Use in LGBT culture
Originally an insulting term applied to lesbians by non-lesbians, the term has been reclaimed among most lesbians and the LGBT community as a whole, and is usually used in a non-pejorative sense as simple alternative to 'lesbian' or 'gay woman'.
It is often used to generally refer to lesbians; it may also be used to indicate a political overtone, or to specifically refer to a more masculine or butch woman. The term is also more rarely (and very informally) used to refer to gay men who display both butch and femme personality traits.
In the late 20th and early 21st century, the term was reclaimed by many lesbians (to a far greater extent than, for example, "fag" for gay men). 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. 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. (365gay.com)
The term will sometimes have an adjective added to it, as in:
- Bulldyke or Bull dyke or Bulldiker – more likely to present as butch
- Diesel dyke – more likely to present as butch or drive a truck
- Baby dyke – a young 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.
Although the term is not used exclusively by butch lesbians, the effective opposite term is lipstick lesbian.
A dyke bar is a term used to describe any bar or club which tends to cater to lesbians, 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.
In the 1920s the terms "bulldyker" and "bulldyking" were popular in the sub-culture of Harlem Renaissance. In his 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. "Dyke" is a later abbreviation of bulldyke.
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 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 may have 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 men who used it to brag about themselves 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.
- 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
- Etymology of dyke on the Online Etymology Dictionary
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