Last week I saw a Twitter thread shared on my timeline several times that I didn’t understand, and when I clicked into the thread in an attempt to learn more I became even more confused. A bunch of queer women appeared to be arguing about whether bisexual women were “allowed” to use the word “dyke” — a slang term that’s been around since the early twentieth century , typically referring to queer women who are “mannish” in appearance. Think about the Dyke Marches at Pride and Dykes on Bikes, or the long-running cartoon serial by Alison Bechdel Dykes to Watch Out For which is how I, a teenager in the 1990s, first learned and grew fond of its warm, rebellious edges. Since going down the rabbit hole, I’ve been lurking and reading — on Twitter and elsewhere (Tumblr, reddit) — where these policing conversations are taking place and I’ve written a number of Twitter threads about the themes that I’ve seen. Below are those threads in blog post format. I may update as the dyke police watch continues.
I think what I want all the babyqueers trying earnestly to police the use of “dyke” by people who identify as (among other things) as dykes is this: The language of gender, sex, sexuality, desire is not fixed. We are always becoming, and doing so in relationship with the world. The idea that our gender/sex/sexuality is super specific, innate, and fixed is a very recent and historically specific truth. That doesn’t make it less valid for those who find meaning in that paradigm. But it is not universal. It is not everyone’s truth. Yes, we want to be careful with our words. We want to use the language others choose for themselves and know the power and meanings of the words we use for ourselves. Those meanings may be multiple and contextual.
Words I have used to speak about my queerness that are all true: fluid, bi, gay, pan, demi, lesbian, sapphic, dyke, queer, not straight.
It’s particularly important to me — as a woman with bi/demi/pan desire, who for a full decade plus gaslit myself convinced I was not queer “enough” — to gently yet firmly remind folks that telling bi people they can’t identify as [insert queer term here] has a bad history. We do very real harm by telling bisexual people “you do not deserve these words” which is another way of saying to bisexual people “you do not deserve to be a part of our community.” So if you are being told somewhere by folks that “dyke” is only appropriately used by specific women (setting aside who polices on a case by case basis each person’s qualifications…) please stop and consider whom you are being asked to harm. And if you’re okay with that. And remember that it is OKAY to change and learn and grow and let go. The words you use, even for yourself, today may be different from the words you choose tomorrow.
All of the words can be true.
I honestly had no idea until two days ago this was a thing and now I can’t stop thinking about how fascinating and wild it is that there are people who’ve decided that bisexuals and lesbians are two circles on the Venn diagram that do not, and never have, overlapped. Just as one single example of how ahistorical that notion is, as recently as the 1970s historians have seen the use of lesbian/ism and lesbian desire to refer to (typically cis) women desiring women … the exclusivity of that desire wasn’t necessarily assumed. So many women who identified as lesbians / with the lesbian or gay community experienced bisexual desires during their lives. In some cases they also identified as bisexual, or shifted to using bisexual as their primary language of identity. But not uniformly so. So it’s fascinating to me, from a historian’s perspective, to see that there’s a cohort of people who’ve suddenly decided this group of jumbled-up queer women constituted two entirely separate groups with separate genealogies requiring a boundary that needs linguistic police.
I’m skimming through primary sources here on social media and so struck by the fact that a recurring definition used for “lesbian” by the people saying bisexuals can’t use “dyke” is “lack of attraction to men”. As a reader and writer of romance, I will say that a story about desire that is defined by what is not desirable rather than what is desired is always a huge red flag to me. Like … you can’t describe your attraction to women as attraction to women? You still have to define it in relation to men? That’s fucked up.
Another slippage that I’m seeing as a scroll through the primary sources here on social media is that there’s no distinction being drawn between hurling “dyke!” at someone as an act of aggression and someone using that word as a cozy self-descriptor. For me, in reference to myself, it’s like pulling on a fuzzy oversized sweater. But, like, dudebro hurls it out of his pickup truck at me and my wife on our walk to the grocery store — not fuzzy at all.
“Gay” is a totally mainstreamed word that bigots also weaponize. Context matters!
Continuing my adventures in reading the “bisexuals aren’t allowed to say dyke” corner of the Internet, here’s another slight-of-hand I’m seeing that is extremely red-flaggy from both an activist and historical perspective. The historical sources this crowd cite as origin documents all come from a period when “lesbian” was a term used both for behaviors (one engaged in lesbian acts rather than being a lesbian) and included women who might now identify as bi.
They acknowledge and/or are confronted with this historical context — that their argument (lesbians are the only people who can use the word dyke because it’s a derogatory term only used toward lesbians) is undermined by the documented usage of the term over time — but shimmy around the problem by arguing that now lesbians (the group against whom the word dyke was originally hurled) include a much narrower group of people, and that narrower group of people are the people who have the right to police usage.
This also conveniently ignores that dyke is a word that not only has associations with same-sex desire but has a strong historical association with gender presentation — so a case could be made it’s not primarily about whom you have sex with but that you present as a “mannish” woman.* So the self-deputized dyke police also put forward a fascinating (to this historian of sexuality) theory about community ownership of histories: that it is (a very specific) present-day definition of a community that determines who has the right to the community’s history. If we take as a given (which I don’t) that at some point around 1969 “lesbians” and “bisexuals” found enlightenment and became two wholly separate communities, when before they had maintained only one, who, then, has the “right” to the pre-history that included both? The folks currently defining “dyke” as the sole property of “lesbians” maintain the only people who identify as their particular, current-in-the-moment definition of lesbian have a legitimate claim to the pre-history of queer women. That claim situates this particular group as the most lesbian, because it places them in the position of continuity with lesbian forebears, while all other queer women must apply (to them) for the right to even speak the words of that shared past.
At this point, I’m not going to directly engage with these folks because 1) a lot of them seem to be quite young and I’m not parachuting into their timelines as a grumpy older stranger because that’s a shitty power move, and 2) they clearly don’t want to discuss this. But I do want to put out there, for any peers or younger folks they are currently bullying, from me and all of the other queer folks who feared for years we weren’t queer enough to speak the words: YOU ARE ENOUGH. You are queer enough. This is your history. Speak the words that help you make sense of who you are in the world & connect with people in the past & present who help you feel less alone. The people with delusions of grandeur telling you what you’re “allowed” to say are wrong.
*Remembering that all of this historical-contextual usage developed during a time when our understandings about gender and sex, and the relationship of gender and sex to desire, were very different than our understandings today.
So two items of note from yesterday’s dyke police watch. They decided to lose their shit over a man on a con panel who gave a shout out to a lesbian colleague’s podcast: “Desperate Housedykes.” There were, I understand, other content problems with the panel. It’s not my fandom and not my lane to speak to those. This thread is only about the dynamics around a man saying “dyke” as part of saying the title of a queer woman’s podcast.
The angry dyke police keep making, in this situation and others, comparisons between the word dyke and the n word which I think is a really noteworthy tactic. By claiming that anyone other than (their narrowly defined category of) lesbians uttering the word dyke under any circumstance is analogous to non-Black people speaking the n word they are elevating “dyke” to a potency level of universal hate that it never had, and certainly doesn’t universally retain today.
I would argue this move, and the rhetorical strategy of replacing dyke with “the d slur”, enlists the power of structural racism and anti-racist activism in a completely inappropriate way against a word that has had a much less violent, much more mixed-bag history.
Why? That’s my current question. Why take a word that the queer community has used creatively in a wide variety of activist and social ways since the 1970s and attempt to re-stigmatize it? Yesterday’s argument, that the word should be unspeakable, would make the creative work of many queer women difficult to promote, to recommend, to squee about, to share joyfully, to discuss in a class, or review comprehensibly. When we use “dyke” we use it for a reason. While obviously people who are uncomfortable with the word can choose not to say it, I am deeply troubled by the way they are trying to make our chosen words unspeakable by others.