There is a question, or probably more accurately, statements of facts on Twitter around whether or not lesbian as a term and lesbian as an identity is trans inclusive, and whether or not there is such a thing as bi lesbians, given especially that lesbian has roots with the island of Lesbos and that Sappho had sexual and romantic relationships with both men and women. It is an argument where people frequently bludgeon each other over. The question and answer tend to be very place, language and context specific because lesbians do not have a universal history, nor universal experiences and do not have a universal language where terms are translated 1:1 across all languages and cultures.
This is a Spanish take on that issue. To give a relatively short answer, lesbian in Spain can include women who love women and some women who love women but also sometimes currently love men while maintaining a lesbian identity. There is no concept in Spain of “lesbiana bi” or “bi lesbiana”. This appears to be something confined to Anglo-Saxon countries in English speaking parts. I’ve searched academic papers and media references in multiple Spanish speaking resources, and if the term was being used in places like Mexico, Chile, Argentina or Equatorial Guinea, I’d expect to find references to it but they aren’t there. Bollera/o is more likely to include this concept, but separate issue as it translates more closely to dyke and that isn’t the term being discussed. Anyway, many Spanish lesbians have had sexual or romantic experiences with men, most before they either came out of the closet, before they realized they were homosexuals or before they made a choice to be political lesbians in the sense of being heterosexual or bisexuals who intentionally opt out of what they view as oppressive heterosexual and patriarchal sexuality. The latter group are the smallest. It is accepted, but for lesbians who currently identify as lesbians, there is often the expectation that men are being actively excluded from lesbianism, and lesbians, even lesbians in Spanish queer spaces, make silent choices to leave transwomen out of their sexuality by not dating them and leaving dating areas where transwomen are in large numbers with an expectation of being targets of romantic and sexual interest by women who love women. It just is not spoken about loudly to avoid accusations of transphobia, following a historic Spanish pattern of women who love women surviving potential male encroachment into their sexuality by intentionally becoming invisible. But yes, lesbiana in Spain can include bisexual and heterosexual females in some limited cases in current usage. Most don’t chose that label though as lesbiana is a loaded term, and one many women who love women are often still reticent to use to describe themselves. That’s the short answer.
The long answer is that lesbo in Spanish does trace its etymological roots to Sappho and the island of Lesbos. This is not disputed. It has been that way for probably over a thousand years, but there isn’t a huge amount of linguistic discussion on the use of lesbiana, lesbo, sáfico dating that far back as females who had sex with other females were described as female sodomites.
Moving on to more modern etymological and definitional uses and discussions around identity…
tortillera, the Spanish language equivalent to dyke, had appeared in the Spanish speaking world by the late 1820s. Emerging first in Latin America, it almost certainly was a derivative of the word tortus, meaning twisted or one-eyed. The word’s origins and usage were closely tied into expressions of homophobia in Spain, and would later be adopted by the broader homosexual community in Spain in a similar way that queer had been repurposed by English speaking lesbians, gays and bisexuals.
During the 1850s in Spain, the use of the word lesbiana was considered inappropriate. Attempts were to ban the publishing of Charles Baudelaire’s 1857 compilations of Sappho’s poems titled, “Las Lesbianas” because it was considered pornographic and against public morals. This despite the fact that the work was intended to try to recover the works in Spanish from Greek antiquity and was done by a male writer.
While the word lesbiana had entered the Spanish language by 1870 and was interchangeable with “sáfica” y “sadismo”, it was not a word that lesbians in this period in Madrid could safely use in Madrid society to describe themselves. Hence, the word Sapphic was used instead; it gave credibility because it drew on the historical works of a well-known Greek writer.
Language around lesbians continued to evolve in this period, picking up speed compared to earlier periods. The definition of marimacho remained unchanged from its initial inclusion until 1884, the same year that word lesbio would appear for the first time in the Diccionario de la lengua española, where lesbio was defined as “homosexual woman”. lesbiana for the first time appears to have been defined in 1884 in the Autoridades as an adjective with two endings. It had been preceded in its inclusion by marimacho and machorra in 1734, which were adjectives used to define men who look like women and women who look like men and both used in a derogatory sense.
Borrowing from the English word invert, invertida had begun to be used in Spain by 1897 at a time when homosexuality continued to be pathologized as unnatural and sexually deviant. By the end of the 19th century, desviada had entered the Spanish vocabulary to refer to Spanish homosexuals with a meaning of sexual deviant. Tríbada had begun to be defined around its modern usage to mean lesbian in the context of female homosexual in this same period.
The Suplemento al DRAE de 1970 included lesbiana with a definition of lesbiana as a feminine homosexual woman, the first time word was defined as a noun and as homosexual woman. This changed was big in the sense that the DRAE had not changed the definition since 1887. The definition was also external though, one that’s usage was being applied to others and not to themselves.
The word lesbiana continued to be stigmatized in the transition. A number of women in exclusive long-term relationships with other women refused to use the word as a form of identity to avoid the stigma. Feminists too often wanted to avoid the “contagion of stigma” and would try to make sure they were not associated with lesbians. When lesbians talked about lesbianism in Bilbao in this period, it was about how they were treated as if they did exist. Lesbians did not really have a word, lesbian, in which they could describe themselves socially and without stigma. This was a problem elsewhere too. Col.lectiu de Lesbianes de Barcelona (CLB) militants tried to vindicate the use of the word lesbiana during the early 1980s as the term was then very loaded and had a pejorative meaning. That makes the fact that Empar Pineda becoming the first lesbian to use the word to identify herself as such in an interview with Interviú magazine in 1980 important as it related to destigmatization of the word and lesbians in general.
Lesbian concepts of self-identity began to change. By 1982, neither lesbians nor gay men had core identities of homosexuals, believing that this word was used by outsiders to define them medically in ways they did not agree with, giving it a derogatory connotation in Spanish society. Both groups had shifted to sex specific terminology, namely lesbians and gays. The closest Spanish equivalent for queer, marika, was not used at this time and the concept of queer was not and would core to Spanish homosexual identity for some time. Lesbian internal identity continued to hold on to the past, with the use of femme and butch identities continuing. Despite some changes in internal identity, external identity and use of the word lesbiana continued to be shaped by the church, politicians and medical professionals, creating additional stigmatization for lesbians. They could not take their newly formed identity out and be accepted without facing challenges from these entrenched powers.
During the early 1980s, lesbians often rejected lesbian as an identity. Rather they were women who were sexually and romantically affective towards other women who wanted to be free of persecution and to be accepted for who they were. Many activists rejected labels like lesbiana, but needed to deploy those labels in order to advance their own collective causes.
Lesbian continued to be problematic as a label and identity in some parts of Spain and for some generations of lesbians. The term lesbiana was not used in Vitoria in the 1980s and mid-1990s. It took a lot of effort by lesbians in the city to get the word to be used regularly to describe them. This pattern would continue into the 2020s, and its use in self-labeling would often depend heavily on how lesbians situated themselves in culture and as activists, with certain groups avoiding the word and its association.
The Diccionario de la lengua española finally included the word lesbiana for the first time in 1984. The word continued to be defined until 1989, before being removed for a few years.
Inside the feminist movement, lesbians often had issues with how the word woman/mujer was used in the late 1980s, seeing its usage as largely meaning heterosexual female and often having homophobic tones with the only way to approach female sexuality as being from a heterosexual perspective. They wanted a broader definition of the use of the word woman. This happened to coincide with the first steps by transwoman into official state feminist activities, with both issues accelerating while the homosexual rights movement in Spain became increasingly misogynistic.
bollera first appeared in the Diccionario de la lengua española in 1989. It is defined as a word used to describe lesbians. It would not be until 2001 where the vulgar nature of the word is added to the definitions.
In the late 1990s, the concept of bisexual identity began to develop for the first time and the label began to be used by some women. The bisexual label though was one that would be used timidly and not very widely, even among women who loved both men and women.
The term queer appeared for the first time in Spain in 1993 in issue number 3 of the magazine De un Plume produced by the grupo LRG. It was used again by Lesbianas Sin Duda in their 1994 fanzine Non Grata in the phrase, “yo soy queer, soy diferente”.
There was a generational gap in the lesbian culture in this period that existed in cities like Vitoria in the Basque Country until around 2000 and 2001. This was because following the end of the dictatorship, it had been increasingly easier for young lesbians to identify as lesbians and to feel they had full rights as citizens. They did not need to fight for these things as they already existed. This could make older lesbians feel disconnected from younger lesbians as they did not have the same shared experience.
Bollero and bollera had their definitions modified in the 2001 edition of the Diccionario de uso. For the first time, the definition included two meanings, lesbian which went from being marked as vulgar to derogatory, and as a person who makes buns. When the 23rd edition of the DRAE was released, these changes were also updated for bollero and bollera, being marked as derogatory, colloquial and profanity.
In the 2001 edition of Diccionario de la lengua española, tortlero is for the first time defined as being a derogatory term, instead of just defining it lesbiana. It is also the first time that tortlero is indicated as a word used to describe lesbians and not just, as it had been exclusively defined since 1927, one who makes tortillas.
Was lesbiana redefined by radical feminists and lesbian separatists in a Spanish context? No, never. Is bi lesbiana or lesbiana bi a concept that exists in Castilian Spanish? Nope, because Spain has other terms that can nominally be used instead, some of which have been flexible enough to allow for the inclusion of transwomen in some cases but lesbiana is not that term. That Spanish women use lesbiana in relation to themselves is amazing in any sense given the historic vulgar and pejorative usage of it applied to the term. It is important to remember that words around female sexuality always have a language, cultural and historical context and that can’t be removed from a discussion. Statements about the meanings of these words need qualifiers.