Image by K.Ho

Social Justice Synonyms #17: “Dyke” and “Fag”

The words “fag” and “dyke” are both words that carry a history of violence – emotional, verbal, and physical – against folks perceived as QUILTBAG. They’re words that have been, and continue to be used to remind people when they are enacting gender or sexuality in ways seen as ‘deviant’ according to social norms, which are shaped by histories of power and violence. “Fag” and “dyke” are both gendered slurs, in the sense that they are intended to cause harm and violence in ways that tell the target that they are performing the gender the user is perceiving them as ‘wrong’ — too ‘feminine,’ too ‘masculine’, not ‘straight’ enough, not ‘straight acting’ enough. These are harmful ideas that contribute to the reproduction of only certain ways of inhabiting bodies, gender, and attraction are good and worthy. It’s also important to know that people of any gender and gender expression can be targeted by these words, as they are linked to this policing of bodies and expression in relationship to gender and sexuality.

“Fag” is a word that tends to be used to insult, mock, or otherwise harm people who are being perceived as ‘men’ who are acting in ways that people want to punish, call out, or stop. The use of “fag” today has come a long way from its original meaning. Fag, short for faggot, originally meant “a bundle of sticks”, and stems from the practice of burning alive folks who did not conform to Catholic practice. Those who retracted their beliefs and pledged to conform were not killed but forced to wear the sign of a “faggot” on their sleeves as a reminder. From that point on, “faggots” became linked with the history and realities of being burned alive. It became a term signifying unwanted burden, tied to this practice of murder. For a while it was also used as a derogatory term for women, based on the idea of women as inherently tiresome and a burden for others.

In a more contemporary form, the definition and use of “faggot” is debated/contestable. Some believe that it comes from the burning of folks who were perceived as QUILTBAG as part of the same practice of burning folks who did not conform to the Catholic church. Others say that it became an insult for those who are labeled as queer men because of the link with sexism and it being a call out of the stereotyped femininity of queer men. Regardless of the ways in which “fag” or “faggot” is used, the word is rooted in histories and intentions of oppression and pain. Based on assumptions of gender, sexuality, and sexual behaviour, “fag” is used to limit people’s identities and abilities in ways that are tied to these legacies of harm.

Similarly, “dyke” is a word that, for the most part, is used to hurt and harm those who are perceived as ‘women’ who behaves or exist in ways that people want to stop or punish in some way. Specifically, it carries the targeting of those who are labelled as masculine women or those identified as not conforming to traditional women’s roles, regardless of sexuality. However, there are also intrinsic ties to attacking sexuality, as the use of dyke presumes that a refusal to follow gender roles is always out of a desire to be men, and hence be attracted to women as per the heteronormative narrative. “Dyke” is used to attack those who are not performing gender appropriately according to cisnormative and heteronormative notions of being.

Additionally, the use of “dyke” also paints the stereotype of all queer women as masculine presenting, which is not true. Queer women, like all people, express themselves in many different ways that are and are not tied to sexuality. Part of the use of dyke against those perceived as “masculine women” creates this policing of sexuality, that all masculine women must be queer and all queer women must be masculine, and that both are bad things to be. “Dyke” as an attack creates boundaries of who can or cannot be visibly queer. Of course, this is all based by its contrast to cis-heteronormative norms of presentation and gender.

When we use these words to describe the actions, appearance, or other aspects of folks, we then are contributing to policing how people act in the world in ways that are connected to the systemic violence experienced by QUILTBAG folks and privilege those who align with cisgender and heterosexual cultural norms.

QUILTBAG spaces do have an ongoing history of reclaiming these words, much like the word “queer”. Reclaiming refers to the act by a group of peoples of taking something (in this case a word) that has been used in a way that is oppressive or otherwise damaging towards them and taking it as a neutral or positive self and/or group identifier. This can be a powerful, healing, affirming and/or strategic act, but it also is a complex process in which different people have different relationships to the reclamation of certain words. Sometimes, that reclamation can involve people using that identity term for themselves or for groups, like the organization, Dykes on Bikes. However, even if we disagree with a particular reclamation, people ultimately should have autonomy on the words they use to describe and name themselves. Autonomy and agency are some of the aspects of self that are stripped by violence including the violence of these words.

Given those histories and their link to creating, enforcing and policing the idea that there are correct ways to enact a gender, a sexuality, attraction or expression (which happens to be cisgender, heterosexual and gender normative ways (that also align with other systems of power)) and also implicitly awards those who aren’t ‘straying’ or seeming to ‘stray’ from these ideas, we should avoid them and seek different language, and more widely, seek to avoid attacking how people move through the world with our language and actions.

A few questions to ask yourself when thinking about using the word fag/dyke:

-am I using this word to describe someone without their consent?

-am I judging or perhaps participating in shaming someone for their actions, appearance and identity?

-am I a QUILTBAG identified person using this word in a strategic, neutral, or positive light?


Remember to never assume people’s identities. Never label anyone without them claiming that identity for themselves.


Look at that outfit. Only a fag/dyke would wear that! Those people are so cool! We are totally not assuming anybody’s gender or sexuality in this moment! Their style is on point!
Those fags/dykes must be going to the OUTweek dance! They look so ridiculous! Those folks who are going to the super awesome OUTweek dance have rad outfits!
These fags/dykes are flaunting all over the place. Get a room! Aw! They must be having such a great night, enjoying each other’s company.
You’re turning ME down? You must be a fag/dyke! I completely respect your decision and am going to leave you alone now. I hope you have a good night and I will work to be a better person.
What are you doing in this bathroom? Get out, fag/dyke! Hi! I hope your night is going well!