appsflyer IOS banner image

“Dyke March Photo,” copyright Saskia Scheffer, 2000. Courtesy of the Lesbian Herstory Archives


The New York City Dyke March, Then and Now

Emma C. Banks

June 28th, 2024

“[Dyke] means fuck you, in a really nice, inclusive way.”

On a sunny afternoon in mid-June, preparations for the 32nd annual New York City Dyke March are well underway. It’s two weeks until the big day, and a fundraising raffle at ANIMAL has drawn approximately 200 self-proclaimed dykes. They’re raising money for wheelchairs, ASL interpreters, and other necessities. I’m here to chat with coordinators and attendees, but of course, I am soon swept up in the fray. This is a party, after all. 

ANIMAL is the baby gay version of a queer bar; it just opened its doors on March 27. But the space already feels familiar. There are fliers on the left wall advertising trans-inclusive mental healthcare; nearby, the march coordinators have set up a “Missed Connections” corkboard. “To the girl in the vest and leather jacket, your vibes are impeccable,” one note reads. “Keep being you.” Another one echoes the format of old school personal ads: “5’6”. They/she. 36 y/o top-leaning femme. Astoria/QNs residing. Seeking femme/futch who wants bb or children, emotional maturity, & giggles.” 

In the back room, a crowd is gathered for a performance; dancing under a glittering disco ball, a drag king makes the case for decolonizing South Asian masculinity. The crowd erupts in applause. I wander further: there’s a long line for flash tattoos from Carla V, and another board, this one dotted with stickers: top, bottom, or switch? 

In the year 2024, when hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the United States, the simple fact of this party already feels like a kind of victory. Ariel Kleinberg, a first-time coordinator, agrees: “It’s just very joyful,” they say. “It’s amazing that it exists.” 

“We’ve had discussions,” Kleinburg says, referring to the word “dyke” itself. “Because it’s like, how do you define ‘dyke’? What is a dyke? You almost can’t define it, because it means a different thing to each person. For me, because I’m nonbinary and as I’ve come into my gender queerness, I felt like dyke fits me better than lesbian, which used to be my label. But I think dyke is fiercer. It’s about community care. It’s inclusive—it includes all kinds of identities and genders. It has a revolutionary spirit to it. It feels like a radical word to reclaim.” 

Kleinberg is right: the Dyke March is a project of reclamation, and it’s been that way since 1993. Starting in Manhattan’s Bryant Park, the march heads down 5th Avenue and ends roughly two miles south, in Washington Square Park. Unlike Pride—which always happens the very next day—there are no corporations, no permits, and no parade floats. There is a banner (there is always a banner), and there are thousands of dykes. 

Historically speaking, the word “dyke” used to be a slur. Depending on the context, it still is. But in this crowd, it’s a badge of honor. 


On June 26, 1993, the day of the inaugural New York City Dyke March, I was a six-month-old baby in Linlithgow, Scotland, sitting in my diaper down the street from the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots. Meanwhile, the Lesbian Avengers were channeling their rage into action. It was the era of AIDS, Reaganomics, and the Dyke Manifesto. There was no time to spare.

The very first Dyke March wasn’t in New York; it was a few hundred miles south, in Washington, D.C. On April 26, 1993, twenty thousand dykes showed up. Anne Stott, a college student at the time, was there: “The energy was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I saw Avengers eat fire in front of the White House and I knew I wanted to learn how to do that.”

A few months later, Stott became the coordinator of the Dyke March in New York City. Ana Maria Simo, Anne Maguire, Anne-Christine D'Adesky, Marie Honan, Maxine Wolfe, and Sarah Schulman—the founders of the Lesbian Avengers, who had organized that first march in D.C.—planned the event. The theme was “Lust for Power.” 

We actually went down Broadway that first year because the gay pride rally was in Union Square Park and the idea was to end there,” Stott tells me. “It was so underground the cops had no idea we were even going to do it. [We had] a big bed with the sign ‘Lust for Power’ with pillows on it and dykes making out on the bed.”

By 1997, thousands of dykes were gathering each year for the annual march, no longer on Broadway but down 5th Avenue. Leslie Cagan and Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz were among them. It was their second date. 

“I don’t know another event that’s quite like it,” Cagan says. She’s speaking with me over Zoom from her home in Queens. On the wall behind her hangs a beautiful patchwork quilt: it was made by a friend from Melanie’s favorite clothing, sewn together around the time of her death. 

“But there’s something about the Dyke March,” Cagan continues. “Well, not something about it: it’s the dykes! That’s what makes it different and special. There is an energy and a kind of permission for each individual to be who they are and be part of a community at the same time. So all that's to say that on that day in 1997, it felt the same. And for me—and for Melanie— there was another element added to it, the anticipation that at the end of this march, something was going to happen.”

Something did happen: Cagan and Kaye/Kantrowitz fell in love. The Dyke March became the couple’s anniversary, and they attended until Kaye/Kantrowitz no longer could. She passed away in 2019, 22 years after they’d first met. When Cagan returned to the scene in 2021, it was different, but it was still home: “I felt an explosion of joy,” she says. 

Dykes Against Genocide

When the drag show at ANIMAL is over, a few members of the BIPOC caucus take the microphone. They say a few words on this year’s march theme: Dykes Against Genocide. Then, they ask for a 90-second moment of silence. The entire bar freezes in place, as the disco ball spins overhead. 

Outside, I speak with another committee member, Mana Handel, who uses she/her and he/him pronouns. Again, the word “dyke” conjures a powerful sentiment: “I think there was a time when I thought it was a slur,” he says. “I didn’t know the history behind it. I didn’t identify fully as queer then. But then once I was like, Okay, I’m queer…I was like, Okay, dyke feels good. It’s powerful. I just like the way it sounds when it rolls off the tongue. It’s kind of like, bop! It means fuck you, in a really nice, inclusive way.”

Inclusivity feels like a central tenet of the Dyke March but, like most organizations, it doesn’t have a perfect track record. A few days after ANIMAL I spoke with Jasmina Jz Sinanović, who helped organize the march from roughly 2003-2005. They witnessed transphobia and biphobia, and they eventually left. It was 10 years before they attended another march. 

But that was then; this is now. Jz still loves the word dyke, even if they don’t identify with it anymore. And meanwhile, a new generation of leaders has come to the fore. The 2024 coordinators speak of the theme with an urgency that feels apt. As Handel explains it: “If one group of people is not free, we can’t all be free.”

Back in Queens, Cagan sums up the Dyke March ethos in a way that reminds me she has been doing this kind of movement work for over half a century. 

“There will always be people who say, ‘Don’t be so noisy about who you are,’” she says. “But people come to this thing with a spirit and an attitude that is not dangerous to anybody else— except if you're completely homophobic, and then you might feel it's a little dangerous. But that's not the intent. The intent is to bring our serious issues out to the public in a joyful, community spirit.”