To be gold is to gleam or shine or glow. It is to come in first; to be the best. It is sometimes a discovery, something you go searching for, striking rich when you find it. This could be behind the idea that a gold star lesbian would somehow be above or better than a non-gold star. Consider this exchange from The L Word:
Carmen: You’re just jealous because my girlfriend and I are two gold stars that have found each other.
The etymology of the term “gold star” as it pertains to queer women isn’t quite clear. Sometime, likely in more recent memory, it was decided that the term for a woman who has never slept with a man but sleeps with women is a “gold star lesbian.” It might have to do with the idea that some would still consider lesbians “virgins” if they had not had a penis inside of them, and the need for a term to refer to themselves as something else, something they created for themselves, arose.
Pop culture has, of course, popularized the term. In the Season 1 premiere of A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, two of the show’s reality show contestants discussed “star rankings,” as lesbian contestant Steffanie explains that a “silver star lesbian attempted to” have sex with a man “and didn’t have a damn good time,” so it was then she knew she was queer. Apparently “platinum stars” exist as well.
AE contributor Lindsay King-Miller writes in Ask a Queer Chick: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life for Girls Who Dig Girls writes:
When you refer to a lesbian who has never had sex with a man as a “gold star lesbian,” you are not just implying but stating outright that people who have had different-gender sexual encounters are worse at being gay than people who haven’t. That sucks. You’re shaming people who took longer than you did to figure out their orientation, or who tried to make it work with the opposite gender because they were worried about being discriminated against, persecuted, and alienated from their families and communities.
Pride.com’s reasons they want the phrase “to die” includes that it perpetuates biphobia and transphobia. A writer at Tagg Magazine sees gold stars as “awards” given, and perhaps those who have slept with not just women deserve them more:
Gold stars should be awarded to the lesbians or queer people who have had sex with ten (arbitrarily chosen number) men and then started dating only womyn. That is perseverance.
Having sex or not having sex is not something you should get an award for, despite the pressures from a society that is hyper-sexual and gives more publicity to sex tapes and revenge porn than more nuanced takes on sexuality and sexual identity, much less necessary conversations about sexual assault and sexual violence. That aside, it does appear that the phrase itself is what is upsetting to those who are offended by the inference that being a gold star is somehow “better,” despite its original intended meaning being “a woman who has only had sex with women.” Were the term something else entirely—say, a made up word like “schmoople”—perhaps it’d be seen as less offensive.
In the past, I’ve generally used the term “gold star” to refer to myself, and only in that it meant I have only slept with people who identify as women. It doesn’t come up a lot, but when it does, it isn’t because I’m ranking myself amidst a group of other queers. The last time it came up in conversation was, in fact, a discussion on sexual identity and how much the physical act of sex has to do with it.
When I asked a few friends about the perception of this term, there were varying perspectives. One who identifies as a lesbian but has had sex with men in the past sees it as non-offensive, but also thinks it means a lesbian who hasn’t done anything sexual with a man, ever (aka reaching bases one, two or three, much less a “homerun.”) A genderqueer bisexual pal noted that she thinks it insinuates gold star lesbians are more privileged, because they knew and embraced who they were sooner than those who may have come out later in life.
Clearly, this is multi-layered, and there is not one solid definition and meaning of the term, which then causes a lot of hurt, eye rolling and ultimate distaste for it. Like any other label—lesbian included—it is more about the intention and identity of the individual using the word than the word’s existence in general.
What does it even mean to be “more” or “less” lesbian? I know many lesbian-identified women who have slept with men or non-female identified people, and they are no less lesbian than I am. Lesbianism is not highly valued in this patriarchal existence, so any attempt (not matter how misguided) to discuss gold star lesbians as in any way “better” than non-gold stars is curious. It’s similar to how bisexual, pansexual or queer-identified women who do not appreciate being told they hold more privilege when they are in a perceived heterosexual pairing. The way that others see your identity often has little with how you claim it for yourself.
Gold star lesbians will always be on the receiving end of asinine questions like, “Well how do you know you’re a lesbian if you’ve never tried it with a guy?” or insinuations that they are men hating feminazis who must have been sexually abused or saddled with deep daddy issues. Again, these are all ideas that the outside world has placed on a political and personal identity that they have not experienced for themselves.
So is the phrase “gold star lesbian” something we should remove from our vernacular? Consider this another friend offered me:
“Considering I’m not one, it means a group of lesbians that I will never be a part of. I think nowadays that phrase is going to be obsolete. Gold star lesbians are few and far between. Lucky you.”
If the connotation is that gold stars are somehow a “lucky” minority unattainable by most queer women, then perhaps it’s time to retire it and come up with something else that describes what it was meant to in its palest form, no award status attached.