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22 April 2015

No more “gal pals“: why do we assume lesbians are confused, attention-seeking, or man-boycotting straight women?

The stock tabloid phrase for women who are dating, "gal pals", is irritating at best and backward at worst.

By Eleanor Margolis

As far as euphemisms for “lesbian lover” go, “live-in gal pal” is a funny one. In both the “Haha” and “WTF?!” sense. Its faux naivety conjures images of a pair of tomboyish 1920s aristos shacking up somewhere secluded on the French Riviera, amid whisperings of them being a pair of “inverts”. My, how sensational.

The phrase “gal pal” is a tabloid favourite for “a woman’s girlfriend”, and I can’t help finding it adorable. So when the Mail took it up a notch this week, referring to a woman regularly seen getting “touchy-feely” with Kristen Stewart as her live-in gal pal” I practically wept tears of joy. Bless the Mail. No really. They just can’t bring themselves to accept that two women living together and seen kissing in public could be anything more than “pals”. Good pals. Like Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Or Thelma and Louise.

But, in all fairness, “live-in gal pal” manages to be simultaneously squeamish and salacious. It’s a bit like calling an orgy a “nude dinner party” or a dominatrix a “bossy coitus lady”. Not, of course, that being a lesbian is inherently smutty. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Why is “lesbian” still a rude word? Why, in certain chunks of society, do I have to have “gal pals” and not girlfriends? A “gal pal” is someone you go for long walks with. Someone you drink white wine spritzers with, if you’re feeling a bit naughty. And, at the same, someone you probably hump in public toilets.

I remember one of my ex-gal pals telling me that when her dad found out we were dating, his words to her were: “I hear you have a new lady friend.” Pretty harmless really. And a lot better than, “never darken my door again, you godforsaken dyke”. We both had a good laugh about it, that’s for sure. But friend. Always friend. There’s this lingering notion that lesbians are just women going through an experimental phase, in which they finger their closest mates. The same certainly doesn’t apply to gay men, around whom there’s hardly ever any perceived ambiguity. “Boy pal” isn’t a thing. If two men are seen kissing in public, they’re gay. Two women doing the same are confused. Or attention seeking. Or “on a break” from men.

“Gal pal” or “lady friend” may be quite sweet in their naivety, but they’re anachronisms. They’re throwbacks to a time when lesbians hid behind green doors and wrote a lot of sad poetry about one another. OK, we still do that. But at least these days we can be out and write bullshit sonnets about vaginas.

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I really couldn’t give less of a shit about Kristen Stewart’s sexuality. Sorry KStew, in the extraordinarily unlikely event that you’re reading this, I wish you all the best, but the gender of whoever you’re shtupping is only slightly more interesting to me than a bag of lentils that’s been sitting at the back of my parents’ kitchen cupboard for 18 months. What I would like though is an embargo on the phrase “gal pal”. It’s irritating at best and backward at worst. There are two acceptable alternatives and they are “girlfriend” or “woman with whom the woman in question is engaging in sexual relations.” And, clunky as the latter may be, it’s still infinitely better than “gal pal.”