What’s Dyke Got to Do With It?

In the nineties I used to present a management workshop about communications for a mixed group of managers from around the world. One of the most interesting parts was an activity where we used a stack of old newspapers to learn some principles of effective communications. Sometimes, though, we would end up getting sidetracked into an off-topic discussion about the content of one of the articles.

My favorite example of this was the newspaper headline from the Guardian newspaper of Friday 25 June 1999 saying "Dyke Lands BBC Prize" (See the article at http://www.guardian.co.uk/BBC/Story/0,,205389,00.html).

First of all several students asked what BBC meant since every three letter acronym can have dozens of meaning. So I told them it referred to the British Broadcasting Corporation, the UK’s national broadcaster which has had a reputation for being stuffy, conservative and old fashioned since 1922. Then they asked what the “prize” was so I explained it was the director-generalship of the BBC, then up for grabs.

Then the discussion began.

“It’s nice to see that the BBC is beginning to open up to diversity”, commented one person, “I’m even impressed they chose a woman and not the usual pasty-faced, middle aged guy in a suit.”

“Yes, but I think that in the LGBT community they prefer the term “lesbian””, adds another. “Dyke is generally considered offensive.” At that time it was at still pretty much universally disliked.

“I don’t see what the sexual orientation of the person has to do with it anyway”, adds a third, “and it is sad that this is the one detail they pick on.”

“Actually”, concludes a fourth, “I think that this has nothing to do with the new director being a dyke, I think that it is actually a man who just happens to be called Mr Gregory Dyke”.


So what is the practical learning from this episode? Normally I am all in favor of short headlines, but when someone’s name is the same as some common word then I would recommend that people write the name in full or omit it from the title. “Greg Dyke to Head BBC” or “New BBC Chief Named” would have avoided the problem. It is, of course, possible that the editors of the Guardian knew all about this but left the ambiguity anyway.

But since then the term has become less offensive and is sometimes used by dykes to describe themselves -- see the Wikipedia page
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyke_%28lesbian%29 for details. This is an interesting example of how you can reappropriate an offensive term to render it innocuous, but that’s a story for another day.


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