Dyke is Not a Gender-Neutral Word. That’s Why It’s Powerful.

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“Dyke does not belong to any specific gender nor is it attached to genitalia #FuckTERFs.” So proclaimed Chicago Dyke March on their official Twitter account.

If any group should be in favor of woman-centric love, life, and politics, it ought to be a Dyke March. But the Chicago branch took to Twitter in order to distance themselves from same-sex attraction and the radical politics it often kindles in women. For decades, women prioritizing and building lives with other women have been met with hostility from mainstream society. And now, even within the community which lesbians helped to build, our woman-centric lives are treated with suspicion.

You might be wondering why a group that doesn’t want to align themselves with the politics a word like ‘dyke’ embodies continue to work under that banner. In this same Twitter thread, they said that “We choose the word ‘dyke’ as a POLITICIZED, empowering, and reclaimed word.”

But to understand the power women have found in reclaiming the term dyke, we must look at the context from which it emerged. Dyke is a word with a deep and complicated history. An abbreviation of “bulldyke”, it’s meant as to insult women who are butch or androgynous and show contempt for lesbian sexual practice. Traditionally, it was connected to the politics of class and respectability: feminine and/or middle-class lesbians were less likely to be branded dykes than their butch and/or working class counterparts, who were viewed as rough.

Dyke was originally used as a homophobic and sexist slur, and echoes of that insult leave some lesbians reluctant to use the expression. Others have proudly reclaimed the label of dyke, embracing its connotations of strength and swagger.

Not every lesbian feels comfortable describing herself as a dyke, which is perfectly understandable. But, to those lesbians who have reclaimed it, the word dyke is a source of affirmation. Dyke has become a kind of shorthand in lesbian circles, used to communicate a commitment to women – be it romantic, social, or political. Used in that way, it encompasses women from all different backgrounds and can articulate a shared connection.

Dyke March began in 1993. Organized by the Lesbian Avengers, it was the first time that so many lesbians had ever congregated in a public space. 20,000 lesbians united across differences of race, class, and creed to make a political statement by taking to the streets of Washington DC. They proudly marched as a collective unit – women, lesbians, together.

Dyke is not a gender-neutral word. It means women who love women. It refers directly, unmistakably to lesbians. And that’s why it’s powerful.

With this extraordinary bit of herstory in mind, we must ask why anybody would attempt to strip a Dyke March of its focus on lesbians. Dyke March was, after all, built by and for us. The default setting in so many LGBT spaces was and continues to be male. In such a climate, it is essential that lesbians unite to address our specific needs as a group. Problematising a space and culture built for lesbians undermines the principles that made Dyke March such a dynamic political force.

Dyke is not a gender-neutral word. It means women who love women. It refers directly, unmistakably to lesbians. And that’s why it’s powerful.