TW editors' Dyke Talk

By Yuki Keiser、Maiko Asami and Rayna Rusenko July 2007


1. "Lesbian" is outdated!?

In Japan (and by extension at Tokyo Wrestling), we frequently use the word "lesbian", but in the US - especially in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York - it seems that the word is outdated. In English, the expressions "dyke", "gay" and "queer" also exist, but they don't translate well into Japanese and, generally speaking, the nuance of each is still not widely recognized even in queer environments. Asami, a Japanese woman in her 20s, Rayna, an American woman in her 30s and myself, a Swiss-Japanese woman in my 30s, discuss why terminology is so tricky and more!

Keiser (below, K):
First of all, it seems that the word "lesbian" in English is nuanced to imply a sort of feminine character. However, when the word became popular in French when I was a teenager, it meant "a woman who likes women" - whether or not that woman was feminine. As long as she was gay and biologically female, then she was "lesbian". When I was growing up in Europe, the tomboys would always play with the boys at school and everyone would call those girls "lesbian". It wasn't until later that I heard that the word "lesbian" carries a strong feminine image. When did this nuance take shape? Maybe in English there are a lot of connotations to that word, but in French there aren't many at all. It's funny how such a difference across languages exists.

Rayna (below, R):
I'm 32 now, but when I was in my late-teens and early-20s waking up to my own sexuality, the first word that would come flitting across my mind was "lesbian"- as in "I may be a lesbian"! I think I started with that word because, for me, it sounded like it was somewhere I could make a softer landing after leaping from a non-gay identity to a gay one - or at least less challenging when compared to "dyke" or "queer". The word "lesbian" itself though - as I figured out after a while - had a 1950s air about it and felt very old. I came out in the late 1990s (in the heyday of the word "dyke") and I guess the feeling was that "lesbians" were gay women from previous generations and women who weren't radical enough to call themselves "dykes"; they seemed like fluffy, feminine and sweet status-quo kinda girls. You'd imagine that they'd go for butches, but in LA a lot preferred to be in "passing" femme-femme relationships as well.

I see. That's close to the concept of "deep lez" that Parisa was telling me about. (See here for more on "deep lez".) When did you feel that the term "lesbian" was passé? Do you think it was already outdated when you were a teenager?

Well, when I came out 10 years ago it was already pretty old. Maybe it lost its edge during the 1970s. Even though dyke is now already becoming a bit long in the tooth itself, at least it's not SO bad.

Ok, so why would "lesbian" be SO bad? What's the difference here?

Sure. I think one difference in nuance comes from the fact that "dyke" was (and is still) used as a derogatory label, whereas "lesbian" is far more neutral. I think that after drawing inspiration from the Black Power movement, the 1970s feminist lesbian movement re-appropriated language used against them as a way to symbolically give oppression the finger. "Dyke" became a word with deep underlying political and conscious meaning for them, and it carried a nuance of emphatic pride. So, by extension, use of the word "lesbian" came to imply that one still had something of a 1950s mindset, you know. Like feeling publicly shamed and/or keeping it all in the closet.

Interesting. "Lesbians" would then be women who tend to be happy living by their own personal standards without relating too much to the extended community? Also, I am under the impression that "dyke" suggests more boyish women. Is that right?

Well, though there may be boyish dykes, I think if anything the word encapsulates women who are tough in nature and ready to express who they are. For example, some would consider them as possessing masculine qualities in the sense that they exude more self-confidence.

There is this one scene from an episode from Season 3 of The L Word. Jenny and Moira are hanging out together and a couple of young boys yell out, "Are you fags?" and Jenny screams in reply, "We're not fags, we're dykes, asshole!" Is that the kind of in-your-face character we're talking about here?

Yes, that's exactly it! It's really an attitude of wanting to gain the upper-hand with your pride intact, like, by harnessing the energy of a derogatory term usually used against you and utilizing it in the face of people (or environments) that may be a threat."Dyke" is more than an expression of sexual orientation, it's a sign of one's lifestyle, politics and beliefs. "Dyke" is like a way of life!

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translated by rayna rusenko