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What’s the deal with the word “Dyke”?

Robyn Exton

Feb 21, 2023

What’s the deal with the word “Dyke”?
  • Have you heard this term being thrown around lately?

    It seems like only a few years ago, everyone in the community avoided it because of its more-than-sketchy background. But before you write it off completely (or go running around using a potentially offensive word), we’re going to break down the deal with ‘dyke’ and when it is okay to say it.

    Ready? Strap in

    History of the word dyke

    To paint the whole picture, we want to start from the very beginning. Back in the late 19th century, ‘bulldyke’ was used as a slur to stereotype women who didn’t conform to societal expectations of femininity, and people didn’t hesitate to say it every time they encountered a lesbian, especially butch lesbians. 

    Source: Medium

    Fast forward to 1971, when we finally dropped the bull, lesbian poet Judy Rae Grahn published Edward the Dyke in the Women’s Press Collective. This is one of the first times that the term ‘dyke’ as we know it was used in public.

    Bringing this story back to the present, in 2023, we all might have more than one sapphic friend who describes herself with this word, and according to Alison Bechdel, author of the iconic comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For (and yes, Bechdelas in Bechdel Test), we can consider it linguistic activism.

    History of Dyke March

    The thing about LGBTQ history is that it is rarely available beyond verbal traditions, film, art and literature (RIP Leslie Feinberg). We don’t learn about our dyke history in textbooks; rather we rely on our communities to tell the stories of those who fought, marched, died and are still fighting for the space we have today. This is where my heart sits when I think about the Dyke March.

    The very first Dyke March in the U.S. was on April 24, 1993 when the Lesbian Avengers, Queer Nation, and the National ACT UP Women’s Committee – joined by a group of San Francisco lesbians – called for a Dyke March on the eve of the NGLTF-sponsored march on Washington for lesbian and gay rights. These dykes had grown increasingly unsettled with their invisibility in society, and particularly with their invisibility combined with the misogyny in the LGBT community. It is estimated that more than 20,000 lesbians marched that night.

    After that, Dyke organizers took the March to their home towns and cities across the country. The first San Francisco Dyke March happened in June 1993, with an estimated 10,000 dykes in attendance. Dyke March began as a call to action: to be visible and to advocate for dykes around the world on issues of oppression, racism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty. It’s one day where we celebrate being dykes and come together to hold space. A fellow Dyke March committee member recalls the days when gay men lined the streets to keep this a woman only space. I imagine there were chants, banners, boobs and bliss – and we hope to continue that tradition now 23 years later.

    As women we have to fight everyday to live, work, learn and love in this patriarchy where we still make less than men, are treated unfairly because of our chemistry, and are too often over-sexualized and seen as commodities. If you’ve ever wondered why Dyke March happens once a year, now you know.  It’s a celebration of our unity, to raise consciousness and hold space. Dyke March happens because we NEED TO MARCH, we need to CLAIM SPACE, and we need to be VISIBLE. This year we will say goodbye to the Lexington Club (#longlivethelex), one of just two lesbian bars in the city of San Francisco; the future of Pink Saturday has been under fire; and politicians continue to take swings at everything LGBT. How much more will they take from us? If we don’t stand up, act up and speak out now, our community will be pushed out even further – we’ll be forced back into being invisible, overlooked. We have power in our numbers – last year’s estimates were 50,000 – and every year Dyke March gets bigger, louder, and harder to ignore.

    So, is the word ‘dyke’ offensive?

    You know what they say, reclaiming is the sincerest form of sass, and just like a pair of vintage jeans, ‘dyke’ made its glorious comeback as a way for gay women to take their power back. Who has space for that negative energy in their lives? Definitely not us!

    Source: Vogue

    Now, here’s the tea: according to GLAAD, ‘dyke’ is still considered derogatory and it’s not for everyone to use. It’s kind of like a secret code for gay gals, so unless you’re part of the community, it’s best to steer clear, especially if you’re not sure if someone is comfortable with the word. 

    The use and meaning of dyke today

    We’re delighted to see self-proclaimed ‘dykes’ everywhere! For example, you may have heard of the Dyke March, an annual event that takes place in big cities around the world. This march was created by the iconic Lesbian Avengers, and it is a celebration of lesbian identity, culture, and visibility.

    An incredible way to reclaim a word like this is how the Dykes on Bikes did it! They are staple in the LGBTQ+ community, revving their engines and showing the world that there’s no stopping the power and confidence of the queer community.

    Baby dyke and dyke bars

    Other concepts have sprouted from our evergreen queer garden, like baby dyke, which is a lesbian who recently came out of the closet and is starting to learn about the gay way.

    Another one is dyke bars, which are pretty self-explanatory: a place for lesbians to drink, mingle, and maybe meet their next boo.

    Source: Thrillist

    Alright, now that you’ve been schooled on the history of the term ‘dyke’, you should be able to navigate the tricky waters of its usage like a pro. Just remember, it is for the gay girlies and the gay girlies only.

    At the end of the day, labels are for jars, and whether or not you want to describe yourself as a ‘dyke’, it’s awesome to know a word with such a convoluted past can become empowering for so many people in our community.

    Robyn Exton

    Robyn is the CEO & Founder of HER. Find her on Twitter.

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