Gay is a term that is used in reference to primarily those people with same-sex orientation. In popular discourse, it may refer to anything that is Gay-related: culturally coded to reflect same-sex attraction, non-heteronormal gender expression, and physiological variance in the sexual body. “Gay” is a popular term worldwide for people with Gay-related identities, and who support the community of those who are like them.
Although “gay” may still officially mean “happy” or “carefree,” association with same-sex romantic/erotic attraction and gender variance has undermined any other association. There is often an assumed underlying play on words signaling homosexuality when the word is used.
Origins of the word “gay” as “homosexual” are murky. By the end of the nineteenth century, “gay” meant both “carefree” and “morally unrestrained.” As such, it referred to prostitution, anything pleasantly colorful or frivolous, and merriment.
There is a strong linguistic link between homosexuality and prostitution in many Western European cultures due in part to the forbidden nature of same-sex love. For many men, the fulfillment of same-sex desire could most easily be accomplished by hiring a male prostitute – women tended not to be so public as to go forth on the street and hire prostitutes of either sex. Thus terms formerly associated with prostitution such as “gay,” “trade” (a non-homosexual man willing to have sex with another man), and “trick” (prostitute’s client) became code words in the English-speaking homosexual community of the early to mid-twentieth century.
“Gay” may also have been adopted because of its use in describing fun and silly things, characteristics that were also applied to homosexual men as fairies, magical beings who, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in English-speaking countries, were imagined as soft, feminine, flowerlike, happy, harmless, and who love to dance. Both “gay” and “fairy” appear to have come into use as code words at about the same time in the 1920s. Fairy-as-effeminate-homosexual-man had gone mainstream before “gay” (as did the floral term, “pansy”) perhaps due to a more obvious connection of fairies to effeminate men from the perspective of the general public.
“Gay” remained a code word in the much of the English-speaking world until around the time of the Stonewall Uprising in 1969. Prior to Stonewall, the homophile (“same-sex loving”) movement portrayed a narrow spectrum of non-heteronormal people as being just like Straight people, and rejecting the notion that such people were worthy of damnation or criminal prosecution. Homophile organizations tended to be mostly male, and although there was a concurrent women’s movement claiming “lesbian” as their identity, Lesbians did not completely abandon the word “gay” as an identity marker.
Men and women in the homophile movement, Mattachine Society, and the Lesbian organization, Daughters of Bilitis, promoted an image of respectability that included conforming to expectations concerning gendered appearance. A growing anti-establishment Gay identity in the 1960s, however, reveled in difference; subverted gender codes; flouted medical, psychological, legal, and religious authorities that condemned them; and (like the counterculture in general) was tolerant of illegal drug use and sexual freedom. The international attention that Stonewall brought to the community’s radical element brought the word “gay” out of the linguistic closet. Immediately, “gay” was no longer cryptic and multivalent. It was public and possessed one dominant meaning in reference to an overarching definition: the collective of people who are sexually and romantically attracted to others of the same sex, those attracted to others of the same gender, and those who did not conform to gender norms.
“Gay” as “Homosexual Men Only”
Although “gay” initially meant a range of non-heteronormal identities at the start of Gay Liberation, there were complaints by women in the movement that men were privileged, a problem that occurred in the previous homophile movement. This led to the formation of an even stronger separatist Lesbian identity, and a veering away of Lesbians from Gay male-centered organizations in favor of women’s organizations. As Gay groups became more mainstream, there were also attempts to purge the ranks of gender nonconformists, an issue that would continue into the twenty-first century.
Nevertheless, both men and women who did not conform to heteronormal standards were considered gay by the general public, and Lesbians would call themselves “gay” interchangeably with “lesbian.” In the pivotal moment in television history when comedienne Ellen DeGeneres came out, the line she said was, “I’m gay.”
In order to signal openness to both men and women, organizations described themselves as “gay and lesbian,” which was expanded to “gay, lesbian, and bisexual” (also known as lesbigay). A proliferation of identity markers were added to indicate further inclusiveness in areas that did not necessarily have to do with same-sex orientation, such as transgender, transsexual, intersex, queer, questioning, two-spirit, and ally. Various acronyms arose: GLBT, LGBT, GLBTT, LGBTTQ, GLBTTQQ, LGBTI, and LGBTTIQQ2SA. The most popular (most likely due to brevity) were GLBT, LGBT, and LGBTQ. Every term listed in these acronyms with the exception of “ally,” however, would fit within the general public’s understanding of “gay,” which was even extended to same-sex activity among animals, different kinds of music, styles of clothing, individual sports for men with a strong emphasis on aesthetics such as ice skating, and team sports for women.
Problems With “Gay”
Since the word “gay” has been isolated to mean anything associated with same-sex orientation and gender/physiology variation, and since the term was often used as a pejorative, “gay” became a favored label synonymous with “undesirable” among young Americans. Attempts to justify the use of phrases such as “That’s so gay” as being devoid of condemnation of Gay people have been rejected by the LGBTQ community. In 2008, Lesbian comedienne Wanda Sykes worked with the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in “Think Before You Speak” commercials, public service announcements designed to encourage young people to stop using “gay” in a disparaging fashion.
Some AIDS awareness groups were concerned that men who have sex with men would not always identify with “gay” because of its negative connotations, so another category was developed in efforts to educate people about AIDS: MSM (men who have sex with men). Homophobic Christian ex-gay groups came up with their own term, SSA (Same Sex Attraction, often prefaced by “unwanted”).
“SSA” was important because it allowed homophobic Christians an alternative to the word “gay.” Using the term, “gay,” which was favored by the LGBTQ community, was considered tacit confirmation that the community of such people constituted a legitimate folk, so it was typically rejected in favor of “homosexual” until that term was considered homophobic, especially when used to condemn the Gay community. Extreme Christian homophobic people, however, had no problem with “homosexual,” and would also use “sodomite” and “abomination.” Organizations designed to convert Gay people into Straight called themselves ex-gay ministries.
Virulent homophobia is by no means limited to Christianity. Azwan Ismail, a Malaysian man, posted a video in which he announces, “Saya Gay, Saya OK” (I’m Gay, I’m OK) on YouTube in 2010. Malaysia is a Muslim country known for tolerance. Nevertheless, Ismail received death threats from homophobic Muslims for his video. The threat to his person was severe enough that the organization posting the video, Seksualiti Merdeka, took it down. However, it was reposted once again on YouTube.
Some scholars feel that the labeling of any group or person as “gay” is inappropriate before the twentieth century, thus fixing the term into a narrow historical slot. There are also those who feel that any distinctions of identity based on atypical gender, orientation, and sexual physiology will (or should) eventually disappear, leading to a post-gay world.
There are also Gay-related categories that refer more to behaviors than identity, such as the practice of mati work in Surinam in which women seek erotic-romantic relationships with each other, marriage to men notwithstanding.
As acronyms grew, a countermovement within the LGBTQ community has reclaimed the word “gay;” applied it to the community rather than orientation, gender, or physiology; and extended its applicability in history to any time such a community can be shown to exist. There is also a movement to capitalize the word when used in reference to community identity. One may therefore be homosexual, lesbian, MSM, bisexual, or even gay without being Gay. The movement towards “Gay” calls for a return to the original Stonewall moment, when people with a number of identities united as “gay” and demanded their rights.
The most important qualities that have led to the resurgence, however, are the ease of recognition of “gay” by the general public (although its definition may be vague), its use in many major languages, and the awkwardness of the LGBTQ acronym and its iterations.
Because the idea of a supportive community of people with same-sex orientation, gender variation, and sexual physiological diference is so new to many cultures, the word “gay” has quickly spread throughout the world, and has made its way into the vocabularies of several languages with the same or nearly the same pronunciation as in English. The following are some examples (there may be variations not listed below):
Gay (English, Spanish, Continental French, Italian, and Malay)
Gay (in Chinese print, spelled with Latin letters)
Gay (Taiwan, also gay-yang or “gay-like,” often used for effeminate men)
Gay (understood in German, but term more popular for Gay men: schwul or “hot”)
Gay (Dutch, but more popular term: homoseksueel or homo, and Holebi for Lesbigay. Homo is also the preferred term in Finnish)
Gai (Quebecois French)
Guei (Portuguese, but usually spelled “gay”)
Gej (Croatian, Slovenian, Polish)
Gey, Gej (Russian and Serbian, with equivalent Cyrillic letters for G, E, Y/J, may also use “gay” with Latin letters)
Gei (Japanese, with equivalent Katakana script for two kana: Ke modified to Ge, and I)
Gei (Cantonese, with phonetically equivalent character)
Gkéh (Greek, pronounced “gay,” and spelled with letters from the Greek alphabet: Gamma, Kappa, Epsilon, Eta, and accent on Epsilon)
Altman, Dennis. The Homosexualization of America. Boston: Beacon, 1983.
Boykin, Keith. Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006.
Gates, Gary J. and Jason Ost. The Gay and Lesbian Atlas. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2004.
Newton, Esther. Margaret Mead Made Me Gay: Personal Essays, Public Ideas. Durham, NC: Duke University, 2000.