“Super Dyke!” A snarling voice spews the familiar words as I search for a seat on a junior high school bus jammed full with backpacks and pubescence. The voice, the dreaded moniker—I don’t need to look. I know the yell is for me.
I find an open spot and slouch low, propping my knees against the brown plastic seat in front of me. I want to suck my head into my chest, turtle style. I pretend not to hear the taunts. I start conversations with the girls around me, laughing too loudly to demonstrate I don’t care. Or I stare out the window at the snowy pastures and shivering cows that line the route toward my rural Utah hometown.
In lieu of standing up for myself, saying anything, I keep mum and fantasize about deep-frying Nick in battery acid. That’s his name, and he is the Big Bad Bully of My Childhood, a boy as cartoonishly sociopathic as the braces-wearing Farkus from A Christmas Story. At least that’s how he appears to my 13-year-old self: a hulking monster to fear. My adult brain now realizes he was small for his age—not quite a “pipsqueak,” but close.
Call me a dyke nowadays, and I’ll grin and puff out my chest. But when I first hear the word, it isn’t so much spoken to me but projectile-vomited in my direction. I have no clue what it means. After a rough ride home one day, I head straight to the living room bookcase. It’s 1994, and there’s no Internet—at least not on my family’s computer, which is useful for little more than word-processing and a floppy disc version of Family Feud. So I plop an enormous dictionary on the carpet and kneel in front of it, flipping to “dike.” An explanation of Holland’s ingenious damming system fails to bring me closer to an answer.
And yet, perhaps because of the way Nick’s face twists with accusation—I intuitively understand “dyke” is a slur representing something despicable, indecent, vile. Even without a definition, the word has an impact: It stabs at my nervous teenage heart and blankets my entire body in suffocating shame. And as he says it, I know he’s right about me. I’m different from the other girls at school and in the ward. I shop in the boys’ department and despise makeup. My life revolves around shooting hoops. And I know there’s something deeply wrong: I feel the regret of a sinner yet I can’t name my sin. Whatever “dyke” means, he’s got me pegged. I am a dyke, and apparently a super one.
Eighteen years later, boom. Nick reemerges, jarringly, from nowhere—not as a featured prisoner on “Lockup: Extended Stay” but as a family man: a chiropractor with a wife and kids.
And I’ll get to that. First let me tell you that, for years, “dyke” is hard to hear. My cheeks flush when it’s spoken; my gut churns. More than a decade after my baggy-pant wearing self first hears it on the bus, I have my big realization at 25: I’m gay.
I decide to start using the word dyke to “take it back.” Slowly I dip my toes in. “How are my dykes?” I say playfully to close friends, hoping not to betray nerves at uttering the unspeakable. Year by year, the word loses its bite.
Six months before Nick pops back up, my now-wife and our friends participate in Salt Lake City’s annual Dyke March. Maybe 100 of us strut our stuff from the State Capitol down the middle of State Street, brandishing a banner emblazoned with the once devastating slur. Older straight couples gawk at us from sidewalks, and we wave to them as they stand with arms fixed at their sides. I don’t care—I’m practically skipping. I’m laughing it up with some of my favorite people, loading pics on Instagram, inhaling summer air. Nick is floating somewhere in the back of my mind—he’d introduced me to the word, shaped its embarrassing context—but all I can do is smile into the sun. As I march, the last remnants of shame slough off into the gutters of downtown Salt Lake. It’s the summer of 2012, and I’m untouchable.
The apology comes six months later. It’s November 6, the night President Obama is re-elected, and election returns flash onto my TV screen. It’s a busy day for me. I’m working for a presidential candidate—not Obama or Romney, but the guy who came in third, Libertarian Party nominee and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. As his media relations specialist, I’m glued all evening to my email, poised to fulfill press requests. Over and over, I hit refresh. And then I see it—no, not CBS. Nick. He has a popular first and last name, and at first I assume it must be somebody else. I open the email and my heart ricochets between my chest walls. It’s really him.