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Gay, lesbian, sapphic, wlw: Defining female homosexuality in English and Italian

Happy 2023 to the amazing IGALA community!

We are back after a few months break from our blog posts with the first post of 2023. Below you can read about terminology related to female homosexuality with a focus on Italian and English, a post written by Alessia Battista.

Alessia is a second-year doctoral candidate in “Euro(pean) Languages and Specialized Terminologies”at the ‘Parthenope’ University of Naples, in Italy. Her research interests focus on English sociolinguistics, media analysis, terminology, corpus linguistics and critical discourse analysis. If you want to know more about Alessia’s research you can visit her personal pages here and here.

We aim at publishing posts on our IGALA blog regularly, if you want to share your research or thoughts about any language, gender and sexuality-related topics drop an email at

Enjoy the read!

Gay, lesbian, sapphic, wlw: Defining female homosexuality in English and Italian

By Alessia Battista

Over the years, people have been trying to find more comprehensive labels to describe their gender and sexuality, to find a word that could ‘legitimise’ their identities or position themselves into a specific community. I first started exploring gender-related issues when writing my MA dissertation, which was about being butch, and included a questionnaire aiming at understanding the extent to which the word ‘butch’ was known in Italy and how it was described (Battista, 2021). However, the questionnaire brought to the surface various other terms related to female homosexuality, which were deemed as controversial. With this post, I’ll try to discuss some of the reasons why they were defined as such, also introducing some of the ideas that convinced me of the importance of this topic. The terms I will be briefly analysing are gay, lesbian, sapphic, wlw.

The term gay may be regarded as a neutral umbrella term for anyone who is attracted by people of their same gender. Originated as a term for men attracted to other men, it has been more and more welcomed by the LGBTIQ+ community as opposed to homosexual, which would seem to carry more ‘deviant’ connotations and may be perceived as offensive (Rios, 2013). What is more, while gay is sometimes used to refer to female homosexuality, at least three terms can be used exclusively for it: lesbian, wlw, sapphic.

The term lesbian (lesbica in Italian) is only sometimes the preferred one (GLAAD, n.d.). When this is the case, the aim could be that of giving women attracted to women their own visibility, without being overshadowed by generic terms like gay and homosexual, thus fighting the so-called ‘lesbian erasure’, reclaiming the use of lesbian with neutral (rather than negative) connotations, and out of the realm of male pleasure and desire, or male gaze (Dipartimento per le Pari Opportunità, 2016). Nevertheless, some women have decided to shift to gay due to the stigma revolving around the word lesbian. Demonised during the Second Wave Feminism (1960s-1980s), when it mainly referred to middle-class activists who discriminated against working-class butches and femmes, and accused the former of appropriating male privileges and the latter of accepting patriarchy and the objectification of women (Levitt & Hiestand, 2004; Moses, 2000), lesbian came to be used for supposedly misandric, communist protesters who aimed at destabilising society with their revolutionary/subversive/immoral beliefs. While the sociocultural and historical contexts have been changing, at least in some areas of the world, lesbian can still be a problematic word, which resuscitates the old stigma and would seem to be representing lesbians as an object for male pleasure. What is more, some users on websites like Urban Dictionary or Reddit, which allow people to freely share their views in the safety of anonymity, consider the term lesbian to be limitative or not always appropriate, since it is generally considered to only include cisgender women attracted to cisgender women, which would exclude bisexual/pansexual women or even non-binary people.

Further options could be wlw, literally ‘woman-loving-woman’, which refers to romantic/sexual attraction involving two women or women-aligned individuals, or sapphic, which originated as a word to describe representations of lesbians in art, particularly in the classic age, although some see it as subject to the male gaze as much as lesbian is. However, there is little consensus about who should be entitled to use these terms. As a matter of fact, while some people maintain that wlw should only apply to cisgender women, others believe that it is a rather broad term, also comprising non-binary or genderfluid individuals attracted to anyone who was assigned female at birth, thus regardless of their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. Therefore, some of the respondents to the abovementioned questionnaire suggest sapphic as the most inclusive term: it does recall the idea of feminine love, but without mentioning the word ‘woman’, so it functions as a sort of hypernym also comprising lesbian and wlw, since it broadly refers to anyone who is not a man and who is attracted to anyone who is not a man.

The core issue, then, would seem to be the following: who is a woman? What is the difference, if any, between ‘woman’ and ‘female’? If, on the one hand, ‘woman’ is to ‘female’ what ‘gender’ is to ‘sex’ (see Butler, 1990, 1993, 2004 for more details), on the other hand, according to a more conservative view, social gender and biological sex always match (see also ‘gender ideology’ or ‘anti-gender movement’ in Borba, 2022 and Corredor, 2019). This controversy, raging in public demonstrations and on social media, is a phenomenon worth investigating: not only is it interesting from a terminological point of view, since it is debated whether gender-related terms will ever reach the stage of standardisation, and whether we -as a society- really need such a wide range of terms for an equally wide range of sexual orientations and gender identities, but it is also a delicate social issue, rapidly evolving before our eyes. What is more, this preliminary questionnaire, which was administered to Italian people living in Italy and aged 18-30, also brought to light an interesting yet not surprising phenomenon: the use of English words and the lack of Italian equivalents (made exception for lesbian/lesbica).

To bring this initial research forward, I am planning to continue my analysis in order to get a deeper insight into the world of female homosexuality. I will do so by building a corpus based on direct, anonymous accounts shared by people on social network, such as Reddit, and comparing it with the data emerging from a new questionnaire to be administered to Italian and US American young adults. More specifically, the idea is to collect people’s thoughts and personal definitions of the above-mentioned terms, and to analyse them through a Critical Discourse Analysis (see Fairclough, 1989; Van Dijk, 1993; Weiss & Wodak, 2003). This approach will allow me to contextualise the use of this terminology within the Italian and US context, with the aim of better understanding how the various terms related to female homosexuality are considered and used in two different linguistic and sociocultural contexts.


Battista, A. 2021. Oltre il binarismo di genere: Analisi dell’identità butch [Unpublished master’s thesis]. Università degli Studi di Napoli “Suor Orsola Benincasa”.

Borba, R., 2022. Enregistering “gender ideology”: The emergence and circulation of a transnational anti-gender language. Journal of Language and Sexuality, 11(1), pp.57-79.

Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London, Routledge.

Butler, J. 1993. Bodies that Matter: on the Discursive Limits of "Sex". New York, Routledge.

Butler, J. 2004. Undoing Gender. New York, Routledge.

Dipartimento per le Pari Opportunità, “Linee guida per un’informazione rispettosa delle persone LGBT”, Last accessed June 5, 2022.

Corredor, E. S. 2019. Unpacking “Gender Ideology” and the Global Right’s Antigender Countermovement. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 44(3), pp. 613-638.

Fairclough, N. 1989. Language and Power. Longman

GLAAD, n.d., GLAAD Media Reference Guide - 11th Edition, Last accessed June 25, 2022.

Levitt, H.M., Hiestand, K.R. 2004. “A Quest for Authenticity: Contemporary Butch Gender”, Sex Roles, L (2004), 9-10, pp. 605-621.

McFarland Bruce, K. 2016. Pride Parades – How a Parade Changed the World. New York University Press.

Moses, C. 2000. Dissenting Fictions - Identity and Resistance in the Contemporary American Novel. New York, Routledge.

“Pride: What Is It And Why Do People Celebrate It?”, 2022, BBC UK,

Reddit, n.d.-a, r/actuallesbians, Last accessed June 25, 2022.

Reddit, n.d.-b, r/AskLGBT, Last accessed June 25, 2022.

sapphic, 2022, Urban Dictionary, Last accessed June 5, 2022.

Stephenson, M. “Why is ‘lesbian’ still a dirty word?”, Varsity, 2022, Last accessed 25 June 2022.

Rios, L. “Right-wing authoritarianism predicts prejudice against ‘homosexuals’ but not ‘gay men and lesbians’”, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2013,

Urban Dictionary, n.d.-a, lesbian, Last accessed June 25, 2022.

Urban Dictionary, n.d.-b, wlw, Last accessed June 25, 2022.

Van Dijk, T. 1993. Principles of critical discourse analysis. Discourse and Society 4(2): 249–283.

Weiss G. & Wodak R. 2003. Critical Discourse Analysis: Theory and Interdisciplinarity. Palgrave Macmillan.

Photo description:

Community lesbian pride flag, designed in 2018 in an attempt to represent all aspects of lesbianism in five stripes (from top to bottom: transgressive womanhood; community; gender non-conformity; freedom; love), acknowledging and embracing the diversity of people and their individual experiences.


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