I didn’t grow up with the word “dyke” meaning anything to me. The dialects of Spanish that were my first language don’t have ready equivalents for it, preferring euphemisms that only become offensive in certain tones. I don’t know if the people I came from use “perica” or “tortillera” for themselves, or if they borrow the more evocative slurs used for gay men, or use some other language entirely. My mother preferred to stammer out her disgust in English half-syllables whenever she had to mention queer women, and that sense of wrongness stayed attached to those words in my mind. I was closed to this part of myself in those days, unaware of my queer heritage even as I found no room in my heart for their contempt. The queer community where I finally found myself speaks primarily English, and it’s here that I finally met proud dykes.
Labels are useful. Labels are shorthand that swiftly conveys one’s stances on various issues, from the delightfulness of Doctor Who to the importance of getting to make one’s own reproductive decisions. They can also convey one’s affiliations, whether ethnic, occupational, or some other group to which one belongs that has an effect on one’s thinking. Those uses don’t have to overlap, and the degree to which they don’t is often telling. One can be a racist without being a Bircher, or a Whovian without belonging to the Doctor Who Society of Canada. And indeed, most causes and fandoms and ethnic affiliations have far more people expressing interest and sympathy with them than enrolled as members of specific association devoted to those things. The population of the United States with Amerindian heritage vastly exceeds the number of people that check the American Indian box on census forms.
And then there are people who refuse labels altogether. Sometimes, this is because the existing popular discourse does not describe the kind of person they are, so none of the existing labels are accurate and new ones are, until they catch on, not effective. Eventually, they can become better known, and enter the lexicon of at least particularly aware subcultures. Once upon a time, “genderfluid,” “introvert,” “cis,” and “allistic” were nonsense words; now, they are useful identifiers, often self-ascribed, that enable conversations that would have been more difficult and time-consuming without them.
This essay is not about those people.
I am an atheist. I am also a skeptic, an anti-theist, a feminist, a secularist, a liberal, and a secular humanist. I could pick a few more labels—freethinker, egalitarian, or even the dreaded Bright—but that set is already a bit redundant.