“If You Can’t Teach Yourself” is a monthly series in which a young queer woman experiences a cultural artifact beloved by older members of the LGBTQ community in furtherance of her own queer education. Think of it as a syllabus for Queer Culture 101.
The first thing I was aware of when I crossed the threshold into Washington Square Park was that my cheeks hurt. Really hurt. Like, "hurt so badly that I genuinely wondered if I'd gotten smacked in the face and totally forgotten" levels of soreness. It wasn't until I spotted my friends across the park—waving proudly atop a bench and screaming my name in a sea of sweaty, sunburnt dykes—that I beamed in their general direction, and the realization sunk in.
My face hurt from smiling.
I mean, to my credit, it was impossible not to. I had spent roughly four and a half hours at the 2019 New York City Dyke March surrounded by my people: dykes of all shapes, sizes, gender identities, races, ethnicities, and abilities, unabashed in both their pride and their joy. It was my first time attending, and I decided to go big or go crawling back home to Brooklyn: I signed up for a training seminar to be a marshal, meaning I and hundreds of other volunteers spent those hours defending and directing thousands of marchers down a sizeable chunk of Fifth Avenue, all the while warding off homophobic counter-protestors, frantic NYC drivers blocked from crossing the avenue, and incredibly wary NYPD officers. No big deal.
Protestors at the second annual Dyke March in 1994.
The Dyke March was founded back in April 1993, when a group of ambitious dykes from three core organizations—the Lesbian Avengers, ACT UP L.A. and Philadelphia, and Puss N' Boots in L.A.—took to the streets of Washington, D.C. hours before that year's LGBT March on Washington. Just a year later—on the 25th anniversary of the famed Stonewall riots in New York's Greenwich Village—the founders brought the march to the Big Apple, solidifying what has now become a mainstay for self-identified dykes from all walks of life. Similar marches occur all over the country—plus in cities like Berlin, London, and Toronto—and they're all run by separate organizers with different strategies and principles.
The Dyke March is a protest, not a parade. There are no corporate sponsors. The organizers don't have permits from the city of New York. The entire operation is volunteer-run and donation-driven. In fact, a designated group of marshals lovingly nicknamed "money honeys" run up and down the length of the march toward the end of the evening to collect cash donations. Some blood, a lot of sweat, and a fair number of tears go into making this march a reality every June. The team that does so is intimidatingly good at it, too. I shook hands with Maxine Wolfe, an OG Lesbian Avenger and co-founder of the Dyke March, at my marshal training in early June. She's a powerhouse of an activist who exudes some enviable BDE—Big Dyke Energy—and I'm fairly certain she has more tenacity, passion, and raison d'être in her 70s than I do at 23.
That's what is most impressive about the Dyke March. The experience feels sacred in a way that so few experiences do for queer women in 2019. Even in NYC, one of the world's most bustling and ostensibly gay-friendly metropolises, sapphic-specific spaces are few and far between. And despite some claims to the contrary, LGBTQ rights are under siege in America on what seems like a daily basis. Lesbians, gay men, and other queer people in same-sex relationships can now wed in all 50 states, and blatantly homophobic policies like the infamous "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" met their demise years ago, but it'd be reductive and inaccurate to pretend that homophobia, transphobia, and other systemic bias and prejudices that impact LGBTQ people don't still creep up in very sinister and deadly ways.
In the time line of the modern fight for LGBTQ equality in the United States, April 1993 feels like ages ago. Since then, so much about being a queer woman and existing in a queer body has changed—from the ways we understand gender identity, to the language we use to mark ourselves and our identities, to the schisms we create and perpetuate among ourselves. Much of that change has been part of a forward-looking evolution, the sort of shifts that prioritize inclusivity and drive out the likes of trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) or sex worker exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs), two militant minority groups among contemporary lesbian circles that give the label "lesbian" a bad rap. As Wolfe noted in an interview for The Daily Beast earlier this month, TERFs have always been a part of lesbian activist circles—but so have transgender or gender nonconforming lesbians, who are greatly encouraged to participate in NYC's Dyke March.
One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the need for community. The Dyke March offers a rare chance to completely and utterly immerse yourself in a dyke-friendly pocket of the universe. For one evening each year, the stretch of Fifth Avenue between 42nd Street and the Washington Square Park arch is a dyke paradise, as glittery and gay and subversive and proud as you can imagine.
There's a reason it's called the Dyke March, not the Lesbian March. For a few hours, we're claiming a sliver of this city for ourselves—blocking traffic, antagonizing homophobes, frustrating police—because nobody is going to hand that power to us. We're wearing a slur that once harmed us as a badge of honor, because nobody is going to award us that self-assurance and undo that painful legacy of shame and violence. As dykes in the streets without a permit to demonstrate, we're empowering our friends, our lovers, and ourselves—not because we want to necessarily, but because we need to in some deep, instinctual way, and there's something to be said for strength in numbers.
Next June, when the dykes come marching in again, you better believe I'll be on the frontlines.
The writer at her first Dyke March.