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Illustration by Brittany England

I’m no stranger to testy internet trolls. But I’ve never received as much hate mail (or hate DMs, rather) as when I posted — and then Greatist reposted, with permission — a photo of myself in a sleeveless sweatshirt with blocky lettering indicated DYKE on the front.

“In the last 10 years, since first coming out as not-straight I have identified as: lesbian, queer, queer dyke, biromantic homosexual dyke, lesbian (again), and most recently: queer bisexual dyke. Or more specifically, a white, non-disabled, well-off, college educated, cisgender queer bisexual dyke,” I wrote in the caption.

Unfortunately, for every shirt-compliment I received, I received thrice as many comments insisting that it is not possible to be bisexual and a dyke at the same time.

“Yikes you can’t be a ‘bisexual dyke,’ only lesbians can reclaim dyke,” wrote one person.

“You’re not a dyke if you’re bi. You’ve always been bi just didn’t realize it until later. Dyke does not equal bi […] WHY DO BISEXUALS KEEP TRYING TO STEAL LESBIAN WORDS??,” wrote another.

“Figure yourself out and stop f***ing lesbians over by insinuating that a woman can call herself a lesbian and be attracted to men. Disgusting,” commented a third.

I’m sensitive to the fact that most of these comments come from an instinct to protect dyke identity and dyke spaces. But at best these comments are factually incorrect and ahistoric, and at worst they’re biphobic.

Allow me to explain.

There are two leading theories for the origin of the word dyke, both of which highlight an underlying, problematic belief that there is a single right way to be a woman.

One says “dyke” is shorthand for the elongated “bull dyke,” which first appeared in print in 1921 in Perry M. Lichtenstein’s article “The ‘Fairy’ and the Lady Lover.” “She had indulged in the practice of ‘bull diking,’ the article said of a female prisoner after a young woman fell in love with her.” A number of novels from that decade also used the term “bull dike” as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) for “mannish woman of color.”

The second says “dyke” is a spin-off of “hermaphrodite,” “morphodite,” and “morphodyke,” which were all outdated terms that used to describe folks with ambiguous primary and secondary sex characteristics.

Infused with a unique combination of homophobia, misogyny, racism, and classism, in the 1950s, dyke became a common slang for women loving women. Specifically, “rough around the edges,” boyish women who were assumed to love other women. (Key word: assumed).

In the 1970’s “dyke” transformed from derogative to declarative when it was reclaimed by lesbian feminists. (This was the decade Dykes on Bikes and the San Francisco Dyke March — the original Dyke March — were born).

Only dykes can use the word dyke

Due to their oppressive history, words can only be reclaimed by the community of folks those words were originally intended to harm.

Reclaiming dyke was a way to tap into the power the word “dyke” was designed to take away,” explains Rae McDaniel MEd, LCPC, a licensed clinical counselor and gender and sex therapist based in Chicago.

“The word Dyke is a harsh word. You kind of spit it out. It has some power behind it,” they say.

Now, the word dyke doesn’t just define, it’s an active way of being — beyond one’s sexuality.

“Dyke is about more than an attraction to women,” says sex journalist and leatherdyke Ana Valens, creator behind Not Safe For Who? A newsletter about kink, sex work, queer eroticism, leather, and all that juicy good stuff.

“[It’s] a radical and political identity. Dykes have politically left wing ideas of what it means to be queer in today’s heteronormative and cisnormative society,” she says.

In other words, dyke undoes gender, evokes power, just as it speaks of sexuality.

Dykes also feel a sense of belonging with other queer women, Valens says. “It’s not enough to call yourself a dyke, you have to love and feel in community with other dykes.”

Erica Smith M.Ed sex educator based in Philadelphia and creator of Purity Culture Dropout™️ Program, who works with people who were raised with evangelical beliefs about sexuality, agrees, “Identifying as a dyke is a way to nod to the fact that you prioritize people other than cisgender men in your life and community.”

Dyke ≠ lesbian

Just as dyke does, lesbian is a word with its own unique history. These days however, lesbian is defined quite simply as a “woman who loves women.” It reflects only one’s gender and the gender they’re attracted to.

But remember, no sexual or gender identity can be defined in absolutes. If you know someone who identifies as bisexual, a dyke, or a bisexual dyke — or any other term under the LGBTQ+ umbrella — to find out what that means to them, you’ll have to ask. No one owes you an explanation of their identity, and certainly no one who you wouldn’t grab a cup of coffee with.

“Someone can absolutely identify as Bi and a Dyke,” says McDaniel. For starters, “language is limited,” they say. So, sometimes to fully encapsulate our entity with words, we need to use more than one to capture our truth.

Plus, dyke has always included bisexuals.

Think about it: when dyke was derogatory, bisexual people were still called dykes. They didn’t get a free pass just because they also had sex with men.

Gabrielle Alexa Noel, bisexual advocate and founder of shop Bi Girls Club says it’s important to understand that at the time all women who loved women — including those who also loved men (or other genders) — were considered lesbians and, therefore, would have been called dykes.

Bisexual also fell under the definition of dyke in the mission statement of the San Francisco Dyke March, which read: “[Dyke]…stands for trans*, black, brown, queer, bisexual, lesbian, disabled, chronically ill, fat, femme, butch, indigenous, gender expansive love.”

“[Dyke] does not stand by erasure. By displacement. By appropriation. By hate,” as the San Francisco Dyke March declares. And that includes the erasure, displacement, appropriation or hate of bisexual dykes.

Beyond being ahistoric (re: dyke, a reclamation), the impulse to tell a bisexual dyke (hi!) that they can’t identify as a dyke is identity gatekeeping.

“Identity gatekeeping is a practice where members of an identity label try to define who can or cannot “join the club,” explains McDaniel. It’s often been used in the lesbian and gay communities as a way to exclude transgender, nonbinary, and bisexual people from spaces.

This happens because marginalized communities (here, lesbian communities) feel protective of the community they’ve created for themselves (here, dyke communities).

“But the truth is that someone else identifying as an identity you hold does not threaten your own identity and excluding people from spaces because they are complex, multifaceted humans who hold multiple identities simply recreates the systems of oppression we are trying to dismantle by creating dyke spaces in the first place,” says McDaniel.

Stone offers a similar sentiment: “It is unreasonable to suggest that by defining themselves as bisexual instead of lesbian, they therefore escape the consequences of living in a heterosexist society,” she writes.

Because we are here, we’ve always been here, we’re bisexual dykes.

Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. Follow her on Instagram.