The Myth of the Honorary Lesbian: Or Who Can Use the Word “Dyke”

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In best-selling author Meghan Daum‘s new essay collection The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion,” a piece called “Honorary Dyke” delves into the straight-identified writer’s flirtation with lesbianism. 

“There was a period in my life,” she begins the essay, “roughly between the ages of thirty-two and thirty-five, when pretty much anyone who saw me would have assumed I was a lesbian.”

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Meghan cites her ownership of short spiky hair, Chuck Taylors, cargo pants, tank tops and a Subaru as giving her an air of “soft butch.” She writes, “The only man likely to approach me would have been one who needed directions to the Dinah Shore Weekend in Palm Springs.” Men don’t attend the Dinah, so this is clearly an attempted joke about butch women. 

The entire essay is a bizarre piece in which the writer goes from citing why she wanted to be seen as a worthy companion to lesbians (from those who went to her grad school to a butch author she asked to dinner after an interview in L.A.), to using any kind of stereotypical mention of gay culture she can, like a lesbian laundry list sprinkled throughout. (Martina Navratilova? Check. Jodie Foster? Check. Hasbian? Check.) It starts with Meghan listing why she wanted to appear lesbian-friendly to how she is frequently obsessed with other girls (non-sexually), to the time she tried a relationship with a woman, ending with her deciding she’s both a “secret butch” and an honorary dyke.

Lesbian & Gay Pride London 1985

Meghan’s use of this word, “dyke,” in both the title and several times throughout her essay proves problematic from the beginning. As a straight woman who spends almost as much time writing about how she wishes she were gay (but she just isn’t, dang it! Of all the bad luck!), it feels just plain icky to read her claims of being an adjacent part of our community. She says she was flattered by the attention of women, “because I believed I belonged to a special category of women for whom many of the conventional rules of hotness…. are rendered irrelevant.” Which, of course, is not completely true. The lesbian community, like the rest of the world, falls prey to conventional beauty standards. While it’s true that we are more interested in gender-play, androgyny and eschewing femininity as the only thing that makes a woman a woman, it’s incorrect to say we are not interested in “long hair, long fingernails” and “cosmetics.” That’s femme invisibility right there for you.

“I am an honorary dyke,” Meghan writes. “I am so thoroughly one that I’m allowed to use the word dyke in the transgressive, reappropriative manner that real lesbians often do.”

Which begs the question, is she? Who is an honorary dyke, and are they allowed to use that word we’ve reclaimed after its dark history as a violent insult slung at us from outsiders?

The etymology of “dyke” details its history from 1839, when it began as mophrodite, a term similar to hermaphordite based on the Greek figure Hermaphroditus, who “was loved by the nymph Salmacis so ardently that she prayed for complete union with him and as a result they were united bodily, combining male and female characteristics.” In the 1920s, bulldyke became a popular epithet slung at masculine-appearing women as lesbian culture began to emerge more in urban America.

The Dykes on Bikes first called themselves such in the ’70s as part of the San Francisco Pride Parade. When the Lesbian Avengers created the first-ever Dyke March during the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, it was in the name of lesbian visibility. It was ownership of an identity taken away from us by those who sought to tear us down. We’re here, we’re queer, and we are part of this revolution. At the same time, performance artist Penny Arcade toured with her show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! in response to the National Endowment of the Arts banning “obscene or indecent art” from being awarded grants from the government. She fought against gay shame, inspiring her LGBT peers to be out and proud, and to use the words that represent them in a way that puts them up, not down.

It wasn’t until 2006 that the Dykes on Bikes could get their name officially registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Offices. Their earlier attempt had been challenged by a lawyer named Michael McDermott who sued the USPTO saying DOB was “disparaging to men” and “scandalous and immoral.” The Dykes’ eventual win was because of our community’s reclamation of the term. The initial discussion of it being “disparaging or offensive” to the individuals referred to was incorrect, as “dyke” was now ours to use as a badge of honor.

San Franciscans Celebrate Gay Pride

The reappropriation that happens in Meghan Daum’s essay is only made worse by her story of dating a woman.

“…since honorary dykedom almost always requires a trial membership in legitimate dykedom, I knew I’d eventually have to give it the old college try.”

Let it be known that Meghan does not identify as bisexual. Her experience as written in this essay is exactly that–an experience she coins as a “college try.” The trope of LUGs (Lesbians Until Graduation) and college women trying out their sexual fluidity while in the safe contained space university often provides is well documented, but it’s how Meghan reflects on the relationship that is truly maddening.

Meghan’s short-lived girlfriend, Lynn, was “less about the sex than for the sociology,” she writes. Trips to lesbian bars “freaked [her] out enough to make [her] realize that [she] was not a lesbian so much as someone who appreciated a good haircut.” And when Meghan broke up with Lynn, she was “irritated” that Lynn cried.

“It also gave me a new appreciation for men, who are expected to deal with emotional women in much the same way they’re expected to help lift heavy objects. They have to sit there with the blubbering and pretend it isn’t making them horribly uncomfortable.”

This emotional display was upsetting to Meghan because she decided that in this relationship, “[Lynn] was playing the girl part and I was playing the guy part.”

If there’s anything a true honorary dyke knows, it’s that there are no male or female parts to be played in a lesbian relationship. That idea is ridiculously misogynist and asks that we identify under traditional gender norms that have been unwillingly placed on us like they have on the rest of modern society. There are butch/femme relationships, yes, but no one is “playing” a guy. In fact, we aren’t playing at all. These relationships are our lives.

Pride Week 2014

Truly I don’t mind if someone calls themselves an honorary lesbian. I have plenty of great allies in straight women and gay men who would qualify as being huge supporters. They’re also educated enough to know to not call themselves a dyke.

Meghan Daum’s conclusion is that her longing to be a lesbian was largely because she is uninterested in “women’s culture.” She doesn’t like the idea of “makeovers, diets, weddings, baby showers and walk-in closets.” What she doesn’t understand is that lesbians are women, too. Some of us are interested in all of those things she hates, while others of us could care less. There’s not one way to be a lesbian, some sort of rule book that says we must be rid of motherhood or health fads or wanting parties to celebrate our commitments to one another.

Lesbians are multi-faceted people that are being reduced to stereotypes from someone who claims to hate that about the culture she is supposed to identify with most: the straight, feminine woman. We love and celebrate the things that make us who we are, but who we are is so many more things than wearing fleece and being good with a powertool. (Some of us excel at both; others wouldn’t be caught dead brandishing either.)

Meghan quotes Audre Lorde toward the end of her essay:

“The true feminist deals out of a lesbian consciousness whether or not she ever sleeps with women.”

Audre, of course, speaks the truth. It’s just that Meghan Daum’s lesbian consciousness could use some enhancing. 

 

 

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