Dyke is a slang term for a lesbian with certain qualities. Originally it was a derogatory label for a masculine or butch woman, and this usage still exists. However, it has also been reappropriated as a positive term implying assertiveness and toughness, or simply as a neutral synonym for lesbian.
The origin of the term is obscure, and many theories have been proposed. The first printed references come from 1920s novels connected with the Harlem Renaissance
and suggest that the term was originally bulldyker
, with dyke
being a shortened form. For example, in the 1928 novel, "Home to Harlem
", Claude McKay
wrote: "[Lesbians are] what we calls bulldyker in Harlem. ... I don't understan' ... a bulldyking woman.
" From the context of the novel, the word was considered crude and pejorative at the time. There are several theories of the origin of "bulldyker." One is that it arose as an abbreviation of "morphadike," a dialect variant of "hermaphrodite
," a common term for homosexuals
in the early twentieth century. This in turn may be related to the late nineteenth century use of "dyke" (meaning "ditch") as slang for the vulva
"Bull" is also a common expression for "masculine" or "aggressive" (as in "bullish"), so bulldyke implied "masculine woman". According to another theory, bulldyker was a term used for bulls whose purpose it was to impregnate cows. Just as the word "stud" was first used for such a purpose and was later used for sexually promiscuous men or for others in reference to a man who was successful with women, the terms "bulldyker" and "bulldagger" were also taken from their original context and used for the same purpose. A man who was a great lover or successful with women was called a "bulldyker." "Bulldyking woman" and "bulldyker" became terms for women who looked like a "bulldyker," a male stud, and were assumed to perform the role, as well.
In Another Mother Tongue, Judy Grahn proposed that the word bulldyke might have arisen from the name of the Celtic queen Boadicea, but this theory is implausible.
In the late 20th and early 21st century, the term was reclaimed by many lesbians. Examples in the culture include the comic strip "Dykes to Watch out For
" and the traditional Dykes on Bikes
that lead pride parades
Matters came to a head when the United States Patent and Trademark Office denied lesbian motorcycle group Dykes on Bikes a trademark for its name, on the grounds that "dyke" was an offensive word. In 2005, after a prolonged court battle involving testimony on the word's changing role in the lesbian community, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board permitted the group to register its name.
"Dyke Marches" have become a popular Pride event nationwide. They are generally non-commercial, often in sharp contrast to corporate-sponsored pride events, and are usually inclusive of lesbian, bi, and trans women.
The term will sometimes have an adjective added to it, as in:
- Bulldyke or Bull dyke or Bulldiker or Bulldiger (also, earlier, Bulldagger) more likely to present as butch
- Diesel dyke more likely to present as butch who most likely drives a truck
- Baby dyke a young, immature or recently out lesbian. Sometimes used in a pejorative sense within the LGBT community to refer to a lesbian who attempts to appear butch unsuccessfully.
- Femme dyke a lesbian who presents in an (often stylized) traditionally feminine way.
- Lipstick Dyke variation on the pop-culture term "lipstick lesbian". Also known as a "doily dyke."
- Stealth Dyke lesbian who can pass for straight, or does not fit the 'dyke' stereotype.
- Trans dyke Transsexual or Transgender woman who romantically and/or sexually prefers females.
- Bear dyke A lesbian of especially large build and/or physical prowess.
A dyke bar
is a term used to describe any bar or club in which lesbians often attend, but can also indicate a "tougher" establishment (in terms of the patrons or environment). As with the stand-alone word "dyke," the term is considered not only slang, but a potential slur
when used by non-LGBT persons.
- Knadler, Stephen P. (1963), "Sweetback Style: Wallace Thurman and a Queer Harlem Renaissance" MFS Modern Fiction Studies - Volume 48, Number 4, Winter 2002, pp. 899-936