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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”?
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  • 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

    Let’s go waaay back

    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.

    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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