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In January of 2018, a Tumblr user with the handle @cyberlesbian posted a public Google document on her blog. Titled “Am I a Lesbian?,” the 30-page text offered a road map for women questioning their sexual identities, broken down in sections with labels like “Conflicting Feelings about Men” and “Attraction Vs. Compulsory Heterosexuality.” Appropriately for a text that originated on Tumblr, “Am I a Lesbian?” reads like a blog post, not a scientific paper; it’s rife with bulleted lists, inconsistent capitalization, and conversational asides.
In the years since it was first posted, the “Am I a Lesbian?” doc has become something of a cult classic on the lesbian internet, although its author, Angeli Luz, has until now been mostly anonymous. The Tumblr post in which Luz shared the document has received more than 30,000 notes, although the original link to the Google doc no longer works. (When you click on it, you get an error message saying it’s been taken down for violating their terms of service, but the specific violation is unclear.) Copies are shared daily on Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit, and a whole contingent of mostly young women credit Luz—though seldom by name, since it doesn’t appear on the document—with helping them come to terms with their homosexuality.
While the prevailing “born this way” narrative of orientation suggests that everyone knows whether they’re gay, straight, or bisexual from an early age, it’s not always that simple when we are overwhelmingly socialized to be heterosexual. Influences from church to Disney movies to car commercials weave heterosexual fantasies into every part of life. When a relationship with a man is portrayed as the ultimate goal of every woman’s life, and women are sexually objectified in every form of media, it can be difficult to recognize genuine attraction. “Am I a Lesbian?” began as one woman’s attempt to distinguish between orientation and conditioning; now, two and a half years later, it’s clear that Luz spoke for more people than just herself.
Luz, now 21, told VICE via email that the “Am I a Lesbian?” document emerged from her own journey of self-discovery. “I realized I loved women when I was a teenager, but I never quite knew if my attraction for men was real or a social construct I took in as a facet of my identity,” she said. “I started researching compulsory heterosexuality and found that many lesbians had the same experiences I did. I created the document as a tool of self-reflection for myself and others.”
Women are taught from a very early age that making men happy is our job. We’re supposed to be pretty for men, we’re supposed to change the way we talk so men will take us more seriously, we’re supposed to want a man’s love more than anything else. Our magazines are full of sex tips on how to better please men, our movies are about how we’re supposed to fall in love with men. We literally cannot exist in public without men loudly grading us on how well we’re pleasing them visually.
So… what happens if you want to be with women? What happens if you’re not attracted to men at all? When you’re trained from childhood to see romantic/sexual relationships with men - and only men - as major life goals, how do you separate that from what you want?
In the document, which she said took her two days to compose, Luz analyzes ways compulsory heterosexuality—a term first popularized by Adrienne Rich that refers to the pervasive cultural expectation that women be attracted to men—might present itself, such as “the assumption that any feelings that you have towards a man MUST be attraction” or “only developing attraction to a guy after a female friend expresses attraction to him.” The penultimate section of the document, “You might be a lesbian if TL;DR,” is a checklist of signs that a woman’s attraction to men might be social conditioning rather than an innate part of her sexual identity.
“I came out as bisexual when I was 18,” Rachel T., now 23, told VICE. (All the women interviewed for this article opted not to share their full names for privacy reasons.) She’d known for years that she was attracted to women. By 2019, however, she was questioning whether she was truly attracted to men as well, or simply assumed she was. Rachel found that many of the experiences described in the doc resonated with her, including “reading a desire to be attractive to men as attraction to them” and “dreading what feels like an inevitable domestic future with a man.” “I am a lesbian,” she said she finally decided. “The ‘Am I a Lesbian?’ doc confirmed it for me.’”
Grace, 21, also found the document revealing when she discovered it last year. “I think when I was first going through puberty, I kinda took my attraction to men as a done deal, like, Of course I like guys, why wouldn't I? And I like women too, so the bisexual label was the one I was most comfortable with,” she said. But in college, Grace started questioning whether she was really as attracted to men as she’d assumed. “I think coming across the doc was the final push for me to stop using [the bisexual label] for myself, because it hadn't felt right for a while.”
The doc doesn’t offer a 10-question quiz promising to define your sexuality once and for all; instead, “Am I a Lesbian?” describes experiences shared by some but not all lesbians, and offers possible explanations. “You CAN be a lesbian,” Luz writes, and later, “If you come to the conclusion that you are not a lesbian eventually, that’s okay too.” The document explores nuanced, confusing, and even contradictory feelings about men. “It works pretty well to assess a situation, but it still gives you leeway to draw your own conclusions from it,” Grace said.
Attraction is super complicated. It’s possible to recognize a man IS attractive but not be attracted TO him. Attraction is often coerced by societal conditioning and some lesbians have hypothetical attraction to men due to compulsory heterosexuality. But we don’t want to actually date or have sex with a man ever. Allowing people to identify based on where they are willing to put their romantic and sexual energy is more powerful and gives people agency.
Luz points out in “Am I a Lesbian?” that the common narrative of homosexuality as something intrinsic and undeniable is not always true, especially given the overwhelming cultural reinforcement of straightness. She also emphasizes that women who have previously had relationships with men can also claim lesbianism. “If you don’t care about men or would no longer like to be with them, you can be a lesbian now. It’s a ‘now’ identity—it matters how you feel now!” In a way, the Google doc feels like someone holding open a door. You can come inside, look around, and stay as long as you like—you won’t ever be kicked out, nor will you be trapped inside. Its easygoing tone is part of the reason so many have read and shared it, as is its inclusivity toward trans and non-binary lesbians.
There’s also something weirdly appealing about the document’s ramshackle format. Luz doesn’t include citations aside from a list of lesbian Tumblrs (most of them now defunct) that inspired her writing, but she says she read personal accounts from many lesbians to produce as exhaustive as possible a description of the ways in which compulsory heterosexuality manifests in gay women’s lives. Perhaps as a result of that thoroughness, “Am I a Lesbian?” is longer than it probably needs to be, meandering and circling back on topics already covered. It doesn’t demand to be read straight through; it’s perfect for skimming, dipping in and out, finding new points to contemplate. This may explain why many readers say they return to the doc regularly, like they are checking in on an old friend. As I write this, seven people are viewing the doc.
Of course, not everyone loves Luz’s work. The fact that it openly includes trans and non-binary lesbians is certainly part of its appeal for most readers, but has drawn criticism from the trans-exclusionary fringe; meanwhile, some lesbians simply don’t relate to it. Then there are those who worry they might relate too much. Rachel C., age 27, who hasn’t read the doc yet, said, “I’ve ID’d as bi for, like, five or more years now, and am too stressed about having to go through another coming out to read the doc and have it (potentially) resonate.” Still, she has the name of the doc memorized in case she wants to track it down and read it.
Luz herself was unaware how widely “Am I a Lesbian?” had spread until recently. “I didn’t even realize its impact until the beginning of this year when I saw it kept circulating over the internet,” she said. “I feel like it continues to resonate with others because it’s really difficult to figure out if our attraction for men is real or not. It’s difficult to tell what’s really us and what’s been fed to us. It makes me really happy that [the doc has] helped so many questioning lesbians.”
Lindsay King-Miller is the author of Ask a Queer Chick: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life for Girls Who Dig Girls. Follow her on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.