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These were members of the "third sex" who rejected the roles of women to be subservient, feminine, and domestic.Invert described the opposite gender roles, and also the related attraction to women instead of men; since women in the Victorian period were considered unable to initiate sexual encounters, women who did so with other women were thought of as possessing masculine sexual desires.In the middle of the 19th century, medical writers attempted to establish ways to identify male homosexuality, which was considered a significant social problem in most Western societies.

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Little of Sappho's poetry survives, but her remaining poetry reflects the topics she wrote about: women's daily lives, their relationships, and rituals.She focused on the beauty of women and proclaimed her love for girls.In 1890, the term lesbian was used in a medical dictionary as an adjective to describe tribadism (as "lesbian love").The terms lesbian, invert and homosexual were interchangeable with sapphist and sapphism around the turn of the 20th century.A lesbian is a homosexual woman who is romantically or sexually attracted to other women.

The term lesbian is also used to express sexual identity or sexual behavior regardless of sexual orientation, or as an adjective to characterize or associate nouns with female homosexuality or same-sex attraction.

With second wave feminism and growth of scholarship in women's history and sexuality in the 20th century, the definition of lesbian broadened, sparking a debate about sexual desire as the major component to define what a lesbian is.

Some women who engage in same-sex sexual activity may reject not only identifying as lesbians but as bisexual as well, while other women's self-identification as lesbian may not align with their sexual orientation or sexual behavior; sexual identity is not necessarily the same as one's sexual orientation or sexual behavior, due to various reasons, such as the fear of identifying their sexual orientation in a homophobic setting.

In the absence of any other material to describe their emotions, homosexuals accepted the designation of different or perverted, and used their outlaw status to form social circles in Paris and Berlin.

Lesbian began to describe elements of a subculture.

Portrayals of lesbians in the media suggest that society at large has been simultaneously intrigued and threatened by women who challenge feminine gender roles, and fascinated and appalled with women who are romantically involved with other women.