I was 10 years old the first time I heard the word “dyke.” It was just a few weeks after my family moved to California to be closer to my grandparents, and I was sitting in the backseat of my grandfather’s car as he drove us to “the best Mexican place in town” for dinner. As the car rolled up to a red light, I could see two women — who both presented masculine — holding hands and walking on the sidewalk.
My grandfather leaned across my mom’s lap to get his face as close as possible to the passenger-side window. Then he shouted, “Fucking dykes!”
I don’t remember what the women did — if they ignored him and just kept walking, or if his words registered as pain and anger on their faces. But I remember being confused. What exactly was a dyke? It had to be something bad for him to spit the word at them with such venom.
When I asked my mom later that night, she told me that it was a word for women who love other women. Okay then, I thought. It must be bad for two women to love each other, if the word used to label them was something my grandfather could say so hatefully. A decade later, I could barely utter the word “gay” as I told family and friends that I’m attracted to women. “Lesbian” was even harder to say, and “dyke” was absolutely impossible.
People often say there’s power in taking back the words used against us, and I understand where they're coming from. If we call ourselves "queer" or "homo" or "dyke" as a term of endearment, then it feels like that word can’t hurt us anymore. It's about shifting the power.
"When you reclaim a slur, you take the power away from the person using it against you and carry the power for yourself," says Nicky Zamoida, a lesbian woman and writer from Austin, TX, who feels comfortable calling herself "queer" or a "lesbo."
But a community doesn't reclaim slurs like these overnight, and some of us might never get past the painful memories associated with words like "dyke," "fag," or "homo." Sally McConnell Ginet, a professor of linguistics at Cornell University who's known for her work with gender and sexuality, says that sometimes successfully reclaiming a word requires distance from the word itself. She uses "queer" as an example.
For younger generations of LGBTQ-folk, it's sometimes hard to remember that queer was once a slur. The word has been absorbed into academia — my minor in college was actually called Queer Studies — and is now so ubiquitous that it doesn't even sound harsh when straight people use it to describe their gay or gender non-conforming friends. Yet, some older people still find queer to be an offensive word, because it was slung at them on playgrounds and sidewalks as a way to keep them in their place.
"There’s an interesting statement from one of the people who helped popularize reclaiming 'queer.' He said later that he wondered if he really should have done it, because it upset older activists," McConnell Ginet says. "With the experience they had with the word, they couldn't join in shouts of, 'We're here, we're queer.' It was just too tied to personal stuff that they had put up with."
Yet, slurs aren't only reclaimed once a generation is distant enough from the pain they've caused. There are some people who can take a word used directly against them and still turn it into something powerful. McConnell Ginet says that, for these people, the reclaiming is often like a verbal middle finger to those who use the word in hate. "It says, 'Look, you can’t hurt me with this word,'" she says. "It’s a defiant kind of move."
So, yes, there is power in taking back the words that have historically been used to tell us that what we feel and who we are is unnatural or disgusting or wrong — even though it can take a lot of work and courage to get there. I'm not ready yet, but maybe someday I'll be able to say, "Hi, I'm Kassie and I'm a dyke."
Read on to see how 12 other LGBTQ people really feel about reclaiming slurs.
Gender and sexual orientation are both highly personal and constantly evolving. So, in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, we're talking about the importance of language and raising the voices of the LGBTQIA community — because gender should be defined by the people who live it. Want to learn more? Check out our Gender Nation glossary.