The word dyke most often refers to a wall built to keep out the sea, a ditch, or a lesbian. Many people consider dyke a slang term or epithet when used as a synonym for lesbian. The origins of the word are unclear; the Oxford English Dictionary defines dyke as both a mannish woman, and a lesbian, as if these are equivalent terms. A related term bull dyke entered the language in Carl Van Vechten's 1926 Harlem Renaissance novel Nigger Heaven as bulldiker. Van Vechten borrowed the word from African-American slang, where it eventually was abbreviated to BD or BD woman as in blues singer Bessie Jackson's B. D. Women's Blues (1935). Poet Judy Grahn has suggested that the origins of bull dyke might lie in the similarly pronounced name of the ancient Celtic warrior queen Boadicea. Some sources note that the word French word dike, meaning men's clothing, was used to describe female cross-dressing pirates, such as Anne Bonny and Mary Read, as early as 1710. Claude McKay's novel Home to Harlem (1928) embellishes the references to lesbianism and homosexuality in blues great Bessie Smith's Foolish Man Blues (1927) with Harlem slang terms that include bull dyke. Smith had written "There's two things got me puzzled, there's two things I can't understand … That's a mannish actin' woman and a skippin', twistin', woman actin' man," while McKay's Jake declares "And there is two things in Harlem I don't understan'/It is a bulldyking woman and a faggoty man."
Dyke and related terms such as bull dyke, bulldagger, and diesel dyke are controversial, despite lesbian reclamation of the word in the 1980s and 1990s. These terms traditionally connote masculinity in women, and equate this masculinity with physical ugliness and overt hostility to men. Even in the early twenty-first century, the word dyke is sometimes considered a powerful insult to a woman's femininity. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminists were often called dykes as a way of discrediting their politics by equating feminism with lesbianism. It was and still is, many feminists concede, one of the best ways to discredit women.
In addition to disapproval in the heterosexual community, some mid-twentieth-century feminists considered butch-femme gender style an embarrassment to the feminist and gay rights movements. Some activist groups, such as the Daughters of Bilitis, strongly discouraged lesbians from masculine behavior and dress in the interests of middle-class respectability. Some feminists saw the butch lifestyle as an attempt by lesbians to mimic men rather than as a uniquely lesbian sexual and gender style in its own right, and dykey women were often considered pathetic wannabes. Butch-femme was more acceptable among working-class women, whereas middle-class women often preferred more traditional feminine self-presentation.
In the 1980s, many lesbians began to refer to themselves as dykes. At the same time, society showed renewed interest in butch-femme gender styles and in performative gender more generally. Lesbian motorcycle contingents in gay pride parades labeled themselves Dykes on Bikes in the 1980s, and in the early 1990s lesbian marches on gay pride weekends called their parades Dyke Marches. American cartoonist Alison Bechdel's popular comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For helped give the term respectability in the 1990s, and a cable access show started in New York around the same time called itself Dyke TV. It is not unusual to come across the term dyke movement to refer to this moment of appropriation and activism.
The term has remained popular in queer communities because it more easily encompasses butch women and transgender female-to-male people than does the term lesbian, which suggests a degree of female identification some dykes are uncomfortable with. One measure of acceptability of the term among lesbians is the presence of legitimate internet lesbian dating sites often referred to as dyke links. No equivalent sites exist for gay men using the term fag, which is still considered derogatory by most people.
Herbst, Philip H. 2001. Wimmin, Wimps, and Wallflowers: An Encyclopeadic Dictionary of Gender and Sexual Orientation Bias in the United States. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.
Nestle, Joan. 2003. A Restricted Country. San Francisco: Cleis.
dyke1 • n. variant spelling of dike1 .dyke2 / dīk/ • n. offens. a lesbian.DERIVATIVES: dyke·y adj. .
See also February fill dyke.