The term dyke is a slang term, used as a noun meaning lesbian and as an adjective describing things associated with lesbianism. It originated as a homophobic and misogynistic slur for a masculine, butch, or androgynous girl or woman. While pejorative use of the word still exists, the term dyke has been reappropriated by out and proud lesbians to imply assertiveness and toughness, or simply as a neutral synonym for lesbian.
The origin of the term dyke is obscure and many theories have been proposed. Most etymologies assert that dyke is derived from bulldyke, which has a similar meaning. The term first appears in an August 1921 article in the journal Medical Review of Reviews titled "The 'Fairy' and the Lady Lover". In this article, Perry M. Lichtenstein, a prison physician in New York City, reports on the case of a female prisoner he examined: "She stated that she had indulged in the practice of 'bull diking,' as she termed it. She was a prisoner in one of the reformatories, and there a certain young woman fell in love with her." The forms bulldyker and bulldyking also appear in several Harlem Renaissance novels of the 1920s, including Eric D. Walrond's 1926 Tropic Death, Carl van Vechten's 1926 Nigger Heaven, and Claude McKay's 1928 Home to Harlem. In these novels the term is used as African-American vernacular speech. The Oxford English Dictionary notes the first attestation as Berrey and Van den Bark's 1942 American Thesaurus of Slang, which lists bulldiker as a synonym for lesbian.
The etymology of bulldyke is also obscure. It may be related to the late-19th-century slang use of dike ("ditch") for the vulva.Bull ("male cattle") being used in the sense of "masculine" and "aggressive" (e.g., in bullish), a bulldyke would have implied (with similar levels of offensiveness) a "masculine cunt". Other theories include that bulldyke derived from morphodite, a variant of hermaphrodite; that it was a term for stud bulls and originally applied to sexually successful men; or that it was a dialectical corruption of the name of the rebel Celtic queen Boadicea.
From the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, dike had been American slang for a well-dressed man, with "diked out" and "out on a dike" indicating a young man was in his best clothes and ready for a night on the town. The etymology of that term is also obscure, but may have originated as a Virginian variant of deck and decked out.
In a 1970 study, Julia Stanley theorized that the source of these varying definitions stems from gender-determined sub-dialects. Homosexuality in America is a "subculture with its own language." As such, a special vocabulary is developed by its members. Previously, male homosexuals defined dyke as lesbian without derogation. A bull dyke was also defined as a lesbian without further distinction. For female homosexuals of the community, however, a dyke is an extremely masculine, easily identified lesbian, given to indiscretion. Bull dyke is an extension of this term, with the addition of this person described as nasty, obnoxiously aggressive, and overly demonstrative of her hatred of men.
In 1995, Susan Krantz discussed the etymology of bulldyke, with derivations of the Middle English "falsehood" for bull and dick for dyke (Farmer and Henley 1891). Therefore, a possible origin for a masculine lesbian comes from bulldicker that could specifically mean "fake penis", denoting a "false man". Further speculation talks of the synonymous term bulldagger. Here, dagger also alludes to the male genitalia and bull referring to "false" rather than "man".
In 1969, people in the gay community began to march in the streets to demand civil rights. Terms such as dyke and faggot were used to identify people as political activists for the gay community. During this time, dyke referred to a woman committed to revolution, the most radical position. A surge of feminism in the lesbian community led to "dyke separatism", which emphasized that lesbian women should consider themselves to be separate from men, their ideas and movements.
In 1971, the poem The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke by Judy Grahn was published by the Women's Press Collective. This use of dyke empowered the lesbian community because heretofore it had only been employed as a condemnation. Because of the exposure of the word to the public, the term dyke was reclaimed by the lesbian community in the 1970s.
The meaning of dyke has positively changed over time. Most members of the community have dropped bull from the term to use it as a positive identifier of one who displays toughness, or as a simple, generic term for all lesbians. This abbreviation does not carry the negative connotations of the full phrase as it previously did. Scholar Paula Blank, in a 2011 article on lesbian etymology, called for taking ownership of lesbian and similar words.
In the late 20th and early 21st century, the term dyke was claimed by many lesbians as a term of pride and empowerment.Alison Bechdel, author of comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For (1983-2008), said use of the term was "linguistic activism". The strip depicts the lives of a lesbian community and is one of the earliest representations of lesbians in popular culture. It has been described "as important to new generations of lesbians as landmark novels like Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) and Lisa Alther's Kinflicks (1976) were to an earlier one."
In her 2011 article The Only Dykey One, Lucy Jones argues that consideration of lesbian culture is core to an understanding of lesbian identity construction. Matters came to a head when the United States Patent and Trademark Office denied the lesbian motorcycle group Dykes on Bikes a trademark for its name, on the grounds dyke was offensive, derogatory and disparaging to lesbians. However, the office reversed itself and permitted the group to register its name after attorneys appealed and submitted hundreds of pages to show the slang word does not disparage lesbians in the way it once did. On December 8, 2005, Dykes on Bikes won the trademark case, and the organization has since gained international recognition for leading San Francisco's gay pride parade.
In June 2017, Facebook censored the use of the word "dyke" on its website as "abusive content". This decision resulted in a Change.org protest petition created by the Listening 2 Lesbians collective that was signed by 7,247 supporters.
Dyke Marches have become popular gay pride events nationwide in the United States and Canada. They are generally non-commercial, in sharp contrast to corporate-sponsored pride events, and some are participated in by bisexual and trans women. The stated mission of the Boston Dyke March, for example, is "to provide a dynamic and welcoming space for participants of all sexualities, genders, races, ages, ethnicities, sizes, economic backgrounds, and physical abilities." Marches also take place in several European cities. The United Kingdom's first Dyke March was held in London in 2012. In Germany, the annual Dyke March Berlin was established in 2013. In Mexico, the Marcha Lésbica (Lesbian March) was founded in March 2003 and is held biannually in Mexico City.
Dyke on bike at New York City Pride March (2007)
Special Issue: A History of "Lesbian History," Part 2