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Reclaiming the D Word

Dyke. Dictionary.com defines it as “a female homosexual; lesbian” and classifies it as “slang: disparaging and offensive.” I will not argue with this definition or this classification because, really, it is an offensive term. However, at least in my experience, it does not always have to be a pejorative alternative to the word “lesbian” nor is it always meant to be one. Rather, it is who uses this term that determines how it’s received.

I’ve recently come to the realization that lesbians refer to each other as dykes a lot. Or at least, this is what happened when two of my lesbian friends and I hung out last weekend. Between lesbians, the word “dyke” has no venom behind it. It’s simply a synonym for lesbian, a synonym that we seem to opt for probably about 80% of the time. Yet if a straight person called any one of us a dyke, we would have been furious.

Supposedly, lesbians have reclaimed the term “dyke.” I say “supposedly” because how can we have reclaimed it when this double standard still exists? In reality, we have only taken the first step by being comfortable using it ourselves, but only when we are comfortable enough with it that it doesn’t sting when others use it will “dyke” have truly been reclaimed.

Of course, this is easier said than done, but at least in my opinion, this is the only way to reclaim any derogatory term, not just “dyke.” I saw this same scenario in high school with a very different term: walking past groups of black kids, it wasn’t uncommon to overhear the word “nigger” being thrown around in what was clearly a friendly manner. Similarly, the word “bitch” had the potential to take on a harmless tone when used between friends. Yet if used by the right people (or I suppose the wrong people), each of these can still be very offensive. Again and again, “offensive” language loses its sharpened edge when used between members of an in-group, but the same words reobtain their negative connotation when used by someone from the out-group. This isn’t reclaiming; it’s masking the hate behind the words with familiarity.

The original intention behind reclaiming a word was to take away the power it held over us, but if that’s the case, we’re not doing a very good job of it. By continuing to be bothered by such words as “dyke,” we are only giving power to those who use them in a negative way. I’m by no means encouraging the use of hateful language, but if any group ever wants to truly reclaim a word, we can’t let its use bother us no matter who is using it. Only then will these words have lost their power.

1 Comment

  1. jsegrist says:

    A lot of the reason it is so bothersome, in my own experience, is because when used amongst lesbians we know we aren’t insulting each other. When someone else uses the term dyke, fag, bitch, etc., it’s specifically in a negative way. Most people don’t have any problem with those terms if it’s used in a non harmful way.

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