Spring break is over, and we're back in session at FGS. I had managed to arrange things nicely so that I had no grading to do over the two-week break (yay!), but I had given myself homework nevertheless: I had decided that I was going to write an essay for my dangerous words assignment to function as a model for my students. None of my students had chosen the word dyke, so that's what I wrote on.
Hours and hours later, I finally had a paper. It turns out that this is quite a big project that I've assigned my students! Not inappropriately big, I think -- it is their major essay in their last term -- but certainly it is a heavy-duty project. And I say "hours and hours," but I really did most of it this past weekend, so it's not unreasonable.
And of course I got totally sucked into the paper for its own sake, so I think it quite likely that I spent longer on it than my students will! I worried at points that I was overdoing it, but I finally decided that it was okay to set the bar pretty high for what I was looking for from them. I'm also going to be really clear with them that every paper will be different because different words have different interesting things about them, so they're not trying to re-create my essay.
I handed out the model essay today, and we're talking about it in class at the end of the week. I have never, ever given students a model for an essay, and I'll be very interested to see how it works. Of course, if it turns out to be a great project, I'm then stuck with a lot of high school essays to write!Anyway, I thought you all might be interested in what I wrote, so here it is:
Dyke: It Takes One to Say It
Dyke. The word can strike fear into the heart of any woman, lesbian or straight, who hears it in the wrong tone of voice in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it can also create a warm sense of community and pride among women whose primary sexual attraction is toward other women. Frequently used as a derogatory term for homosexual women, in particular for those whose appearance seems masculine, dyke has now been reclaimed by many lesbians as a term of proud cultural identification. The word’s origins are shrouded, but its present and immediate future seem clear: dyke has become an acceptable, gay- and woman-positive term when used as in-group language, but it is still a potentially threatening enough term that its use outside of that in-group is tricky at best and dangerous at worst. My recommendation would be to leave the word dyke strictly to the dykes.
The non-slang meaning of the word dyke – more usually spelled dike – is primarily “a water-course or channel, including those of natural formation,” such as a river or water running through a ditch, and secondarily “an embankment, wall, causeway,” “a wall or fence” (“dike, dyke,” Oxford English Dictionary). The dikes used in land-reclamation in Holland are perhaps the use of this definition most familiar to Americans. As contemporary slang, however, the word dyke refers to a lesbian or to a masculine woman (“dike, dyke,” OED). Related terms are bulldyke or bulldike, bulldyker or bulldiker, and bulldagger (Spears 319).Language of dyke and bulldagger is historically and still frequently used as an insulting characterization of lesbians, one often accompanied by the threat of violence. For example, in November 2008, when a lesbian couple, Anji Dimitriou and Jane Currie, were attacked by Mark Scott outside their children’s elementary school in Ontario, Canada, he allegedly called them “fucking dyke bitches” while punching them in the face and spitting in Dimitriou’s face (Welsh); Scott’s vitriolic words clearly intensified the violence of his actions. The words dyke and lesbian are also often applied to women by men whose sexual advances have been rejected. At Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, for example, a 1989 date rape awareness campaign was mocked by some male students on campus, who revised the “‘No’ means ‘no’” slogan by displaying signs reading “‘No’ means ‘dyke,’” as well as “‘No’ means ‘tie me up’” and “‘No’ means ‘kick her in the teeth’” (Valentine 67-68; Becker). This practice of accusing women of lesbianism simply because they refuse unwanted sexual advances is known as lesbian-baiting or dyke-baiting; in a homophobic society, many women are anxious to avoid being identified as a lesbian, and thus dyke-baiting is often used to keep women “in line,” to pressure them into having sex, and to keep them silent about rape and attempted rape. Lesbian-baiting has been a particular problem in the United States military, where, according to a 1997 report,
[f]emale soldiers who refuse the sexual advances of male soldiers may be accused of being lesbians and subjected to investigation for homosexual conduct. As in the case of men falsely accused of sexual harassment, women accused of lesbianism believe that the mere allegation harms their careers and reputations irreparably. (Secretary of the Army, 66)
As these examples indicate, being called a dyke can have devastating consequences for one’s career or even one’s life. There are clearly good reasons that women – whether lesbian or not – may fear the word dyke when spoken by men and may find it not only disparaging but dangerous.
Such threats are not, however, the only usage of the term at this point. According to linguistics scholar Susan E. Krantz, the word dyke has undergone a significant linguistic change, from disparagement to pride: “the lesbian community has transformed the derogatory dike into a positive identifier to be used within the community to signify toughness and assertiveness or simply as a generic term for all lesbians” (Krantz 220). In the words of activist Joan Nestle, founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City, “In the late ’50s, … when I was first exploring a public lesbian identity, the most dehumanizing taunt suspicious heterosexuals hurled at me was ‘bull dyke.’ It was filled with their conception of what a lesbian was like—an ugly, aggressive animal.” She adds that the New York City police referred to the holding cell for women arrested in raids of lesbian bars as “the bull dyke pen.” In 2006, however, she and over twenty other activists and scholars testified that the word dyke is no longer a derogatory word. As she says, “I knew better than anyone what it meant when in the late ’70s, younger women proudly reclaimed the word ‘dyke.’ … Young women full of strength and hope … emptied the word of its bigotry and fear, replacing it with community and self-affirmation” (qtd. in Raab). For example, San Francisco lesbians since 1993 have organized annual “Dyke Marches” in conjunction with the city’s gay pride parades, a tradition of lesbian visibility that has spread to other cities (The San Francisco Dyke March). Older lesbians often affectionately refer to young lesbians, especially those who have recently “come out,” as baby dykes, and Gay Pride parades in many cities feature women’s motorcycle groups called Dykes on Bikes.
When the San Francisco Dykes on Bikes – the first and most well-known of these motorcycle clubs – tried to trademark the name, however, they ran into difficulties that make clear the importance of context in determining the meaning and power of the word dyke. Nestle’s testimony above, about changes in the word dyke, was on behalf of the group, which had a long fight before being granted a trademark on their name. In 2004 and again in 2005, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied the group’s trademark application on the grounds that the Lanham Act prohibits registering trademarks that “may disparage” a group of people. In the words of the PTO’s 2004 decision, “The fact that some of the disparaged party have embraced or appropriated the term DYKE, does not diminish the offensiveness of the term that has historically been considered offensive and derogatory” (qtd. in Anten 389). Legal scholar Todd Anten argues that the PTO should consider the identity of the person or group who is making the request and allow potentially disparaging names when requested by a member of the potentially disparaged group (390-91). After the PTO rejected Dykes on Bikes’ application, the office received hundreds of pages of statements and evidence to prove that the word is not always or only denigrating. As Vick Germany, president at the time of Dykes on Bikes, explained, “The word dyke has been used to put us down, and we have taken that name and reclaimed it as a source of pride.” In December 2005, the PTO reversed its decision and approved the trademark request, conceding that the word dyke was no longer considered disparaging by many in the lesbian community (Guthrie).
Such a public claiming of the word does not, however, mean that it is not still used in denigrating and violent ways – witness the brutal beating of the lesbian mothers mentioned earlier – but rather that the word’s context and speaker make all the difference in its meanings. Nestle may claim that dyke has been “emptied … of its bigotry and fear” (qtd. in Rabb), but others would argue, as Krantz does, that this emptying has happened only “within the [lesbian] community” (220) and not in larger society. What is celebratory when the Dykes on Bikes say it, can be threatening, career-destroying, or even life-ending when a violent man uses it. In the words of scholar Christy Stevens, “Although dyke remains a derogatory term within dominant-culture discourses, functioning as a threat that compels women to perform prescribed feminine roles and behaviors, many lesbians consider dyke a positive appellation describing a strong and independent lesbian” (251). This dual use of the word is apparent in Dykes to Watch Out For, a biweekly comic strip by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel that ran in alternative and college town newspapers for over twenty years. Clearly the title of the comic strip itself is a public claiming of the word dyke as a form of self-identification for lesbians, but Bechdel recognizes that the word’s definition is more complicated than simply proud self-naming; unlike those who simply celebrate the word, she recognizes its potential danger. In her autobiographical “Cartoonist’s Introduction” to The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, published in 2008 after the strip ended its long run, Bechdel includes side-by-side panels that illustrate the word’s dichotomy. In the left-hand panel, as a young Alison and a friend head into a concert by Alix Dobkin, a lesbian singer, an angry man on the street glares at them and calls them “dykes”; in the right-hand panel, Alison is inside the concert, so excited to see that there’s a vibrant lesbian community that she says to herself, “dykes!” (xii). As Bechdel recognizes, an angry man and an excited young lesbian mean very different things when they say “dyke,” and these rhetorical contexts must be borne in mind when making decisions about appropriate uses of the word.
As Stevens notes, “[l]esbian feminists’ attempts to resignify dyke sparked critical interest in its etymological origins” (250). Linguists have speculated and argued over possible etymologies of dyke and its related terms, but lexicographical consensus remains that those origins are obscure. One theory, now largely discredited but still in limited popular circulation, is that the word hermaphrodite was sometimes shortened and mispronounced as morphodite, which over time became morphodyke and eventually dyke (Hill 269; see also Krantz 217). Another proposed etymology arises from the non-slang meanings of the word dyke, meaning ditch or trench, which for some observers is a parallel to female genitalia; linguist Richard Spears, however, argues that this etymology “is far too speculative” (322). Other possibilities include dyke’s arising from an earlier slang definition of the word that cropped up in America in the nineteenth century; perhaps a variation on the word deck, dike referred to dressing up, as in an 1851 use of the word in Benjamin H. Hall’s A Collection of College Words and Customs: “At the University of Virginia, one who is dressed with more than ordinary elegance is said to be diked out” (“dike, dyke,” OED). If dike thus once referred to male clothing, some people have argued that dyke might have been a term for a woman dressed as a man, but Spears again points out the lack of evidence for this etymology (323).
One of the weaknesses of these proposed etymologies is that the earliest appearances of the word in print are in the form bulldiker and bulldycking, in Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven and Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem respectively; these are both 1926 Harlem Renaissance novels, indicating that this slang use of the word arose as part of the African American subculture in New York during the 1920s (Krantz 217; see also Spears 320). Any etymological possibility that does not take the form bulldiker into account thus must be suspect (“dyke (or dike),” Rawson’s). Krantz makes an interesting etymological proposal that bulldyke may derive from the meanings of bull as “false” (as in “that’s bull”) and dyke as “dick,” meaning penis or man (a coarse slang dating from the late nineteenth century (“dick,” OED); thus, as Krantz proposes, “the original term for masculine lesbian could have been bulldicker or bulldick, either specifically meaning ‘fake penis’ or, more innocuously but still to the point, ‘false man’” (219). Bulldagger would then have a similar derivation, with a dagger representing a penis due to “similarities of … shape and function”; thus, a bulldagger, like a bulldyke, would be a false man and therefore a mannish woman (Krantz 219). Krantz admits, however, that “[a]ll of this, of course, is highly speculative” (220). Many other potential etymologies and possible sources – what Spears refers to as “odds and ends” (324) – have been put forward by linguistic historians, and yet no consensus is clear; the Oxford English Dictionary thus retains its etymological note, “Of obscure origin” (“dike, dyke,” OED).Of course, most people who speak or hear the word dyke neither know nor care about competing etymological arguments. What they care about, understandably, is the context in which the word is being used, which determines whether the specific atmosphere is one of threat or pride. That importance of context is, for me, what removes the word dyke from my daily vocabulary. While I am interested in the powerful move of reclaiming dangerous words, of oppressed people’s turning the tables on their oppressors by assertively changing the connotation of derogatory words, of essentially saying “Hell, yeah, we are ‘dykes on bikes” and damn proud of it!,” I also think that such reclamation is always unstable as long the oppressors still have power over the oppressed. I am a lesbian, but I never call myself a dyke. I certainly don’t mind it when other people self-identify as dykes, and I have sometimes, when in a group consisting only of lesbians, jokingly referred to someone as a “baby dyke,” but the word dyke itself retains enough of its threat for me that it makes me uneasy. Perhaps because I’ve spent considerable time in homophobic environments, I am wary of potential threats, and it seems problematic to use a word for myself that would make me angry or afraid if someone else used it. But I am equally reluctant to police the language that other people use to describe themselves; it seems to me that the power of self-naming is central to a strong sense of identity. What I do think is vital, however, is that the word dyke remain strictly in the purview of self-identification rather than other-identification; that is, a woman may choose to call herself a dyke, but no one else should call her that! Ultimately, therefore, just as “it takes one to know one,” it should “take one to name one,” and I would argue that only a dyke should use the word dyke.
Acknowledgement: I appreciate the assistance of librarian Ms. G and of my partner, D., both of whom read drafts of this essay and provided helpful feedback.
Works CitedAnten, Todd. “Self-disparaging Trademarks and Social Change: Factoring the Reappropriation of Slurs into Section 2(A) of the Lanham Act.” Columbia Law Review 106 (2006): 388-434. Web.
Becker, Sabina. “Remembering the Montréal Massacre, 20 years later.” News of the Restless [blog]. 6 Dec 2009. Web. 29 Mar. 2010. <http://www.hollow-hill.com/sabina/2009/12/remembering_the_montreal_massa.html>
“dick.” Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1989. Web. 28 Mar. 2010. <http://www.oed.com>.
“dike, dyke.” Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1989. Web. 25 Mar. 2010. <http://www.oed.com>.
“dyke.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. Web. 25 Mar. 2010. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/dyke>.
“dyke (or dike).” Rawson’s Wicked Words. Chicago: Hugh Rawson, 1989. Credo Reference. Web. 27 Mar. 2010.
Guthrie, Julian. “Trademark office OKs ‘Dykes on Bikes.’” San Francisco Chronicle. SFGate, 9 Dec. 2005. Web. 28 Mar. 2010. < http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/12/09/MNGQOG5D7P1.DTL>
Harper, Douglas. “dyke.” In Online Etymology Dictionary. Web. 25 Mar. 2009. <http://www.etymonline.com/>
Hill, Archibald A. “The Etymology of Dike.” American Speech 57, 4 (Winter 1982): 269. Web. 28 Mar 2010.
Krantz, Susan E. “Reconsidering the Etymology of Bulldike.” American Speech 70, 2 (Summer 1995): 217-21. Web. 28 Mar 2010.
Raab, Barbara. “Sticks & Stones and Dykes.” In These Times (23 Jun 2006). Web. 28 Mar 2010. < http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/2703/sticks_stones_and_dykes/>
The San Francisco Dyke March. Home page. Web. 29 Mar. 2010. < http://thedykemarch.org/>
Secretary of the Army. Senior Review Panel Report on Sexual Harassment. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1997. Web. 28 Mar 2010.
Smorag, Pascale. “From Closet Talk to PC Terminology: Gay Speech and the Politics of Visibility.” Transatlantica 1 (2008). Web. 27 Mar. 2010. <http://transatlantica.revues.org/index3503.html>
Spears, Richard A. “On the Etymology of Dike.” American Speech 60, 4 (Winter 1985): 318-27. Web. 28 Mar 2010.
Stevens, Christy. “Dyke.” In Lesbian Histories and Cultures: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Bonnie Zimmerman. New York: Routledge, 1999. 250-51. Print.
Valentine, Gill. From Nowhere to Everywhere: Lesbian Geographies. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.
Welsh, Moira. “Lesbians attacked outside school.” Toronto Star (11 Nov 2008). Web. Accessed 28 Mar 2010. < http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/article/534469>