I think in the same way that our society often wants to label things, we also want words for things negatively. These are often known as slurs. I’m mainly doing these pieces on slurs because I think there is a large conversation to have around the reclamation of slurs and it’s something I feel people don’t really know much about.
Regarding slurs themselves, the book We Did What?! Offensive and Inappropriate Behavior in American History explains:
“Ultimately the meaning of a slur and its impact depend on the nature of a relationship between the speaker and the listener and their intentions. Members within a particular ethnic, racial, or gender group may use slurs among themselves, not intending to hurt each other or even as terms of endearment…The uses of slurs might sound offensive to listeners who do not understand the relationship between the speaker and listener or they do not understand that they mean no harm” (Jay).
In the coming weeks I’m going to write separate pieces on popular slurs in the LGBTQ+ Community. To start, let’s talk about about the word dyke.
First, I’ll clarify the basic definition of dyke. Most commonly, dyke is considered a derogatory term (or slur) referring to a masculine lesbian. Sometimes it’s adopted affirmatively by lesbians (not necessarily masculine ones) to refer to themselves.
According to the book Wimmin, Wimps & Wallflowers : An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Gender and Sexual Orientation Bias in the United States:
Dyke has been used since at least the 1930s (original use was in heterosexual community). The term is usually a strong put-down when coming from nonlesbians, but since the 1970s it has often been used among lesbians as a blunt, political, and conscious self-designation.
“No Means Dyke,” a sign appearing in a men’s dorm window in Canada, 1989, demonstrates a kind of self-serving distortion by male culture of “no means no,” and the graffiti “Kill a Dyke, Rape a Feminist” (Ms., January/February 1992, 6) shows how lesbian and feminist are linked in the mind of the misogynist. (Herbst 79)
Types of Dykes
A cool thing I learned in my research for this piece is how there are a lot of different types of dykes, also mostly from Herbst. Whether folks use these specific terms or not is obviously personal, but I thought I’d add them in.
Bull Dyke: “bull adds the further connotation of masculinity and toughness…stems from use by men or by heterosexual people in general with stereotypical notions of womanhood” (Herbst 38).
(Which is similar to)
Diesel Dyke: the lesbian with short hair, dresses in leather, and wears Doc Martins; a “truck driver” This variation from bulldyke was invented in the gay underground. ( 71)
Closet dyke- a lesbian who is not out of the closet
Leather Dyke: (described in the novel Tell Me What You Like by Kate Allen, 1993) “a lesbian who sports leather outfits and accessories and may be into the SM scene or bondage” While it suggests dominance, it should not be considered masculine, like comparing them to a leather boy. (A leather boy is generally used for a man who is attracted to leather as a fetish, regardless of sexual orientation) (173-4)
Granola Dyke: “Birkenstock and wool sock wearing, folk music listening to, liberal political activist, Eco-conscious, free-spirit, vegan (or vegetarian), feminist with unshaved legs, who likely worships earth goddesses. Perhaps, hippyish, if you will” (no_I_am_zoe).
Root Dyke: one whose dress reflects ethnic roots (79)
Molly Dyke: a dated term for a femme lesbian (204)
Dikey/Dykey (adj)– having lesbian characteristics, especially aggressiveness (79)
Dyke (verb)- to behave like a lesbian (79)
Van Dyke- “a lesbian with a hint (or more) of a mustache on her upper lip or hair on her upper lip” (79)
Dykes on Bikes
One of the common places I think people know of the word dyke not being used as a slur is the organization Dykes on Bikes. The group started in 1976 in the San Francisco Pride Parade, according to their website. Believe it or not, the organization is still not recognized as a trademarked name for belief that it is offensive. Their website has more information. (History)
Other examples of the word being used in a positive way is dyke marches, as well as Alison Bechdel’s Dykes To Watch Out For comics and memoir Fun Home.
Sometimes slurs get reclaimed, like the word queer. There are folks that still find the word queer to be offensive or have negative connotations with it, but others hold it as their identity and/or community. As I mentioned, dyke is a word that is a type of in-group, out-group word that some folks have reclaimed and others don’t use.
As Jane Mills writes, “By the 1980s many lesbians, refusing to accept the myth that they are either butch or femme, began to use dyke, without any negative connotations, to refer to all lesbians” (cited in Hughes).
As a lesbian woman who identifies as a dyke, I love the power of reclaiming the word, especially because it’s still being used in a negative way by a majority of society. For example, I would not be very offended if someone called me a dyke in an attempt to insult me because that’s how I identify. I think it also comes with my identity as a feminist and an activist.
A Note On the Slur Dyke
In this article, and I think in the common definition of dyke, lesbian comes to mind. However, it’s important to remember that just like other identities, there’s no wrong way to be a dyke. For example, dykes don’t have to be masculine or where Doc Martins, or have short hair. We also don’t have to be cisgender or even identify as a lesbian. In my humble opinion, the more folks who reclaim the slur, the better.
Be sure to keep an eye out for the next piece on another LGBTQ+ slur! In the meantime, feel free to check out the sources and resources below.
Herbst, P. (2001). Wimmin, Wimps & Wallflowers : An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Gender and Sexual Orientation Bias in the United States. Yarmouth, Me: Intercultural Press.
History. Dykes On Bikes. https://www.dykesonbikes.org/history
Hughes, G. (2006). An encyclopedia of swearing : The social history of oaths, profanity, foul language, and ethnic slurs in the English-speaking world. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.
Jay, T. (2017). We did what?! : Offensive and inappropriate behavior in American history. Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood.
No_I_am_Zoe. Granola Dykes and Greenies. SheKnows. http://www.sheknows.com/community/living/granola-dykes-and-greenies
Check These out Too:
Effing Dykes Blog https://effingdykes.blogspot.com/
Morris, B. (2016). Dyke Culture and the Disappearing L. Slate. http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2016/12/22/disappearing_lesbians_and_the_need_to_preserve_dyke_culture.html
Levina, S. (2014). I Went to a Dyke March and Remembered What Pride was About. Vice. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/i-went-to-the-dyke-march-and-remembered-what-pride-was-about
GirlfriendsTV. Reclaiming Gay and Lesbian Slurs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOzf0W57Mew
Alison Bechdel’s Dyke to Watch Out For http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/