My slur reclamation is not your neutralization

Lee Thomas, Humor Writer

“I have learned to strengthen myself in the midst of suffering. Although suffering is not a prerequisite to growth, it does catalyze our survival instincts, which force us to transform and integrate new perspectives in order to survive.”

— Chella Man


I identify as a dyke in gender, sexuality and ideology. I’ve spent the last decade of my life looking to my queer (specifically dyke) ancestors for lessons on identity, community and politics, finding solace in the memories of their existence, actions, joy and love.

The people started calling me dyke in middle school because my existence scared them. Students called me the word behind my back with vitriolic glee, at lunchtime they spit it under their breaths as I walked by (cowards) and only a few times, when brave enough, they said it louder and openly in my face. Best friends used the label as an excuse to turn against (or at least away from) me as my queerness became more and more evident over the months. In eighth grade, a friend I had had since I was three was always quick to remind me about her army knife collection whenever I asked to join the sleepover. At age 15, a vigilante friend of a friend of a friend cut me with a razor outside of a church because, “dykes don’t get to roam free without regulation.” 

So I am not just queer, but I am a queer. The way that the word queer – its connotation, its denotation, its frequency of usage and who uses it – has so drastically shifted over the last few decades (no, mere years) does not exactly bring me comfort. Perhaps because it brings others too much comfort. 

Reclaiming the term dyke as such a central component of my identity as a human being is not an invitation for anyone and everyone to use it neutrally. No one may call me dyke the same way they would call me green-eyed, short, a student or any other such adjective and noun. My reclamation of dyke is a declaration that the power has been subverted from its original state of cruelty and hatred as I’ve become mentally, emotionally and physically stronger. It is a declaration that I will exist as myself without being silenced, and that I’ve been able to find family, friends and communities that ground me. It is a declaration that I’ve survived the harassment and hatred from people ranging from immediate family members to complete strangers, the kind that leads to suicide for an overwhelming amount of queer people, specifically queer youth like myself during this time. It is a declaration that they couldn’t exterminate me like the unwanted pest they saw (and still see) me as being. 

Growing up, I was taught by non-dykes what being a dyke meant, and it was ugly. Growing older, I’ve learned what being a dyke can mean and how I can define it for myself, and it is blooming, marching and loving. 

When I was 16, I took a summer poetry class on scholarship at CalArts. I structured one of my poems through poster slogans from dyke marches in the 1990s. I don’t have a copy of it, but I remember that each stanza-ending line built upon the last until amassing into, “Yes, I am fat and ugly and hairy and man-hating and angry.” The (cisgender, heterosexual) professor told me the first half was beautiful, but the last two adjectives were “disconcerting.” She suggested I leave “man-hating” and “angry” out so that I don’t “upset” the audience and turn them away from “supporting the movement” by being too aggressive. By making the dyke marches (no, dykeism itself) aggressive, I was using the language that homophobes used (and use) against us to justify their fear of and discomfort with us. The aggression was not born within me or my own words. But to my professor, and to many others, they are my words because these qualities of ugliness, anger and aggression are inherently attributed to me by identifying as a dyke. Because dykes scare them. 

I did not know at the time how to tell her that this was not a poem urging allies to support some movement. It was not a poem about diluting myself, my fellow dykes and the history of dykehood to be consumable enough for non-dykes to jump in and join the party. It was not about prioritizing allyship engagement in our lives (which have been politicized to the point where the “need” for allies has become an annoyingly dominant narrative) rather than just living our lives independently of assimilation. The movement – our life and love – was happening, with or without ally participation, comfort and energetic inclusion. 

Years later, I received a message on Instagram from one of the girls in that class. She said, “This is really silly and random, but you were the first person in my life to describe yourself or identify as a dyke and I remember being like ‘wow I can do that?’ And genuinely, dyke is my current favorite label for the human I am and sometimes I remember you’re the first one who said it to me, and it was a weirdly significant memory that you probably don’t remember.”

I do remember. This is why I not only openly call myself “the D-slur,” but I endorse it as a core definition of my being: community building, relief and peace in self-identification and personal joy. Being so comfortable with one’s self, the self that strangers, politicians, enemies and loved ones want to stomp out of you is what it means to be a dyke.

I am grateful that many of my fellow queers are able to navigate a life that is warmer and easier than that of our queer fore-parents. But when a cisgender, heterosexual professor details their specialty in “queer studies,” I can’t help but think of how the obsessive “normalization” of queerness undermines our past and present struggles by quelling any discourse around queerness and how it is vilified by language. These words are just dictionary terms now, no longer a conversation within themselves, even though they should still and forever be. 

The terms “queer,” “dyke,” etc. do not get to be the now-neutral terms for allies and reformed homophobes to refer to us with.  They do not get to be standardized labels for genres or studies or anything else. I am offended at how many of you are no longer offended when I express my dykeness, my greatest character flaw, as you told me throughout the past decade of my life. It was your word of vitriol and disgust that I transformed into one of immense, unconditional love and you don’t get to take it back and neutralize it into nothingness. I am a dyke, and I hope that the joy and comfort I find in that word is deeply uncomfortable.