Sticks & Stones and Dykes

Barbara Raab June 23, 2006

Dykes on Bikes leads off the Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade in Long Beach, California.

If there is any­body who real­ly under­stands the word dyke,” it is Joan Nes­tle, an author, edi­tor and activist in the LGBT com­mu­ni­ty for near­ly half a cen­tu­ry. In the late 50s,” she says, when I was first explor­ing a pub­lic les­bian iden­ti­ty, the most dehu­man­iz­ing taunt sus­pi­cious het­ero­sex­u­als hurled at me was bull dyke.’ It was filled with their con­cep­tion of what a les­bian was like – an ugly, aggres­sive ani­mal.” In those days, says Nes­tle, the New York City police had a spe­cial hold­ing cell for women picked up in their raids on les­bian bars: the bull dyke pen.

Nes­tle has recalled those pre-Stonewall days in her writ­ing, and now has recount­ed them for an unusu­al legal bat­tle with the fed­er­al government. 

Nes­tle and 22 oth­er promi­nent schol­ars, lin­guists, com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers and writ­ers have pro­vid­ed volu­mi­nous evi­dence in a long-run­ning fight between the Unit­ed States Patent and Trade­mark Office and the San Fran­cis­co Women’s Motor­cy­cle Club, more com­mon­ly known – and loved – as the Dykes on Bikes. The most­ly-les­bian, heav­i­ly-leathered group has been lead­ing the San Fran­cis­co Pride Parade down Mar­ket Street to the cheers of thou­sands since 1977

In July 2003, the group applied for a fed­er­al trade­mark for the name Dykes on Bikes” so that they could make sure it was used for non-prof­it, com­mu­ni­ty-build­ing activ­i­ties and not for, say, some cheesy line of over­priced T‑shirts and souvenirs.

In Decem­ber 2005, near­ly two and a half years after the appli­ca­tion was sub­mit­ted, the gov­ern­ment final­ly said yes to the Dykes on Bikes, but only after the women’s lawyers sub­mit­ted a moun­tain of evi­dence to rebut the Trade­mark Office’s repeat­ed claims that the word dyke,” and the term Dykes on Bikes,” were offen­sive, dis­parag­ing, even vul­gar to lesbians.

It was in the course of this fight with the gov­ern­ment over the mean­ing of dyke” that Dykes on Bikes lawyers hit upon the idea of col­lect­ing expert dec­la­ra­tions from schol­ars, authors and activists, includ­ing Nestle.

In 1974, Nes­tle co-found­ed a unique cul­tur­al insti­tu­tion, the Les­bian Her­sto­ry Archives, the largest and old­est fount of infor­ma­tion and pri­ma­ry source mate­r­i­al about les­bian cul­ture. Thus, as Nes­tle put it in her dec­la­ra­tion in the Dykes on Bikes case, I knew bet­ter than any­one what it meant when in the late 70s, younger women proud­ly reclaimed the word dyke.’ … Young women full of strength and hope … emp­tied the word of its big­otry and fear, replac­ing it with com­mu­ni­ty and self-affirmation.”

The 23 dec­la­ra­tions sub­mit­ted to the Trade­mark Office played a key role in the rever­sal of the Dykes on Bikes’ legal for­tune. They also pro­vide an elo­quent and fas­ci­nat­ing paper trail about les­bians’ recla­ma­tion of a word that has been used as a weapon against them. As Vic Ger­many, pres­i­dent of the Dykes on Bikes club, put it, I felt so strong after read­ing those dec­la­ra­tions. I wish every dyke could read them.” 

Anoth­er one of the declar­ants is les­bian car­toon­ist Ali­son Bechdel, who for near­ly a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry has drawn and writ­ten a nation­al­ly syn­di­cat­ed com­ic strip called Dykes To Watch Out For,” about a net­work of les­bian friends. Bechdel says she first heard the word dyke” being used by oth­er les­bians in 1980 at the annu­al Michi­gan Womyn’s Music Festival. 

I noticed that many women were wear­ing small but­tons with the word dyke’ print­ed on them,” she says. This struck me as coura­geous, clever and humor­ous all at once, and I soon bought one for myself.”

In 1983, Bechdel says, when she decid­ed to use the word dyke” in the title of her work, she was not only reflect­ing the lan­guage that she and her friends used to refer to one anoth­er, but also engag­ing in what she calls a kind of lin­guis­tic activism.” By putting the word dyke” in the title of her com­ic strip, Bechdel could guar­an­tee its fre­quent appear­ance in print, and thus, she explains, help rede­fine the word in a pos­i­tive way.

Kar­la Jay, aca­d­e­m­ic, activist and author of Out of the Clos­ets: Voic­es of Gay Lib­er­a­tion, recalls the ear­ly 70s, when tele­phone direc­to­ries wouldn’t list the words gay,” les­bian,” or homo­sex­u­al.” At the time, she sug­gest­ed to a group of les­bian moth­ers that they call them­selves Dykes with Tykes. The sug­ges­tion was met with cheers,” she says. 

In her dec­la­ra­tion, author Judy Grahn tells the Trade­mark Office that she proud­ly reclaimed dyke” in some of her ear­li­est work, includ­ing her 1966 satire of the psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic estab­lish­ment, The Psy­cho­analy­sis of Edward the Dyke.”

Psy­chol­o­gist Shara Sand’s dec­la­ra­tion talks about her les­bian clients, who often speak about the dyke dra­ma’ in their lives, refer to them­selves as strong dykes,’ work­ing for the dyke cause,’ and lov­ing being a diesel dyke.’” 

Sev­en of the 23 declar­ants are men, includ­ing Gary Buseck, the Legal Direc­tor of Boston-based Gay & Les­bian Advo­cates & Defend­ers, the pub­lic inter­est law firm that won the his­toric Mass­a­chu­setts gay mar­riage victory. 

With­out a doubt,” Buseck says, the word dyke’ … is def­i­nite­ly not deroga­to­ry.” Buseck goes on to scold the Trade­mark Office that LGBT peo­ple face a num­ber of seri­ous prob­lems, includ­ing unequal treat­ment in the work­place, hate vio­lence, inel­i­gi­bil­i­ty to serve their coun­try in the mil­i­tary and lack of access to the rights, respon­si­bil­i­ties and finan­cial ben­e­fits of civ­il mar­riage. In con­trast, the proud use of the word dyke’ by an orga­ni­za­tion high­ly regard­ed with­in the LGBT com­mu­ni­ty is not an instance of discrimination.” 

Final­ly, the dec­la­ra­tions include one of the heav­i­est hit­ters of the word world, Jesse Shei­d­low­er, edi­tor-at-large of the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary, author of a schol­ar­ly book about the his­to­ry of the word fuck,” and edi­tor of the entries for dyke” and bulldyke” in the His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of Amer­i­can Slang.

In his dec­la­ra­tion, Shei­d­low­er (who is white) draws a dis­tinc­tion between the use of the word dyke” among les­bians, and the use of nig­ger” among some African Amer­i­cans – a term still fraught” for the major­i­ty of African Amer­i­cans. This rais­es a larg­er ques­tion of who gets to decide when a neg­a­tive term of self-ref­er­ence has reached a tip­ping point.

As In These Times went to press, the Dykes on Bikes are still wait­ing for their trade­mark, despite hav­ing pre­vailed on the law. The government’s deci­sion to grant it has been chal­lenged – as any trade­mark can be for a peri­od of time – by a Cal­i­for­nia man describ­ing him­self as a Male Cit­i­zen of the Unit­ed States.” In the papers he filed with the Trade­mark Office, he calls the word dyke” a sym­bol of hate” toward all men. The Dykes on Bikes’ lawyers accuse him of a pub­lic and polit­i­cal assault on the dyke com­mu­ni­ty,” and have asked the Trade­mark Office to dis­miss his challenge.

Bar­bara Raab is a writer and non-prac­tic­ing lawyer, with a par­tic­u­lar inter­est in the inter­sec­tion between the law and pop­u­lar cul­ture. She lives in New York City.
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