Rainbow Rant: Dyke, a love letter

Joy Ellison
Bikers with the group Dykes on Bikes take part in the annual LA 49th annual Pride Parade in West Hollywood, Calif. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Dyke. It’s a word that packs a punch. It can be a grievous insult and a harbinger of violence, or a term of self-love and pride. Love it or hate it, its power is undeniable. To me, it is the most wondrous word in the whole English language 

Dyke is the kind of word that feels good in your mouth and looks good on the page. The “d” has a pleasant pop when it flies from the lips. The “y” is flirty and the “k” lends style. In its sound and appearance, it reminds me of the first dykes I knew, the tough girls with short hair and swagger who stood out like fireflies on the streets of my hometown when I was in high school. 

Whenever I caught a glimpse of those women who were so obviously queer, I would think about them for a long time afterward. I pondered how they made their hair stick up like that and where they bought their clothes. I wondered if I could ever look masculine and feminine at the same time, like they did. I craved their company, their touch and their approval. I loved dykes, because they seemed to love themselves and that made me believe that they might love me, too. 

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If you wonder what the word dyke means, don’t askMerriam-Webster. Its entry is short: “usually offensive: lesbian.” Dyke, however, means so much more. 

Like all the best parts of life, dyke is shrouded in mystery. In theEncyclopedia of Homosexuality, Evelyn Gettone writes that some people say the word comes from Boadicca, the queen or the ancient Britons who fought the Roman occupation, but she rules this theory out as impossible on historical grounds. InAnother Mother Tongue, Judy Grahn writes that dyke may come from the name of the Goddess Dike of Greece, granddaughter of Gaia. Dike meant “the way, the path,” and the Goddess was said to maintain the balance of natural forces.JR Roberts points out that in mid-1800s American slang “to be diked out” once meant for a man to be dressed nattily, which could be why dyke often describes a queer woman or nonbinary person who is dressed in dapper ways. Though its long traveled across racial boundaries, dyke may have its roots in African American Vernacular English, as a part of the word “bull-dyke,” signifying a queer woman with manly airs. What all agree on, however, is that Mariam-Webster gets one thing right: dyke is of origins unknown. 

Is dyke a curse or a benediction? Perhaps it is a protection spell, a way of dressing oneself in the armor of self-regard. Dyke has a long history as an insult, a way of calling a queer woman ugly and perverted. Yet in the 1970s, queer women began using it to denote participation in queer liberation politics or for a queer woman who saw no reason to hide. 

Nowadays, the widest use of the word dyke is as a self-descriptor. Of course, some institutions have tried to save us from the danger of calling ourselves dykes. Facebook has banned queer women for using dyke to refer to themselves. The US Patent Office tried to prevent Dykes on Bikes from registering a trademark claim, but Dykes on Bikes won its case. Dyke may be the most thoroughly reclaimed insult in English. 

There are dykes, of course, who wouldn’t count me among their ranks, as I am a nonbinary person rather than a woman. With the deepest of respect, I say to them: Dyke was once the only word I had that came close to reflecting my gender. What reason is there to take it from me? I am, like the protagonist of Judy Grahn’s 1971 poem “The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke,” not a woman or a man, but just a harmless dyke. 

In the hands of self-described dykes, dyke is a word of rebellion. It’s unruly, capacious, and promiscuous in its appeal. That’s why it is my favorite word. Long may it reign.