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Can a PDF Really Tell You If You’re Queer?

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Wild Bunch

Earlier this year, Jazelle Foster, 32, realized she was a lesbian. Her coming-out story is worth telling because it’s so ordinary: She always thought women were hot and kissable, but she was too busy dating men to do anything about it. While she enjoyed dating men, she dreaded what felt like an inevitable future of marrying one. The quarantine period of 2020 inspired her to start dating women exclusively, and by the end of 2021, she had come out on TikTok as a “baby gay” and began to document her queer infancy for her growing audience of followers. In March, she returned to TikTok with a question: “How do I know if I’m bi, lesbian, or pan?”

She was sent a bunch of resources from followers — including YouTube channels and other TikTok videos — but one resource stood out as being the most recommended and most helpful: the “Lesbian Masterdoc.”

The Lesbian Masterdoc is a 30-page document (once a Google doc, now a PDF hosted on various websites, passed around on Reddit threads and comment sections) originally written by Tumblr user Anjeli Luz in 2018 when she was still a teenager coming to terms with her own sexuality. First posted on Tumblr, the doc is very much a product of the platform’s pre-porn-ban heyday, with long (and endearing) asides about crushing on fictional or celebrity men, erotic fanfiction lingo, and mentions of crushing on Kim Possible’s Shego. “I created the document as a tool of self-reflection for myself and others,” Luz told Vice in 2020. The document has 20 sections, including one about “Early interest in women” and a handy one titled “You might be a lesbian if TL;DR.” At the end, her “Credit” section lists a handful of other Tumblr accounts that influenced the writing. Reading it now, the doc feels like an “Am I a Lesbian?” BuzzFeed quiz. It presents you with a series of thoughts and experiences the creator had concluded are common among lesbians. If you relate, you might be a lesbian.

In the end, it took two days to compile, and while Luz took into account the shared experiences of many lesbians in her corner of the internet, it’s primarily based on her personal experience. Luz did not set out to write a canonical text, but she did.

The doc’s ability to “answer” what can in some cases feel like a troubling question — Am I a lesbian? — has earned its reputation as both a sacred text and a crystal ball. There are just as many TikTok’s praising the doc’s clarifying ability as there are TikTok’s about avoiding its world-rocking clairvoyance, as if getting too close could undo your whole world. But if you’re confused about your sexuality, maybe that undoing is welcome, especially on the internet.

Lockdown made a lot of people gay. Or, to put it more delicately: There is no shortage of first-person accounts of people who, during the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020, realized they were in some way queer. Some credit the time spent away from the general population, while others credit all the time they spent on TikTok. According to Google Trends, search interest for the Lesbian Masterdoc has been spiking since 2020, and now #lesbianmasterdoc has over 14 million views on TikTok.

When Foster got a hold of the Lesbian Masterdoc, it was a revelation: “So many of the things in that doc rang true to me, it was crazy.” She thought, “If this is true, everybody is lesbian.”

Foster shared some of her favorite lines from the doc on TikTok in a game of “Put a Finger Down.” She begins, “Put a finger down if you wish you were a lesbian so you could escape the discomfort of dating men.” Put a finger down if “men are okay in theory but terrible in practice.” Put a finger down if “you feel like you could live with a woman in a romantic way even if you can’t imagine doing anything sexual with a woman.” Put a finger down if “you know that there are lesbians, but you can’t possibly be a lesbian because you would already know.” The comments read exactly as you’d expect. As one commenter said, “I have no more fingers to put down.” Another wrote, “Flashbacks to the first time I read the doc and realized I checked. every. box.” Yes, it’s silly — albeit irresistible — but not every page is as flip.

Page one of the Masterdoc introduces readers to the concept of compulsory heterosexuality, a term poet and feminist Adrienne Rich coined in her 1980 essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence.” Rich wanted to challenge contemporary feminists on their assumption that attraction to men was a natural feminine predisposition, and she invited them to think of heterosexuality as a political institution that, as the term implies, is imposed on people. In the Masterdoc (which doesn’t mention Rich), compulsory heterosexuality, or comphet, is something to unpack and unlearn as readers attempt to make sense of their sexualities. It reads, “Compulsory heterosexuality is the voice in my head that says I must really be het even when I’m in love with a woman.

Today, the term is following “male gaze” and the Bechdel Test as terms originally created to talk about representations of women in media that popular internet usage has decontextualized. Online, budding feminists question if they’re “dressing for the male gaze” or if their real-life conversations pass the Bechdel Test. Comphet is similarly described in the Masterdoc as something to name, eradicate, and heal from. On TikTok, videos using #comphet have collected over 127.2 million views.

Sarah, who asked to not be identified by her real name, learned about the Masterdoc in 2019, probably on Reddit, when she was in the throes of divorcing her husband. “The Masterdoc was trying to help me understand what happened,” she says, and “why I let myself get stuck in a really toxic, straight relationship for so long.” She is now 36, and despite always knowing she was queer and having a robust dating history of sleeping with and dating people who weren’t cis men.

She read the line that was most important for her from the doc to me: “You think that because you could survive dating, marrying, and/or having sex with a man, you’re attracted to men (hint: you don’t have to settle for just surviving).” It all sounds like a catalyst for the kind of life-crumbling queer awakening you see on TV, but all Sarah could think was, “Duh!”

“I think the first time I read it, I laughed out loud,” she says, adding that she majored in women and gender studies in college. “How the fuck did I not ever think of this stuff before?”

The kind of affirming and revelatory reading experience so many Masterdoc evangelists have is what the internet runs on: a feeling of being understood and seen often denied off-line. Sarah wishes she’d read it sooner, and when one of her bisexual friends found herself at a similar crossroads, she sent her the doc but prefaced it by saying, “Hey, this is actually about being a lesbian, being Sapphic. It may not all apply to you, but some of these things about trying to figure out if you are actually attracted to women might be helpful.”

But not everyone is as considerate. Sometimes people are introduced to the doc not because they have questions but because someone else thinks they should. Crystal, who’s real name is not actually Crystal, is confidently bisexual, but in 2020, someone sent her the doc anyway. “I just brushed it off,” she says. “But it did hurt my feelings a bit.” It made her feel confused — “but not about my sexuality, more just like, Why am I reading this right now? This is useless to me.” It was invalidating.

She looked around Twitter to see if there were any open discussions of the doc and found that open criticism of it was met with the kind of hostility fandoms reserve for their fave’s antis. She shared her thoughts on the doc on Twitter and talked about how she didn’t think it was funny or helpful to send it to someone unsolicited. “And that created a whole shitstorm for me that year. I had to get off Twitter for a few days.”

Stefanie Duguay is an assistant professor at Concordia College’s Department of Communication Studies, and her research has given her insights on how queer people use and experience digital-media technologies. She remembers the Masterdoc from her Tumblr days but took a closer look at it ahead of our call. “For decades,” Duguay explains, “the internet has been the key hub for queer people reflecting on what it is to be queer and generating information for themselves and for each other.” The doc is like a zine, a self-published project that moves through a subculture, making complicated academic principles more accessible.

“I can see how a document like this could be useful for people to pass around,” she adds, “but even more useful if you can have a conversation about it and if you can bring in a lot of different perspectives — if you could talk about the origin, the author, people’s different lived experiences in relationship to it.” The doc should be criticized not because it’s bad but because the “it” is important.

The Lesbian Masterdoc talks about identifying “common signs” of compulsory sexuality and experiencing “the symptoms of comphet.” By centering personal healing, comphet puts psychology over politics. Duguay explains that Rich’s compulsory heterosexualty is about systems and how society at large is organized. And while it does affect us all individually, the way in which it’s popularly talked about online overemphasizes the individual, and “making it an individual problem is not going to invoke change at these bigger societal levels.”

Because the Lesbian Masterdoc is often treated as the definitive guide for how to know if you’re a lesbian, it’s easy to forget it’s just a regular person’s noble attempt to make sense of her experience and share it online. And while it has helped so many people make sense of their experiences, and may feel like the only resource of its kind, it isn’t. It doesn’t have to be.

“I mean, not to disrespect the doc,” Sarah adds, “but there’s a whole hundreds of years of history of queer people and lesbian thought,” noting that she also read Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues and Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles. On Reddit, one user shared a “trans version of the Lesbian Masterdoc,” and slowly but surely, healthy criticism of the doc is starting to bloom on Reddit, TikTok, and Twitter. Crystal recently reshared her critical thoughts of the Masterdoc on Twitter, and the response wasn’t nearly as hostile as she remembered, “so maybe the online perception of it is changing.”

It was never about the Masterdoc anyway. It was always about how people like creator Anjeli Luz understood their experience to be connected to something bigger than themselves and saw value in sharing that. For some, the actual substance of the doc is less important than the journeys it kick-started for them. “Even if there’s something in here that’s not true or can’t be backed up in some way,” Foster admits, “the conversations that it forced me to have with myself haven’t come from anywhere else.” The Masterdoc relays one of the most valuable lessons about queerness: There is hope in wanting more, and you’re never alone in wanting to seek it.

Can a PDF Really Tell You If You’re Queer?