Bulldagger is pejorative slang for a very masculine lesbian, which often carries a more racialized meaning than its synonyms bulldyke, bulldiker, and diesel dyke. Bulldaggers are associated with physical strength, sexual prowess, emotional reserve, and butch chivalry. The term has roots in African-American communities of the early twentieth century, especially with 1920s Harlem where sexual and gender mores were more flexible. As a queer butch gender, bulldagger is distinguished from lesbian androgyny or femme and, in lesbian-feminist reclamation of the term, helps to enrich what has been a white-washed lesbian history beginning with the figure of Sappho (c. 625–570 bce) (Bogus 1994).
As Eric Garber argues in "A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem," American 1920s blues culture "accepted sexuality, including homosexual behavior and identities, as a natural part of life"(1989, p. 320). Songs such as "Sissy Man Blues" and "B.D. [bulldike or bulldagger] Women Blues" dealt explicitly with the gender-bending types who populated this world. Harlem's most famous bulldagger, openly gay jazz singer Gladys Bentley, performed in tuxedos, dated glamorous women, and infused jazz standards with her own lesbian sizzle.
Despite tolerant recognition in 1920s Harlem, bull-dagger became an increasingly homophobic and racist expression used to disparage empowered, butch, or openly lesbian African-American women. Thus, the bull-dagger exists as a symbol of strength and ridicule in the black lesbian tradition. Scholar, poet, and essayist SDiane A. Bogus explains, "The Black Bulldagger is a link to our ancient and recent Black woman-loving past, and the predecessor of today's Black lesbian. She is a character, an idea, a woman who loved women but was heavily male-identified more often than not. She was the unattractive girl, the tomboyish teen, the independent woman, or any Black sister who repulsed the advances of men" (1994, pp. 30-32). In this sense, the bulldagger of the African-American cultural imagination exposes the intersectionality (the overlap of race, class, sexuality, and gender) inherent in the category of lesbian and offers a past and precedent for lesbians of color. Chicana cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa's mythic "La historia de una marimacha" (1993), which was translated into English as "A Bulldagger's Tale," attests to a comparable overlap of racialized butchness and lesbianism in a Latina context.
The linguistic origins of bulldagger, as with the lesbian monikers dyke and the earlier bulldike, are uncertain. Linguist Susan A. Krantz (1995) has theorized that bulldike (with dike a variant of dick, and 1920s American slang bull for untruthful talk) could be equated with false penis, a meaning that extends to bulldagger, given the dagger's analogous relation to the male sexual organ. From a more lesbian-feminist perspective, writer and poet Judy Grahn (1984) connects the words bulldike and bulldagger with Queen Boadicea (later, Grahn claims, pronounced "Boo-uh-dike-ay"), who led a successful Celtic uprising against Roman colonizers in 61 ce and was a priestess associated with bull sacrifices.
Audre Lorde's Zami, A New Spelling of My Name (1982) and Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues (1993) are autobiographies that grapple with the term bulldagger in race- and class-conscious historical contexts.
see also Butch/Femme; Dyke; Lesbian, Contemporary: I. Overview.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1993. "La historia de una marimacha" [A bulldagger's tale]. In The Sexuality of Latinas, ed. Norma Alarcón, Ana Castillo, and Cherríe Moraga. Berkeley, CA: Third Woman Press.
Bogus, SDiane A. 1994. "The Myth and Tradition of the Black Bulldagger." In Dagger: On Butch Women, eds. Lily Burana, Roxxie, and Linnea Due. Pittsburgh, PA: Cleis Press.
Garber, Eric. 1989. "A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem." In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey Jr. New York: New American Library.
Grahn, Judy. 1984. "Butches, Bulldags, and the Queen of Bulldikery." In Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds. Boston: Beacon Press.
Krantz, Susan E. 1995. "Reconsidering the Etymology of Bulldike." American Speech 70(2): 217-221.
Omosupe, Ekua. 1991. "Black/Lesbian/Bulldagger." Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3(2): 101-111.