Some words you just can't get used to. Some words bear the weight of an emotionally charged bag of bricks sitting on your heart. Some taunt you like a psychotic clown picking on the shy kid at a six-year-old's birthday party, and some make you stare your fears right in the face. "Dyke" is that kind of word to me.
"That's totally your 'root,'" a girlfriend (and by that, I mean a friend who just so happens to be a girl) says to me over drinks one night, as we shared our first gay-word stories.
I sigh a little. I laugh little. "I know...," I say quietly.
The first time I heard the word was when I was seven years old. I grew up close to the beach in Southern California, where surfing was a right of passage for 99 percent of the adolescent male population. My older brother was in high school at the time, and easily fit into that majority. He was babysitting me one afternoon and took me along to check out the waves—a totally standard practice that I liked a lot. I got to ride in his old beat-up black hatchback, which consistently smelled of bubble-gum-flavored surfing wax and had Jane's Addiction's Nothing's Shocking playing in the tape deck.
I remember seeing a group of three high school girls standing behind their truck in the parking lot of the beach—surfboards pointing out of the truck bed—and stepping into their wetsuits. One had sandy-brown, straight, long hair, and she cocked her head down so it hung off the back of her neck, to avoid getting it caught in the teeth of the zipper that ran up the back of her wetsuit. Clearly, these girls weren't just checking out the waves.
"Dyyeekes," my brother said as he caught a glimpse of them. It was one of those observational statements, kind of like when you see an interesting sign on the side of the road and say it out loud for no conscious reason. The way he said it wasn't malicious—there was no hatred or disgust in the tone of his voice—but there was a difference between these and other girls. That one word taught me that girls who hung out together, and did what boys usually do but without them, were different. That afternoon put an emotional stamp on the passport of my identity. It made me embarrassed, nervous, scared, and excited.
I tried surfing soon after that.
Once I was officially interested in the sport, it tidal-waved into an obsession, like most things you do when you're in junior high. I had dreams of going pro, getting sponsored by a huge surfing brand, having two-page-spread photographs of me thrashing a wave in a big surfing magazine, and being a role model to other courageous little surfer girls.
Before I could do any of that, I realized I needed to actually learn how to surf. I started whining about wanting my own board, and to my brother's credit, he got me one within a few months from a friend of his. He even got me the brand I wanted. I even convinced some of my girlfriends to try it with me and soon enough, I had my girls-only surfing gang.
The dyke comments came roaring in. Not necessarily from my brother, but I heard that word used in reference to me and my friends numerous times by other dudes throughout junior high and high school. Each time, I'd either deny it, or try to ignore it—both of which I could never do very well.
Speaking of things I couldn't do well... surfing turned out to be really effing hard—as did skateboarding, snowboarding, and playing the guitar, three other hobbies, which, again, my brother assisted in getting me the tools. He may have been the messenger of my first gay word, but I know I can't blame him for all the baggage I carry along with it.
When the queer community puts so much energy into reclaiming these kinds of power-holding words, it's difficult to know how to handle them. One way is to simply pick out a variety of synonyms that you do like, and another way is to just ante in and use them anyway. I remember a friend in college loved using "dyke," partly to practice that process.
"I'm going to this dyke party tonight," she'd say. "Wanna come?"
"Umm, sure, yeah, I'll come with you to that... lesbian party," I'd respond.
I guess that's the kind of dyke I am. The baggage-carrying-lesbian-loving-nearly-never-dyke-using dyke. There. I said it.