Tracing the Origins of the Word “Gay:” A Sexually and Politically Charged Word

In recent years the word ‘gay’ has become both a politically and culturally charged word. It is often associated with the acronym, LGBT, otherwise known as Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender. The contemporary understanding of ‘gay’ is an individual who engages in homosexual relations, or as the GLAAD organization defines it on their webpage, “The adjective used to describe people whose enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attractions are to people of the same sex.” Even though this is the common understanding for ‘gay,’ it is only in recent decades that the word has had an association with the LGBT community. The word’s meaning has evolved over time, shifting from being a jovial adjective to becoming a noun synonymous with a community that has only recently begun to be treated equally in contrast to the dominant ‘straight’ community. As this feature will show, the word ‘gay’ has a history of being in association with undesirable persons, but was ultimately adopted by the LGBT community. This feature will also strive to show that ‘gay’ has become a politically charged word with the LGBT community since the 1969 Stonewall riot and the subsequent AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Due to such events, ‘gay’ has become more than a word, but rather a noun an entire community self-identifies with.

There is dispute as to the actual origin of ‘gay’ and when it was first used. According to the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, ‘gay’ “stems from the old Provencal word ‘gai’, which was defined as being ‘high spirited, mirthful'” (1990). This word was often used by the troubadours, who were commonly associated as a French medieval lyric poet, who spoke of their art as “gai saber,” translated as “gay knowledge” (1990). According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), ‘gay’ also was initially used to refer to something that was considered noble or beautiful. Sentences such as, “Our landlord has, they say, Long woo’d, and lately a Lady gay” (OED Gay 2a 1736), indicate that ‘gay’ was a complimentary adjective towards an individual. In many instances, this definition of ‘gay’ remained active up until the mid twentieth century towards individuals and positive social situations.

However, during the 17th Century ‘gay’ also began to shift in its meaning with some. Its once complimentary usage transitioned to it having a negative connotation. According to the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, ‘gay,’ when being used towards males “connote the conduct of a playboy or dashing man about town, whose behavior was not always strictly moral but not totally depraved either” (1990). A ‘gay’ male during this time would have been considered to be a womanizer. The adjective had a slightly derogatory tone to it, yet ‘gay’ wasn’t entirely negative towards males. Sentences such as, “Besides being very handsome, there are reasons to fear that Mr. Charles Victor Fremy was sometimes very, very gay,” (OED Gay 4b 1879) provide an understanding of the word having an association with a philandering behavior, but wasn’t one that minimized an individual’s reputation.

Women, however, who were associated with ‘gay’ in the 17th Century were considered to be ill-regarded individuals. The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality defines a ‘gay’ woman as “belonging to the demimonde or given to illicit sexual pleasure, even specifically to prostitution” (1990). A ‘gay’ woman had close similarities to “the fallen woman,” a common motif in literature of a woman who had fallen from grace and had given up her dignity. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this negative connotation, at least regarding promiscuity, dates back to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Book II. Sentences such as “As soon as ever a woman has ostensibly lost her reputation, we, with a grim inappositeness, call her ‘gay'” (OED Gay 4c 1868), not only provides direct evidence of the term being a negative expression towards an individual, but this was one of the first instances of the word labeling an individual in a derogatory way, particularly due to sexual activity.

However, despite ‘gay’ having a labeling capability applied to it as far back as the 17th Century, the word wasn’t applied towards homosexual men and was primarily put in association with a promiscuous ‘straight’ community. By the beginning of the twentieth century the word ‘gay’ was at least synonymous with the inferior. ‘Gaycat,’ which is one of the first print recordings of the word, is described as someone who is inferior. According to the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, this word was first recorded in 1933 in Noel Estine’s Dictionary of Underworld Slang (1990). The OED defines this term as “An inexperienced hand having little knowledge or understanding of itinerant life; amateur; newcomer; a worthless fellow” (OED Gaycat n 1). The term may not have had a sexual reference, but it still identified a person as being inferior in a larger group. According to Dictionary.com, ‘gaycat’ was a term that likely dated back to roughly 1893 and described an apprentice hobo who was often “severely and cruelly abused by ‘real’ tramps.” Along with the sexual inferiority of ‘gay’ being applied towards women, the word ‘gay’ entered the twentieth century as a word that described a person or group who was morally or physically inadequate in contrast to a dominant society.

‘Gay’ didn’t begin to have a homosexual association to it until the early twentieth century when the word began to shift from ill-regarded straight persons to directly referencing homosexuals. The exact date of this shift in definition isn’t precisely known, but it is theorized that the term was discreetly adopted by the gay community themselves. According to The Dictionary of American Slang, it is writer Gertrude Stein who may have been one of the notable firsts to use the word as a noun that described homosexual love. In her short story, Miss Furr and Miss Skeen, which was published in Vanity Fair, there is the passage, “They were…gay, they learned little things that are things in being gay…they were quite regularly gay” (OED Gay 1b 1922). This passage suggests a lesbian relationship that is devoid of moralizing. Therefore, Stein’s short story may be the first to use ‘gay’ in association with homosexuals.

The Dictionary of American Slang further acknowledges Gore Vidal’s 1948 novel, The City and the Pillar, as one of the first novels to use ‘gay’ in the form of self-identification. The novel is also considered to be one of the first coming-of-age narratives about a male discovering his homosexuality. Sentences such as, “Jim discovered their language, their expressions. The words ‘fairy’ and ‘pansy’ were considered to be in bad taste. It was fashionable to say that person was ‘gay'” (Gay 1b 1948), frame ‘gay’ as an accepted term that one could self-identify with. This acceptance of the word ‘gay’ is subsequent to the 1941 definition of ‘gay’ by Gershn Legman and G.V. Henry in their book Sexual Variations II. The Dictionary of American Slang cites Legman and Henry as the first to clinically link ‘gay’ with homosexual males, defining it as “An adjective used almost exclusively by homosexuals to denote homosexuality, sexual attractiveness, promiscuity…or lack of restraint in a person, place, or party” (Gay 1b 1941). With Legman and Henry’s definition and Vidal’s writing suggesting acceptant self-identification, it can be argued that it was roughly in the 1940s when homosexuality was directly linked with ‘gay.’

Throughout the 1940s into the 1960s, there were various laws and oppositions towards those who were either labeled or self-identified as ‘gay.’ However, the public conception of ‘gay’ individuals was mostly ignored until the 1969 Stonewall riot when the dominant ‘straight’ public was forced to acknowledge the existence of ‘gay’ persons. The Stonewall riot that occurred on June 28, 1969 has become iconic primarily because it was the first rejection of ‘gay’ persons being oppressed due to their sexuality. The Stonewall Inn, located on Christopher Street in “The Village,” was raided by police due to suspicion of homosexual activity, which was illegal at the time. According to Toby Marotta’s article “What Made Stonewall Different,” the police first released patrons who were able to provide identification. However, those who were cross-dressing at the inn were apprehended and designated as law-breakers. Those who had been released by the police began to loiter on the sidewalks and street and started to taunt the authorities, which quickly escalated into violence. Marotta’s article describes the incident by writing, “Emboldened protestors now swarmed across the street, crowded onto the sidewalk in front of the Stonewall, and bashed in its windows and doors” (35).

According to Marotta, the Stonewall riot inadvertently initiated a gay movement. No longer willing to be seen as inferior, the riot caused those who identified as ‘gay’ to come together as an open community. Marotta writes that “Gay power” and “Queer power” immediately became slogans outside of Stonewall the day after the riot before Christopher Street became another zone of rioting and confrontation with the police, which caused the entire country to suddenly pay attention. The incident “triggered a chain reaction of community-building and political organizing that was emulated across the country and publicized throughout the world” (35). The riot not only united and compelled those who identified as ‘gay’ to work together, but it caused the ‘straight’ community to acknowledge the existence of ‘gay’ persons.

Due to Stonewall, it evoked the Gay Liberation Movement that began in late-1969 into early-1970. According to The Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, and Transgender History in America, the movement “advocated public disclosure of one’s sexual identity,” making the phrase “coming out” a popular euphemism among the movement. What especially made the Gay Liberation Movement unique was its complete deviation from the Homophile Movement, which had been in existence for nearly twenty years, but whose goals were to seek amicable equality with the ‘straight’ community. Instead, the Gay Liberation Movement “…sought to reconstruct, if not destroy, those very institutions; their goal was radical transformation, not amelioration.” The Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, and Transgender History in America also emphasizes that the Gay Liberation Movement was inspired by the various social movements of the 1960s, such as the Black Power, Second-Wave Feminist, and the anti-war protests, all of which are better known as being part of “The New Left.”

What was a pinnacle moment with the Gay Liberation Movement was Carl Wittman’s “A Gay Manifesto,” which was written and published for the movement in early 1970. While it was not the first of its kind, “A Gay Manifesto” was one of the first gay publications that asked for the community to accept and understand themselves. The manifesto describes the community being both frustrated and fearful, as described in the passage, “And we have formed a ghetto, out of self-protection. It is a ghetto rather than a free territory because it is still theirs. Straight cops patrol us, straight legislators govern us, straight employers keep us in line, straight money exploits us. We have pretended everything is OK, because we haven’t been able to see how to change it – we’ve been afraid.” Wittman’s manifesto sought to provide an opportunity for those who identified as ‘gay’ to release themselves from oppression, which could only be done if people were receptive towards identifying as ‘gay.’ By doing that, the ‘gay’ community would be allowed to recognize their oppression and not merely accept it, but fight against it. By the conclusion of Wittman’s manifesto, he summarized everything into a four-point outline that has remained part of the foundation of the gay community even today:

“1. Free ourselves: come out everywhere; initiate self defense and political activity; initiate counter community institutions.
2. Turn other gay people on: talk all the time; understand, forgive, accept.
3. Free the homosexual in everyone: we’ll be getting a good bit of shit from threatened latents: be gentle, and keep talking & acting free.
4. We’ve been playing an act for a long time, so we’re consummate actors. Now we can begin to be, and it’ll be a good show!”

 However, what finally brought the ‘gay’ community to the consciousness of the ‘straight’ community was the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, which would cause the population to inaccurately associate the epidemic as a “gay disease.” Part of this misapprehension was due to the Center’s of Disease Control’s (CDC) initial report. The report was published in the weekly “Morbidity and Mortality Report,” otherwise known as the “MMWR,” which was mailed out every Friday to thousands of hospitals and health agencies (Shilts 66). Out of fear of offending the gay community or the homophobes within the United States, the CDC decided that the report would not appear on page one but on “…a more inconspicuous slot on page two. Any reference to homosexuality was dropped from the title, and the headline simply read: Pneumocystis Pneumonia – Los Angeles” (Shilts 68).

Despite the attempt to conceal the ‘gay’ component of the disease from the public, the notion of the disease being a “gay disease” was conceived within the health industry outside of the initial AIDS task force. Especially when it was becoming clear that it wasn’t merely gays who were afflicted with the disease, but also drug addicts, “…health officials outside the task force often reported them as homosexual, being strangely reluctant to shed the notion that this as a gay disease; all these junkies would somehow turn out to be gay in the end, they said” (Shilts 106). This allowed for the disease to be incorrectly associated with the acronym, GRID (Gay-Related Immunodeficiency) before it was officially renamed with the acronym, AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) in September of 1982. However, as Randy Shilts writes in his journalism work And The Band Played On, “The talk of ‘GRID’ and ‘Gay Cancer’ had helped accomplish in the early months of 1982: AIDS was a gay disease in the popular imagination, no matter who else got it” (213).

It wasn’t until 1985 with concrete evidence that the disease was caused by a retrovirus and spread by the passing of bodily fluids or blood, which provided proof that ‘straight’ persons were equally likely to be afflicted with the disease. This caused the disease to be associated beyond being a mere “gay disease.” However, the AIDS epidemic did unite the gay community, evoking some of its most influential and profound institutions, such as the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which was founded in 1990 and seeks to end LGBT bias in the school system, and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which was founded in 1985 and seeks to change the cultural narrative of gays in the media. Such institutions, both prompted with the reality that LGBT reform and education were needed during the onset of the AIDS epidemic, have taught much of the ‘straight’ community about their history and to be sensitive towards their community. Arguably, this education provided acceptance of the ‘gay’ community by the ‘straight’ community, which has led to recent successes in equality battles. Long-Standing laws, such as Defense of Marriage or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, were primarily struck down due to a wider acceptance of ‘gays’ by the ‘straight’ community. These laws were repealed largely due to a successful gay-straight alliance that began in the early 1990s.

While ‘gay’ may be a word that has been put in association with the LGBT community, it is important to recognize that the word is not an invention from the community. The word’s origins stem back to the 17th Century when the word was first associated as “noble” or “beautiful” before the word was defined as one who lived a promiscuous lifestyle, and ultimately shifted to be the word that the LGBT community self-identifies with. With the evidence provided, it is fair to suggest the gay community did adopt ‘gay,’ but the word didn’t truly become politically charged until the 1969 Stonewall riot, the Gay Liberation Movement of the 1970s, and the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. What can especially be noted with the word being politically charged for nearly five decades is that its understanding has evolved from being part of the underbelly of society to now being near equal in a contemporary era. In contrast to the word’s difference in definition, the most profound change is the perception of ‘gay’ by a larger society. With recent pushes for equality, it is likely that those associated with the term ‘gay’ will see themselves more accepted over time in a ‘straight’ dominated society.

Sources Cited:  

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Pneumocystis Pneumonia – Los Angeles.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 30.21 (1981). Web. <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/june_5.htm&gt;.

“Gay.” Dictionary.com. 3 March 2016. <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/gay&gt;.

“Gay.” Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. 1st Ed. 1990. Print.

“Gay Liberation.” LGBT Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, and Transgender History in America. 1st Ed. 2004. Print.

“Gay, adj., adv., and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web.

“Gay.” Online Etymology Dictionary. 3 March 2016. <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=Gay&gt;.

“Gay.” Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. 1st Ed. 1994. Print.

“Gaycat.” Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. 1st Ed. 1994. Print.

“Our Mission.” GLAAD. 4 March 2016. <http://www.glaad.org/about&gt;.

Marotta, Toby. “What Made Stonewall Different?.” Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide 13.2 (2006): 33-35. LGBT Life with Full Text. Web

Shilts, Randy. And The Band Played On. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987, 1988. Kindle File.

Wittman, Carl. “A Gay Manifesto.” gayhomeland.org. Web. <http://library.gayhomeland.org/0006/EN/A_Gay_Manifesto.htm&gt;.

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