Some words carry a potent kind of power when spoken by a specific individual or group. Dyke is one of those words. For someone outside of the LGBTQ community, it likely has a negative connotation—it’s an insult flung from homophobic mouths like Steve Bannon, who once referred to the women’s lib movement as being made up of “a bunch of dykes that came from the Seven Sisters schools up in New England.” But much like the larger community has done with “queer,” lesbians have been working to reclaim the word for their own use and identification for decades.
“Lesbians have long been the object of vicious ‘name-calling’ designed to intimidate us into silence and invisibility,” wrote J.R. Roberts in the 1979 essay “In America They Call Us Dykes.” “In the Lesbian/feminist 1970s, we broke the silence on this tabooed word, reclaiming it for ourselves, assigning it to positive, political values.”
Since then, dyke has been a political identity for many young lesbians, its meaning expanding to, as Roberts detailed, “a strong independent lesbian who can take care of herself.” The word was used for a feminist lesbian magazine (DYKE: A Quarterly), Alison Bechdel’s famous long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and perhaps most famously, the all-women’s motorcycle crew Dykes on Bikes. And when the political activist group Lesbian Avengers decided to pull thousands of women together as part of the LGBT March on Washington in 1993, they did it under the name the Dyke March. Its success spawned siblings in several other cities, many of which are annual parts of Pride celebrations taking place this month.
Anne-Christine d’Adesky, co-founder of the Lesbian Avengers and subsequently the first-ever Dyke March, shared that the initial desire was to create lesbian visibility.
“Even in our own community,” she said, “of the issues that lesbians were dealing with … we felt that it was time to be able to kind of have that visibility and to counter pretty strong, really old stereotypes of lesbians, particularly lesbian activists—angry lesbians, shrill lesbians, humorless lesbians. So I think it was a combination of wanting to be in your face … I think it was also very much indicating a pride in that word and a sexuality of [dyke], in how strong it was—to take something that was seen as a slur, or seen as some kind of stigma and owning it with such pleasure, with such joy.”
Yet even within cities that hold dyke marches every year, some women find it hard to locate any positivity or power in the word’s meaning. And this, along with a lack of organizational support (some of which stems from queer women’s ability to volunteer free time and labor) and external logistical pressures, has placed the institution of the dyke march under threat.
Tammy Barr, an organizer with the Philadelphia Dyke March, reports that there is often controversy around the use of the word itself, saying it “divides community.” “Many refuse the term dyke,” Barr says. “Everyone is entitled to their preferences, but what word is [seen as] more vile and requires as much of a reclaiming to dissolve the hate that others intended when they used it?”
Portland organizer Belinda Carroll has been intermittently involved with the march since its inaugural year in 1993, and says she’s heard complaints about the word dyke being used from the beginning.
“[People said] it was ‘too aggressive and in-your-face; we should use something softer,’ ” she reported. “But, to me, and I’m speaking for my own experience, taking back the word dyke as a power word, a good thing to be, a cause of celebration turns it on its head, and can take some—some—of the sting out when you’re faced with the actually of someone using it against you. It’s like, ‘Dyke? Why, yes I am!’ ”
In San Francisco, this year’s March theme is “Calling All Dykes: Take Up Your Space,” which organizer Elizabeth Lanyon says “[speaks] to the urgency and need to reclaim and own spaces for queer women, regardless of the pressures working against us.”
“Dyke Marches are necessary because we are seeing a continued loss of dyke spaces in San Francisco primarily and around the country,” Lanyon said. “Dyke Marches are necessary because a dyke was beaten unconscious in Brooklyn just last month, because we still face discrimination for our gender and our sexual orientation, because there is are young queers in high school across this country being misgendered, being bullied; Dyke March is for them.”
The kind of power adopted by women who choose to self-align with the dyke reclamation has met with trouble from outside the community as well. In 2003, the Dykes on Bikes attempted to trademark themselves so that a clothing company of the same name could not become the legal owner of the phrase and charge them a fee for use. But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied their request three different times, saying “the proposed mark consists of or comprises matter which may disparage or bring into contempt or disrepute the lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities.” The DOBs had to then prove, with the help of San Francisco attorney Brooke Oliver and, eventually, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, that the word dyke was not derogatory or a pejorative, but in fact celebratory. They finally won after several appeals in 2008, but they are still fighting for the right to register their logo.
In May, Facebook removed a popular group out of New York called Dyke Bar Takeover, citing “hate speech” in the use of dyke in their name. Group creator Alana In says this happened after having been on the social media site for about a year; she noted that the group is a response to the shuttering of many lesbian spaces. DBT wants to create opportunities for queer women to gather together in bars that support their mission and help with their fundraising efforts, all of which goes to local relevant charities and organizations.
“Since I posted about it, I’ve heard not only in dyke spaces but also in other activist communities where they get backlash from Facebook on trying to reclaim language,” In said, “and it says a lot because you wonder how many people are being silenced for trying use words from an activist vantage point. It just shows Facebook is not reviewing any of the information that is being put out there—it’s an algorithm. They just shut things down.”
The group has since been reinstated (after making several complaints), and a rep from Facebook, Ruchika Budhraja, told me that “community standards make it clear that we do not allow hate speech on Facebook. … However, certain words or terms are used self-referentially and/or in an empowering way. … In those instances, we permit use, but we ask our users to clearly indicate their purpose so that we have the context we need to understand why a word was used or an image/video shared.”
Clearly, dyke remains a fraught word, both for those who should be allowed to use it and those who shouldn’t. But in 2017, with the 25th anniversary of the original Dyke March coming up next year, there is a continued struggle not only over the use of the word, but the marches themselves. Organizers of marches and rallies in larger cities are honest about the amount of time and energy they put into not only the actual event, but also the fundraisers they hold throughout the year in order to afford permits, the use of city agencies, venues, and performers.
“We struggle every year to get folks engaged and to keep folks engaged,” Lanyon said of San Francisco’s March. “Many of our organizers are on their second Dyke March this year; ideally these folks will keep organizing for the next five years if not more. Its critical to have consistency year over year because we lose a lot of experience and knowledge otherwise. Luckily, Dyke March has been well documented, and we have continued to create a road map so there is starting point, or a foundation rather, for the next year.”
“I think with anything long term, there is a tendency to just figure ‘Well, it’s been happening for 20 years and that it will just continue to happen,’” Carroll said of her experience in Portland. “So the urgency isn’t there as it is with other things. We live in a time where we have to divide a lot of parts of ourselves, and the most immediate thing is what we put our time toward. It’s human nature to tend toward apathy when something is ongoing vs. new. So, while the march is important, I think where the struggle lies in organizing Dyke Marches is keeping it fresh, keeping the political importance in mind and keeping people excited.”
As minorities like lesbians and other queer women become more active in preserving their history and being a part of new progressive movements, it seems like dyke might become less of an insult and more of a proud proclamation, which is exactly what the women who initially reclaimed it were hoping for.
“I like the word because it has such a strong attention to it,” said In, who noted she will continue to use Facebook to connect with NYC-area lesbian and allies for future Dyke Bar Takeover events. “It’s powerful, and you can’t say it without being noticed. … There is such a political connotation to it and I think as an organization that wants the community to feel like we are creating space to support those who need it most, that we identify as activists and dykes—in my opinion, personally and the organizers I work with—really kind of feed off of that.”
Organizers hope that along with the re-invigorated politicization of minorities and allies in Trump’s America, more dykes will work to sustain their spaces, marches, and identities—because if dykes don’t name and define themselves, others will take that power.
“The creation of new words and new definitions for old words serves a social and political purpose,” Roberts wrote 38 years ago. “It may constitute an act of power and rebellion for those who feel and are powerless; or it may provide a sense of validation and identity denied by the dominant culture, thus becoming a source of social/cultural cohesion and pride—a language of one’s own. A new language helps to articulate a new society.”
If you’re lucky enough to participate in or cheer on a dyke march this Pride, remember that that’s what you’re witnessing—not just a parade of people, but a political statement. And for queer women, the personal will always be political.