just not interested in marriage or monogamy at all. But then I was loving the idea of a domestic life with a woman.” —Fernanda, 22
9. "I struggled with a label until college."
“I had a childhood friend, and by the time we were ending middle school, she and I had a relationship that surpassed friendship. She guided me through discovering my sexuality—or rather, our sexualities—together. I struggled with a label until college. I actually came to college proclaiming I was gay because I was coming out of a relationship with a girl. I didn’t come close to finding a fitting label until I became aware of internalized bi-phobia I was fighting against. I don’t know if bisexual will be how I define myself forever—I actually disfavor labeling myself—but it’s more accurate than the lesbian or straight labels I used to restrict my soul under.” —Michaela, 20
10. "My Barbies had girl-on-girl orgies."
“I convinced myself I was straight until my mid-twenties. I finally started to feel empowered in my queerness when I realized I've explored that part of myself throughout my entire life, especially remembering my Barbies had girl-on-girl orgies. This wasn’t something new for me, but rather a realization of my true self.” —Melissa, 38
11. "I never really was interested in dating boys."
“I identify as gay now, and my journey to discovering it was probably typical to other suburban girls. I always had thoughts about being with girls, and I never really was interested in dating boys—but I just assumed that all girls thought about dating girls and that they just ignored it and dated boys instead. I even remember Googling, 'Does wanting to kiss girls make me gay?’ All throughout high school, I dated boys but kissed girls at parties when it was acceptable. When I went to college, I had a class with a girl I was really attracted to, and it just kind of clicked to me that I didn’t want to pretend anymore that I didn’t have these feelings. At first I thought I was bisexual, because I still had this compulsory heterosexuality, but after having some conversations with friends plus being with my first female partner, I realized I don’t feel the same way about men as I do about women.” —Kelly, 22
12. "If I had to pinpoint something, that would be the first time my heart fluttered when I spoke to a girl."
“Coming to terms with my sexuality has definitely been a challenge, and it's an ongoing process. I don't believe there was one specific moment when I learned I was bisexual. I remember being 11 years old and thinking girls were pretty, and then as I got older and had more life experience, I developed crushes on girls. I think if I had to pinpoint something, that would be the first time my heart fluttered when I spoke to a girl. I've never been in love, but I knew it was more than friendship.” —Annie, 19
13. “I played on a women’s rugby team.”
“It’d be untrue to say that everyone on a women’s rugby team is a lesbian, but on my college team, the majority were. It didn’t occur that I may be one of lesbians on the team until a night of drunken debauchery led to all of us making out with each other. I woke up the next morning and knew it was something I wanted to keep trying sober.” —Cameron, 26
14. “She asked me if I wanted to kiss her and I did.”
“I wasn’t someone who was straight until she was gay… I was someone who was non-sexual until she was sexually attracted to one particular girl. Growing up, I never had crushes on boys or felt drawn to boys. But I was never actively aware that I had crushes on girls either. So what changed? One night when I was 18, my high school best friend (another girl) was sleeping over. While we were in bed, she started rubbing my back and asked if I’d ever considered kissing her. Immediately, I knew with my entire body that I wanted to kiss her. I’ve only been with other girl’s since and use the word gay.”—Gabriella, 27
15. “I just knew.”
“I wish there had been some big sexual awakening, but there wasn’t. As early as elementary school I knew that I was drawn to other girls in a way other girls were not. But it was confirmed in middle school I saw myself in the queer story lines of TV shows like South of Nowhere and Degrassi. Actually, I game out as gay by telling my Mom that I was just like Spencer from South of Nowhere…”. —Hannah, 26
Madeline Howard is a writer, editor, and creative based in Brooklyn. Her work has been published in Esquire, Nylon, Cosmopolitan, and more. Among other things, she was formerly an editor at Women’s Health. Subscribe to her newsletter ‘hey howie’ at madelinehoward.substack.com.