Dude. Wow. Ok, how did we get here? What’s all the hubbub about this word being masculine, or rather not gender-neutral? Why does it matter? Should you actually care? Is this whole conversation a tempest in a teapot?
Let’s lay out the crime, first, shall we? The charge is that “dude” is a masculine word, and that using it for people who didn’t ask to be referred to that way might be rude.
Aside from being really familiar as a way to refer to someone, the word does have a certain sort of “everyman” appeal. After all, who wasn’t right there with Kel when he said, “I’m a dude. He’s a dude. She’s a dude. We’re all dudes…?” And it’s very, very popular in California. As you’ve known doubt heard, people from California even call their lamps “dude.”
The word isn’t especially a problem in a vacuum. It sits in a class of words quite like “buddy” and alongside exclamations like “oh boy” and “oh man.” The history of the word is a bit hard to follow. It appears that it originally started its life as a sort of mocking insult for an overly fashion forward man and evolved out from there, moving on to become a generalized description of a man. It was followed up, for a brief period, by its forgotten counterpart, “dudette,” so there’s definitely historical agreement that the word is masculine in form.
And if you really needed a demonstration to prove this word is masculine, go to any straight man and tell him you heard he was sleeping with a dude. If he’s married, swing for the fences and tell him you found out his wife is a dude. That should clear that part of the puzzle right up for you. (As an aside, I do need to warn you not to actually poke straight men’s latent fear of being seen as gay to prove a point — that could have violent consequences. The fact I have to warn you about this is more than enough of an indictment.)
But how does that jibe with the Californian, Kel popularized version of “dude,” that means basically nothing other than a general exclamation? Before we get to that. Let’s take a little detour to a different place.
If you have ever been perceived as a woman, how often have you heard from a man something like this: “You’re overreacting,” or “You’re taking it the wrong way?” You knew what he was saying, and he knew what he was saying. He made you feel like dirt for reacting to what you knew he was saying, you might have even doubted yourself or wondered if you were overreacting. I want you to keep that thought in your head for a brief moment as we continue on.
What if people found a word that we all sorta-knew meant “man,” but does have common usage as a general exclamation? What if those people had to live in a world where it was increasingly difficult for them to openly say rude things to trans women, but they still didn’t want to recognize them as women? What if they could find a word that gave them a shield to antagonize trans women while being able to accuse those women of being overly sensitive when they respond to it? Keep that in mind as you look at this chart.
These are the Google search results for two separate words: “dude” and “transgender.” The blue line is “dude” and the red line is “transgender.” It sure does seem that these two words are in a holding pattern together, doesn’t it? It sure does seem a mighty coincidence that as one group of people became more visible, interest in the word suddenly rose to match it. Now, you might be wondering if other common words that match “dude” in their usage as a form of general exclamation have followed the same track. The answer is that they did not.
“Bro” and “bruh” are two very common exclamations that actually share cultural overlap with dude, and yet they did not experience the same magical side-by-side growth.
And if you’re from California, congratulations, those folks using “dude” as a passive way to insult trans women are relying on your reflexive defense of this word as a way to shield themselves. So. Are you playing along?
The word’s ambiguity actually goes a step further, and it can lead to trans women not knowing if they’re safe. And I don’t mean feelings-safe, I mean physically safe. When you call me “dude” in public places, I can’t be sure if you’ve clocked me or not. (Clocking means to recognize that somebody is trans.) Because I can’t tell if you clocked me, I can’t ask you if you’ve clocked me. Why? Because cis people don’t typically respond strongly to the word, as they have little-to-no traumatic history related to denial of their gender. Often times my response to being referred to in this way is precisely what causes someone to pay extra attention to me. I’ve had to learn to stop responding to it at all, and it sorta sucks.
When you call me “dude,” I have no way of knowing if something in my appearance is giving me away or if you’re just being casual unless I out myself to you; so I get to play a fun game of trying to suss out if I’m going to make it home safely that night.
And in our male-as-norm linguistic culture, most cis women don’t have a strong response to this word. Why? Their perceived womanhood has been an inescapable fact of their lives since they were children, and especially since people started to sexualize their bodies at a young age. Trans women, on the other hand, had a differently traumatic experience of being forced to play out masculine roles that were harmful to them. So, this language can be, and often is, ignored by cis women, where trans women will often have a reaction to it because it’s pressing a very sensitive bruise on their hearts — which is the goal of using it.
So, look. No amount of insistence that “dude” is gender-neutral is going to override the data in those charts or the word’s historical and present day uses. Kel might have hit a real sweet note with that song, but people are using his lyrics to explain away behavior that is openly, and knowingly, antagonistic to trans people and paint trans people as hyper-emotional.
You don’t have to stop saying it. You also can’t control what people hear when it’s said, and increasingly people hear a word designed to make trans people (and especially trans women) uncomfortable. Because that’s what they mean to do. If you call someone a dude, and they respond to it poorly, just correct yourself. It’s better not to use it to reference people, though.
As more and more cis women (especially) are pushing back when the word is used for them, it’s going to become more obviously gendered term — which it always was, underneath that mask.
We did it, gang. Justice is served.