Language

An introduction to the history and usage of lesbian and lesbian adjacent terms in Spanish, Valencian and Galician.

Roman and Gothic Hispania (200 – 711)

Since the Visigoth period, the understanding of Spanish texts around male and female homosexual behavior had been more easily understood than some languages because of the gendered nature of the Spanish language.[1]

Lesbianism was particularly common inside harems in Moorish Spain, especially in the later periods where relationships between Muslims and Christians were more common.  Words used to describe female same sex behavior included sahq, sihaq or sihaqa which are approximate to lesbianism and sahiqa, sahhaqa or musahiqa which were approximate to lesbian in Arabic of that period. [2]

Reconquista (711 – 1492)

Galician as a distinct language had emerged by the 700s, emerging in this period from Latin.  For the next few hundred years, it would sporadically and inadvertently show up in Latin texts produced in Galicia as people confused the local vernacular with official Latin.  The growth of the Galician language would play an important role in the medieval lesbian writings later in this period.

Language around lesbians continued to evolve slowly and in non-specific ways. By 1160, the word virago had become a part of the Spanish vocabulary, derived from a Latin word meaning heroine, but implying a woman who desires other women.[3]

Starting in the 1200s and continuing for another 300 years, the Galician language becomes the language of same-sex female desire.  Over half of all twenty known references to female homosexual desire in the whole of Europe in this period are found in Galician texts.[4]

The Fuero de Soria was written in 1256 with the creating of the town of Soria by Alfonso X. Other town covenants were also being created in the same era as Alfonso gave them recognition. A lack of precision in language at the time around homosexuality led to a variety of phrases being used including “fotudo īculo”, “ffudiduncul”, “fududancua” and “fi jo de fodido in culo” by towns making creating laws to outlaw sodomy and homosexuality.  The nature of these uses almost always implied illegality of male homosexuality, with a need for men to pay a fine if found guilty of the offense; vocabulary around similar female sexual activities was even lacking as female sexuality was generally not considered at all as a result of the patriarchal norms of the time. [5]

Hapsburg Spain (1516 – 1700)

The word tríbada, a poetic form of the word lesbian, was first used in Italy in 1538, and had migrated to the Spanish language by 1611, appearing in the Supplement to Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española. The word was defined as marimacho, tomboy in English.[6]

During the Inquisition in the 1500s, lesbians rarely were charged for female sodomy because the nature of their sodomy was viewed as less problematic than that of men.  It may have been the case that instead of charging suspected lesbians with female sodomy, the Inqusition instead charged these women with prostitution.  One word used in Inquisitorial documents to describe prostitutes of a certain level was dama cortesana.[7]

At the Inquisition Court in Zaragoza, women were not viewed as being able to commit sodomy without the use of some other object.  Therefore, the Tribunal needed other words with which to apply to women having sex with women, opting for phrases like casi sodomía[8], sodomía imperfecta[9] or molicies instead.  Female masturbation was less of an issue, and could be left off with a reprimand instead.  It was penetrative acts between women which were the major issue, and all the acts around it were often recorded in Inquisition records.  It was in those fine details that the punishment would be determined.  Things like if money was given or received, if participants were passive during the act, if there was friendship, touching and kissing involved could all dictate the type of sentence.

The Santo Tribunal de Llerena referred to same-sex sexual activities in their records as vicio nefando and sodomía. The court understood sodomy as the physical act of two people of the same sex having sexual intercourse, and included both women having sex with men and women having sex with women.  There was often a struggle in this period as to who had competency to try sodomy related charges brought before the Inquisition, with both the  civil and ecclesiastical courts claiming jurisdiction. tribada was the primary word used to describe lesbians for almost three centuries from the 16th to 18th centuries in Europe, and mostly in French literature with only sporadic usage in Spanish.  Its use was described by abbot and lord of Brantôme Pierre de Bourdeille in the 16th century in his 1587 work, Memoirs.  The word was derived from a similar Greek word and meant “to rub”, as in lesbians rubbing their lower halves against each other.

In the 1600s, most of the language used to describe female homoerotic behavior was described in heterosexual terms and from the male point of view. Writing in language of this kind was very typical in Inquisition documents related to alleged female sodomites.

An example of such wording comes from Miguel Ochoa, the mayor of San Sebastián. Appearing as a witness before the Inquisition, he described what he saw between Catalina de Belunza and Mariche de Oyarzun saying, “They used one as a woman, lying on a bed naked and frolicking and kissing and fucking one to the other, climbing on top of their naked bellies, passing and facing one another with one positioned to know the other carnally.”[10]

In 1611, the word marimacho, a derogatory term for masculine looking women, appeared in a handwritten supplement of the Sebastián Covarrubias’ Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española. It defined marimacho as “This name has been the vulgar one to the spirited and developed women that seems to have wanted the nature to make them men, but in the sex, at least in the facility”. The definition references the Greek myth about Hercules and Omphale, where Omphale made her slave and lover Hercules effeminate and forced him to wear women’s clothing while she dominated him as a matriarch in the skin of a male. The word appears to have roots in María, macho and the Latin word masculus. The word implied that such women were unnatural because their interests, activities and abilities fell into the exclusive domain of men. Biological sex was a determinant of these things, and these women fell outside the established biological norms.

Homenenca is a Valencian word that was in use by the 17th century in the writings of Father Mulet, used to mean masculine woman who did not conform to gender stereotypes.  It was sometimes used as a euphemism for lesbian.[11]

In the edition of Las siete partidas with annotations by Gregorio López in 1555, he said that women could be charged with sodomy, “The same crime [sodomy] can be committed by women …. The women who commit said crime should be thrown into the fire, according to the royal decree of the Catholic kings.” He also argued that women who used a dildo should be given death sentences. Elsewhere, López makes clear that female sodomy was less offensive in Spanish law and society than male sodomy. pecado nefando was the legal term of choice in these documents.  Ostensibly referring only to anal sex, it was often used as legal shorthand for any form of male or female homosexuality.[12]

A Spanish-French dictionary defined virago in 1607 as a “virtuous woman who does man’s things”.  At the time, Spanish culture defined being courageous as a masculine trait, and such connotations would later mean this word implied lesbian as lesbians were culturally perceived as being masculine women.[13]

In 1611, the word marimacho, a derogatory term for masculine looking women, appeared in a handwritten supplement of the Sebastián Covarrubias’ Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española.  It defined marimacho as “This name has been the vulgar one to the spirited and developed women that seems to have wanted the nature to make them men, but in the sex, at least in the facility”.  The word implied that such women were unnatural because their interests, activities and abilities fell into the exclusive domain of men.  Biological sex was a determinant of these things, and these women fell outside the established biological norms. [14]

By the late 1600s, Spanish doctors like Fabricio Aqua Pendente recommended ablation of the clitoris and labia to prevent female sodomy / male like sex behavior because large clitorises and labia made women be male in their sexual behavior. Virago by this time was referring to such women and other women with more masculine physiques who also rejected societally constraining sex roles. [15]

Enlightenment Spain (1700 – 1810)

References to words describing female homosexuality were often ignored by Spanish dictionaries, even when such words appeared to be in regular use in society and even when words describing male homosexuality were included.    The first word to appear in the 1734, when machorra appeared in the Diccionario de autoridadesmarimacho first appeared the same year, where it was defined as, “A woman, which in her corpulence and actions looks like a man.” Lack of inclusion and recognition or only derogatory references of words referring to homosexual women would continue for the next 270 years. [16]

The 1739 edition of the the Diccionario de autoridades, which had a dictionary Catholic flavor in some of its definitions as they related to Catholic heresy, defined sodomía as, “Concúbito entre personas de un mismo sexo, ò en vaso indebido.” In this context, Concúbito can be either masculine or neuter, which the edition of people of the same sex clearly indicates the latter. The dictionary definition of sodomy included two women being able to lay with each other. This matched earlier Catholic practices from the Inquisition which allowed women to be charged with sodomy for having sex with other women. The definition remained unchanged in editions of the DRAE issues between 1780 and 1803. The 1787 diccionario Terreros y Pando, which rejected Freemasonry in its approach to definitions but maintains its Catholic orthodoxy in describing the world, varied greatly from the DRAE in defining sodomy, saying it was a, “Dishonest sin against nature, which took its name from the City of Sodom that ended for him with fire from Heaven”.

While the Real Academia Española maintained the same definition of marimacho from 1734 until 1984, some minor Spanish dictionaries did occasionally divert from the definition including the 1780 and 1783 editions of the Academia Usual, which defined a marimacho as, “the woman who in her corpulence and actions seems to be a man. Virago.” There would be no significant changes in that definition until their 1950 edition. The 1787 diccionario Terreros y Pando[17] defined marimacho the same way, except the added that the word was also from the French femme bommasse. Núñez de Taboada dictionary had no major changes to its definition of marimacho after 1825 and the Salvá dictionary made no major changes their definition after 1846.

Mosot had entered the Valencian language by the 18th century, referring originally to women who worked in inns or as mains in bourgeoisie households.  By the mid-19th century, the word, written as moçot, had begun to mean “big boy”, denoting women who were not feminine and implying they were lesbians.[18]

Sodomía was continuing to be defined in Spanish dictionaries, and to be inclusive of women. The 1739 Autoridades, and 1780 to 1803 editions of the DRAE continued to use the same translation as the edition issued in 1832 and 1837 editions; sodomía was defined as, “Concubitus between persons of the same sex, or in an improper vessel”. The 1852, 1869, 1884 and 1899 editions had an updated version of the definition that defined sodomía as, “Concubitus between people of the same sex, or against the natural order.” The phrase, “ó en vaso indebido” had been replaced by, “o contra el orden natural”. All these definitions included women who loved women in them. The 1846 Diccionario by Salvá used the same definition as the 1843 DRAE but with added information that did notably see women potentially be excluded from the practice, “Generally and legally, concubitus of man with man is understood.” 1855 Diccionario by Gaspar and Roig had the same addition. The 1846-1847 Diccionario Nacional by Domínguez also had an addition to its definition, but not one that excluded women but generally made clear this behavior was very much unacceptable, “abominable vice to which the inhabitants of Sodom indulged”.

Nineteenth century Spain (1810 – 1874)

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.[19]

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.

Caballot had entered the Valencian language by 1851, appearing in the Escrig dictionary published that year. Referring to lesbians in a derogatory sense, the word translates into English as “big horse,” attributing masculine qualities to lesbians and denying their feminine aspects. The Valencian word Homenenca continued to be used as a euphemism for lesbians, and was included in the 1851 version of the Escrig dictionary. [20]

Ramón Joaquín Domínguez’s El Nuevo tesoro lexicográfico de la lengua Española (NTLLE) defined lesbio/a in 1853. It was one of the first known cases of lesbian being defined in a Spanish dictionary. The definition was based on being from the island of Lesbos. Fourteen of the following editions of the NTLLE used the same or variants of that definition. There was no suggestion in the definition that the word had connections to Sappho, who was a resident of Lesbos, or that the word hinted at sexual orientation. That same edition made a small change from their previous definition of marimacho. The physiognomy association is dropped, with corpulence being replaced by manners, changing the focus from the body to action. The 1855 edition of the diccionario de Gaspar y Roig went further than the Ramón Joaquín Domínguez definition, including women appearing to resemble men based on physical appearance, manners and education.

The Valencian word Homenenca continued to be used as a euphemism for lesbians, and was included in the 1851 version of the Escrig dictionary. [21]

The Spanish Restoration (1874 – 1931)

Lesbiana was began to be used in Spain during the late nineteenth century inside the medical community, where it was synonymous with the word, tribadismo.[22]

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”. 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.[23]

mig-home was used in the Valencian language by 1891, appearing in the writing of Father Gadea.  Referring to lesbians, the word meant a woman who is like a man and has an aversion to men. Father Gadea’s text about a girl from Balones, Alicante in 1850 said, “Una chicota homenenca, que de la afisió tan gran que sempre ha tengut a fer totes les faenes dels homens li tragueren mich-home” “li digué a sa mare: Mare, fásam uns sarahuells”.  This loosely translates into English as, “A manly girl, that due the fond of to do all the tasks of men she was called half a man” “He said to his mother: Mother, make me a trousers”.  Later in the same text, Father Gadea used the phrase again, writing, “May s ́ham volgut casar en nengún perro de home, per més que mos haveren vengut cagant dobletes d’or, perque tots son un hato de gosos malfaeners”.  This translates into, “We have never wanted to marry any dog man, even if they had been shitting gold doubloons because they are all a bunch of bad-working bums”. [24]

Invertida was being used in the Valencian language by the last years of the 1800s, having been derived from the English word Invert that was used by Havelock Ellis in 1897’s English language translation of Sexual Inversion. [25]

During the first two thirds of the 1900s, the phrase así es was used by lesbians in Madrid as a kind of code word to identify each other.

While countries like England and Italy were trying to use science to de-pathologize homosexuality early in the twentieth century as a means to naturalize homosexuality and make it more acceptable, Spain went in a different direct; they were trying to use science to prove the existence of homosexuality and then device legal punishments for it. Consequently, the English and Italian languages developed new vocabulary and concepts around homosexuality in this period while Castilian Spanish did not. Spanish culture also failed to bring in new concepts around homosexuality, instead rehashing old ideas and concepts, reinterpreting them and trying to fit scientific concepts onto religious views and government policies. Safismo was mentioned, but only to define homosexual between two women, a practice distinct from same-sex activities between two men. Gregorio Marañón would be the greatest influencer in this period up until the start of the Civil War.

In 1908, a manual published in Spain described a lesbian as “an active, courageous, creative type, of fairly determined temperament, not too emotional; lover of life outdoors, science, politics or even business; good organizer and pleased with positions of responsibility …. Her body is perfectly feminine, although her inner nature is largely masculine.”[26]

Dr. L. Crocq published a medical journal article in Belgium’s Le Progrés Medical Belge that was reviewed by Revista de especialidades médicas in 1908 that said there were two types of lesbians.  The first were the invertidas verdaderas or true inverts also known as bolleras pata negra and lesbians who are viciosas, that is women who chose to have sex with other women to annoy and offend people; the second type were not lesbians so much as heterosexuals engaging in deliberately destructive behavior.[27]

The medical establishment turned against homosexuality, with new prevailing attitudes considering such desires to be a form of mental illness.   This view by the doctors of lesbian love shifted from non-sexual lesbian love between women being an idealized part of the cultural imagination of the closeness between women to a perversion and mental illness.  This view would then be adopted by broader society.[28]

Lesbians were sometimes mentioned in sexology publications of the era. In one, they were described as “congenital inverts”.  A second described them as “pseudoinvestidas”, suggesting they would have been heterosexuals had they not been lured into inversion by others. Another from the period said lesbians could not be women, because women existed only for reproductive purposes, making women to binaries paired with men, which excluded the possibility of lesbians as such relationships lacked reproductive purposes.[29]

Criminologists at the time also supported this view, viewing homosexuals as being innately guilty of crimes because of their degenerate desires.  This view though appeared to apply mostly to women because they were viewed as unnaturally trying to be men.

Lesbio/a was defined by the DRAE in 1914 as, “Lesbio, bia. (Del lat. lesbus.) adj. Natural de Lesbos. Ú. t. c. s. || 2 Perteneicnete a esta isla del Mediterráneo.|| 3 V. Regla lesbia.”

The 1917 Diccionario de la lengua española de José Alemany y Bolufer defined sodomía as, “(De Sodoma, antigua ciudad de la Palestina, donde se practicaba todo género de vicios torpes.) f. Concúbito entre personas de un mismo sexo, ó contra el orden natural”. The additional information referencing the Bible first found in 1846 Diccionario Nacional appeared to be there to stay, despite that reference having been left out of the 1901 Nuevo diccionario by Toro y Gómez, which only defined it as, “Concúbito contra el orden natural”. The definition was still inclusive of women at a time when few other words in Spanish dictionaries alluded to female homosexuality in an explicit fashion. The inclusion of women in the practice of sodomy in definitions did not always happen, with 1918 Diccionario general by Rodríguez Navas saying the practice was only between men. The 1925 DRAE, the RAE Manuals from 1927, 1950, 1985 and 1989 all included women in the definition by not saying the practice was exclusive to men.

The Valencian language phrase Aficionada a les del seu sexe, meaning “fond of her sex” was first recorded in reference to lesbians in Bulbena Tosell’s 1921 work Flora pornogràfica francesa: suplement al argot francès.[30]

The Valencian word Bagassa was first documented being used in Antoni Bulbena Tosell’s 1921 Flora pornogràfica francesa: suplement al argot francès.  The word was slang for prostitute, while referring to female-female sex.  Bagassa’s usage would fall out of favour, being used only in Catalan in Catalonia by the late 2010s, with a definition of very sexually promiscuous lesbian.[31]

Llepaire, meaning in English a woman who performs cunninglus, was in use in the Valencian language by 1921, appearing in Antoni Bulbena Tosell’s Flora pornogràfica francesa: suplement al argot francès.  It is a notable exception in the Valencian language in that it did not refer to lesbians using a gender-based definition. [32]

By 1925, the word lesbiana was used to mean any sexual practice between two women.[33]

Slowly, dictionaries began to acknowledge the existence of lesbians, Tortillera, having been in use since before 1831, was finally included in the Diccionario de la lengua española in 1927.[34]

Medical doctors were still discussing homosexuality and its causes in newspapers in 1928, with Luis Astrana Marín saying in La Libertad that children became homosexuals either when they were around 5 years old or when they entered in their teenage years.  Girls could develop an Oedipus complex, making them turn into lesbians.  Teenage girls turn into lesbians because they are not rewarded by fathers and male teachers in their life with proper attention.[35]

Second Spanish Republic and the Spanish Civil War (1931 – 1939)

By the early 1930s, the usage of the word lesbiana had changed again and meant any sexual-affective relationship between women.[36]

Despite all these changes in culture and society at the time, many lesbians could not be out of the closet and being called a lesbian was still considered a grave insult.  The accusation of being a homosexual had become weaponized politically, for both men and women. [37]

Francoist Spain (1938 – 1975)

Womanhood, briefly defined by both men and women during the Second Republic period, became solely defined by the new patriarchally male administered regime by the end of the Civil War; the new fascist state then set about seeking to control through a variety of measures to impose strict gender roles; anyone who did not fit into traditional gender norms and who expressed any deviance from these state imposed Catholics support sexual norms was treated by both the Church and state as a sexual pervert. Male intellectuals of the day worked to support the repression of women through these norms, developing rationales using used medical and biological sciences, creating anatomy and physiological studies to support their thesis that women were inferior.  Much of their work was based on the work of 19th century German phrenologist Franz Joseph Gall that had been translated into Spanish.[38]

Lesbians developed their own subculture and language, allowing them to more easily identify each other. Lesbians would often use code words, such as librarian or bookseller,[39] or for younger lesbians, asking “Are you a comic?” [40]

During the Franco period, lesbians were sometimes said to be members of the “club de la costura”. This referred to close female friendship that crossed over the line to romantic love. The coded language allowed lesbians to recognize each other in a time when homosexual desire was forbidden by the regime.

The 1956, 1970 and 1984 editions of Academia Usual kept definitions of marimachoe largely the same from how other dictionaries had defined the term back in the 1850s. That definition was a “woman who in her corpulence or actions resembles a man.” The definition remained the same despite the fact that society had undergone numerous changes, including a liberalization of Spanish society following the Spanish democratic transition.

The 1966 Diccionario de uso del español by María Moliner defined sodomía in much the same way that it had been defined since 1832, being inclusive of women and against the natural order. It did add that sodomy was a sexual perversion. Editions of the DRAE published between 1970 and 1984 all noted the origin of the practice as dating to the ancient city of Sodom. These definitions are also noteworthy because it is the first time that personas had been replaced by varones, which meant that women were excluded by definition from the practice of sodomy by the DRAE.

Family members could be the cause of police interference in the lives of lesbians in the Franco period. In 1966 in a small town in the province of Sevilla, a mother went to the Guardia Civil to denounce her single 22-year-old daughter who worked in a agri-food processing factory for having a relationship with another woman at the factory. The language in the court documents coded the relationship as lovers but also described the relationship using the word amistad.

The Suplemento al DRAE de 1970 included lesbiano/na with a definition of lesbian as a female homosexual, the first-time word was defined as a noun and as homosexual woman. It was also the first time where the island of Lesbo was not referenced. The term was presented neutrally, without any value judgement placed on the term. The changed in definition was big in the sense that the DRAE had not updated the definition since 1887. Despite the word having been in use since 1853, the lack of the word changing definition makes it unclear if it was in use culturally beforehand as term in use culturally to discuss female homosexuality, with other terms being in predominant use beforehand. The definition would remain near identical in a number of Spanish dictionaries published for the next twenty or so years, including in the Diccionario Academia Usual 1984, the Manual de 1984, Manual de 1989, and Academia Usual 1992.

The Colectivos de Lesbianas Feministas started growing in the Basque Country in 1974 in response to the struggle between lesbians and heterosexual women within the feminist movement. The Irun group rejected the use of the word lesbiana, and instead called themselves Lumatza.[41]

In the final days of the dictatorship and, the word gay rarely ever appeared, let alone the word lesbian, because homosexuality was still viewed as representing a “social danger” to society. When there was any respectful discussion of gays and lesbians, the word homosexual was used instead.

Spanish democratic transition (1975 – 1982)

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. [42]

The broader homosexual rights movement used the acronym GLTB, where stood for the T stood for transsexual not transgender, during the 1980s and 1990s.

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 lesbians, but needed to deploy those labels in order to advance their own collective causes.

Socialist government of Felipe González (1982 – 1996)

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 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.

Lesbian continued to be problematic as a label and identity in some parts of Spain and for some generations of lesbians. The term lesbian 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. [43]

Lesbian bars were often colloquially known as “bares de ambiente” during the 1980s and 1990s.

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.[44]

The term queer did not enter the Spanish vocabulary until 1993 but its conceptual antecedents were starting to be in place by around 1991. This set the stage for a major conflict within the lesbian community, and around lesbian labels and lesbian identity that is discussed more fully in the next section on homosexual and trans rights activism.

The term lesbian 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.[45]

By the 1990s, lesbian identification with queer politics or queer feminism was viewed by lesbian feminists as a rejection of a lesbian identity and supporting a community that rejects the very existence of a lesbian identity that supports making lesbians invisible. Transfeminism in the 1990s was often called queer bollero feminism.[46]

Labels, words and their inclusion in broader usage continued to evolve and be acknowledged after long periods of usage in this period. 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 colloquial usage, transfeminism in the 1990s was often called queer bollero feminism. 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”.

The 1992 and 2014 DRAE, Manual changed the definition of marimacho from the 1989 edition, removing the meaning that said lesbiana and marked the term as familiar and colloquial, meaning it should not be used professionally. Significantly, unlike other words around homosexuality in the same edition, it was not defined as profane or derogatory.

The 1992 edition of the DRAE excluded women from the practice of sodomy, defining it as a practice between men. The 1992 edition also defined sodomy as the first time as one of many dishonest vice practices by the people of the ancient city of Palestine. Prior to that, the definition had been vices “torpes” meaning clumsy or dullish. The 1999 edition of Diccionario del español actual by Seco, Andrés y Ramos was one of the first Spanish dictionaries to define sodomy as anal sex, saying it was done by a man to other men or women. A variant of this definition that excluded women on women sexual practices was used in the 2001 edition of the DRAE.

Conservative government of José Maria Aznar (1996 – 2004)

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 into the 2020s.

Spanish language around the concept of marriage equality would also begin to evolve in the late González period and early Aznar period. Phrases like “uniones  de  hecho”[47], “parejas de hecho”[48] and “matrimonio gay”[49] began to be used by the broader public to discuss the concept of marriage equality.  This change in language occurred at a time when attitudes towards homosexuality and marriage equality were also changing. A survey in 1997 found that 57.4% of Spaniards favored same-sex couples having the same rights and obligations as married couples, with 84.6% supporting the marriage equality.[50]

The start of the new millennium saw a shift in everyday Spanish language that would eventually impact lesbians.  Género had largely not been used.  Instead, the phrase “estereotipos sexuales” was used, being used by a variety of feminist and lesbian writers including Carmen de Burgos, Clara Campoamor, Germaine Greer, Elaine Morgan and Simone de Beauvoir. Feminism began to be used less, and the phrase “violencia machista” started to be phased out in favor of “violencia de género”.  This removed feminist discourse from discussions about violence, removed sexual aspects of violence enacted against window and replaced it with a patriarchal gender approach, explicitly stating that women were no longer repressed because of their sex but because of their gender.[51]

Lesbian and future Podemos representative Beatriz Gimeno would be among those feminists in Spain who led in changing of terms, of removing the concept of sex and replacing it with gender, in political and feminist discourse; this allied her more with queer theory and transgender people. Her support proposed that sex distinctions were what the Spanish right and ultra-Catholics were doing and not what the left should be doing. [52]

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 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 into the 2020s.

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.[53]

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 such and to feel they had rights. 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.

Socialist government of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (2004 – 2011)

By the early 2010s, there were a number of online and print LGTB dictionaries in Spain. They were most often compilations of words, naming that which was often unnamed in other more traditional Spanish dictionaries. They rarely explored language used by male and female homosexuals in a Spanish context in their own in groups. Instead, the words defined often were ones about how heterosexuals defined gays and lesbians. They also rarely included new words that were taking root in the community.

Definitions around words related to lesbians continued to evolved, and usage of words related to lesbians often continued to have negative connotations.

The 2008 Diccionario de uso del español de María Moliner was one of the first Spanish dictionaries to define sodomy around male homosexuality, defining sodomía as, “1. Anal intercourse. 2. Male homosexuality. Homosexual. It applies to people who satisfy their sexual sensuality with those of the same sex […].”[54] Up until the 1960s, dictionaries had largely included women as people who could practice sodomy. Definitions in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s had then begun to define sodomy around male penetrative anal sex.

One major lexicographical study was done in the 2010s of the language in Ceuta that picked up phrases around lesbians. It found that chocana, ninfómana, lesbiana, puta, ramera, sulana, and zorra are used in Ceuta in lexicographically similar ways as insults aimed at gender nonconforming women and at gay men. Their usage though is different than the definitions provided by the DRAE. When used against women or gay men, they all suggest feminine defects in the target of speech.

Conservative government of Mariano Rajoy (2011 – 2018)

The language around lesbianism and homosexuality continued to evolve, both inside the community and in official language sources.

sexilio was a term in use in Castilla – La Mancha in the 2010s.  It referred to people who migrated elsewhere in Spain because of persecution for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The definition of lesbiana was expanded in the Diccionario electrónico de la RAE, 2014. The expanded definition included the original definition of a person from Lesbos, and that lesbian referred to lesbianism.  Like all other definitions dating back to 1853, the usage was neutral and did not indicate vulgar or pejorative usage.

The 2014 definition of gay in the DRAE mostly excluded women, defining gay as generally referring to homosexual men more than homosexual women.  Unlike previous definitions, it is also linguistically distinct, with origins from both the English word gay and the French word gai. The definition also references the Latin root Gaudium, meaning joy.

While some Spanish dictionaries had begun to link sodomy to male homosexuality in the 2000s, the DRAE was not one of them.  The 2014 edition defined sodomía as “(From Late Lat. sodomia, and this derived from Sodŏma ‘Sodom’, a city that, according to the Bible, was destroyed by God because of the depravity of its inhabitants) f. Practice of anal intercourse.”[55]  The was similar to the 206 RAE Esencial, which had defined the term as, “Practice of anal intercourse.”  The use of anal intercourse moved the word away from one which could be used in reference to lesbians.

Sáfica had changed its meaning by the late 2010s.  Having meant women who loved women during the Second Republic period, some women were now using it as an alternative to lesbiana as they saw it as more inclusive and less constrained than a word meaning female homosexual.  They could use sáfica if they were bisexual women or non-binary with reproductive organs allowing for pregnancy, if they were masculine looking women or if they were asexual women.

The 23.5 edition of Diccionario de la lengua española (DLE) published in December 2021 had 3,836 modifications, including new words, meanings and amendments to existing words. These words included for the first time cisgénero, transgénero, pansexualidad which was defined as “Atracción sexual hacia cualquier individuo u objeto”

Socialist government of Pedro Sánchez (2018 – present)

Lesbiana as a word was being rejected by younger, university-aged lesbians as a form of identity in the early 2020s as they did not wish to be confined by labels.[56]


[1] (Torquemada, 2014)

[2] (Fone, 2001; Amer S. , 2009; Sobh, 1995; Crompton, 1997)

[3] (Diccionario Lésbico Español, 2019)

[4] (Freijanes, 2017; Montero, 2017)

[5] (Lacarra Lanz, 2010)

[6] (Diccionario Lésbico Español, 2019)

[7] (Torquemada, 2014)

[8] English: almost sodomy

[9] English: imperfect sodomy

[10] Spanish: usavan en uno como onbre e mujer, echandose en una cama desnudas e retoçandose e besándose e cavalgandose la una a la otra e la otra a la otra, subyendose ençima de sus vientres desnudos, pasando e fazyendo autos que onbre con muger devian fazer carnalmente.

[11] (Moscas de colores, 2020)

[12] (Velasco, Lesbians in Early Modern Spain, 2011; Soyer, 2012; Fone, 2001)

[13] (Diccionario Lésbico Español, 2019)

[14] Spanish: “este nombre ha puesto el vulgo a las mujeres briosas y desenvueltas que parece haber querido la naturaleza hacerlas hombres, sino en el sexo, al menos en la desenvoltura”

[15] (Núñez Galindo, 2017; Dekker, Van de Pol, Burke, & Gil Quindós, 2006)

[16] (Díaz F. M., 2014)

[17] Full name of the dictionary is Diccionario castellano con las voces de ciencias y artes y sus correspondientes en las tres lenguas francesa, latina e italiana.

[18] (Moscas de colores, 2020)

[19] (Díaz F. M., 2014; Tortillera: El origen de Tortillera, 2013; Políticas Lésbicas Felgtb, 2015)

[20] (Moscas de colores, 2020)

[21] (Moscas de colores, 2020)

[22] (Anders, 2022)

[23] (Diccionario Lésbico Español, 2019; Díaz F. M., 2014)

[24] (Diccionario Lésbico Español, 2019; Díaz F. M., 2014)

[25] (Diccionario Lésbico Español, 2019; Díaz F. M., 2014)

[26] (Rocafull, 2015)

[27] (De, 2017; Castañs, 1908)

[28] (Rocafull, 2015; De, 2017)

[29] (Rocafull, 2015; Sosa-Velasco, 2010)

[30] (Moscas de colores, 2020)

[31] (Moscas de colores, 2020)

[32] (Moscas de colores, 2020)

[33] (Anders, 2022)

[34] (Díaz F. M., 2014)

[35] (De, 2017; Marín, 1928)

[36] (Anders, 2022)

[37] (Fernández, 2007; De, 2017; Tur, 2017)

[38] (Morcillo, 2010)

[39] Spanish: libreras.

[40] Spanish: ¿Eres tebeo?.

[41] (Villar Sáenz, April 2005)

[42] (Sancho, 2009; Llanos Martínez, 2018)

[43] (Díaz F. M., 2014)

[44] (Díaz F. M., 2014)

[45] (Pikara Lab, 2017)

[46] (Flores, 2011)

[47] English: De facto unions.

[48] English: Domestic partnerships.

[49] English: Gay marriage.

[50] (Platero Méndez, 2012; Argos, 2000)

[51] (Topper, 2019)

[52] (Topper, 2019)

[53] (Díaz F. M., 2014)

[54] Spanish: 1. Coito anal. 2. Homosexualidad masculina. Homosexual. Se aplica a personas que satisfacen su sensualidad sexual con las de su mismo sexo […].

[55] Spanish: (Del lat. Tardío sodomia, y este der. de Sodŏma ‘Sodoma’, ciudad que, según la Biblia, fue destruida por Dios a causa de la depravación de sus habitantes) f. Práctica del coito anal.

[56] (Franc, 2022)

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