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How Did We Come To Call Ourselves "Gay"?

Posted on June 20, 2013 at 11:05 PM

By Andy Nemec


How did we come to call ourselves "Gay"?


Interesting question, isn't it? Those of us who know we're gay in the modern age don't give much thought to why we say "Hey, I'm gay!" The names we are known by are important to a lot of people, particularly those of us in a minority group. It's part of our identity and culture. However, we might not give too much thought to how we got those names.




Terminology is part of not only identification, but can often help to solidify a community - a rallying point, if you will. In the 1960s for example, African-American people discarded the terms "Negro" and "colored," embracing the term "black" - not only as a descriptive term, but as an identity. The clinical "Negro" and the disparaging "colored" were terms assigned by white people. "Black" came to be a self-owned identity born of activism (e.g., "The Black Panthers").


It also happened for us gay people. In the late 1960s, the term "gay" came into wider usage. At that time, the term "homosexual" began to be seen as a pejorative term. Yes, it was descriptive. Yes, it was accurate - as far as it went. But it also was clinical and was an incomplete descriptor of who we are. It implies that we are all about sex, and that there is little or no depth to us as people. "Homosexual" is still used in that manner by those who wish to deny us our rights, to demonize us and to segregate us from the rest of society. Just as in the case of other minority people, we needed a new name and "gay" became that name.


But just how did the term "gay" come to be? The truth is, nobody really has a definite answer. But there are a couple of popular hypotheses.


One origin story is that "gay" is an acronym for "good as you." It does make some sense. That is certainly the theme for the gay social justice movement of the 1960s, when the term first came into wide usage. However, the term pre-dates the "Gay Liberation Front" days. It's likely that "good as you" is a wonderful coincidence.




The word "gay," of course, has more than one meaning. The original meaning - carefree, happy, festive - also developed a sexual connotation sometime in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At that time it applied mostly to heterosexual people who led carefree lives and perhaps were sexual adventurers. The word was also associated with female prostitutes. Near the end of the Victorian era, the 1890s saw a time of increased sexual freedom, the "Gay 90's." While those days were certainly not as free as the sexual revolution days of the 1960s, folks in those days did know how to party.


Sometime in those years the word "gay" somehow also began to be associated with femininity, perhaps because of its earlier association with female prostitutes. If you consider that the common perception of gay men included an affinity for activities such as "drag" performance and campy cross-dressing (not to mention that male homosexuality was misunderstood as "wanting to be a woman") you can see how the word could possibly have evolved to signify male homosexuals.


Throughout history, before much was understood about alternate sexuality, gay people were generally forced by social pressure to live secret lives. They could not share their identity with family, friends, or co-workers. It was a time of "the love that dare not speak its name." One never knew who was "one of us," or who meant to do us harm.


An interesting anecdote has the term "gay" coming into usage as a code word in the 1920s or 1930s. In social situations, particularly nightclubs, speakeasies and taverns, the term "gay" was put into conversation as a test to see if a person of the same gender perhaps wanted to engage in a sexual encounter. It was a safe word, and could be interpreted in two ways, having a "straight" meaning as well as a covert one. One would say something like "I'm feeling rather gay tonight." If the response was something generic and passive, then it was safe to assume that there was no interest and the person being approached was none the wiser. When the response was "Yes, I am feeling gay tonight, too" (along with that "knowing smile"), then it was reasonably safe to assume that the person was "one of us."


While there is no definitive answer as to where "gay" came from, it seems to me that the last explanation makes the most sense. Language evolves, and this could be one example of it doing so.


But if you're looking for a clear-cut answer, you may be disappointed. The truth is that nobody knows for sure. But we do know one thing - it sure beats "homosexual."

Categories: History Lessons

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14 Comments

Reply John
2:26 PM on June 25, 2013 
Dennis Stone says...
John - Is that a true story about the Navy searching for Dorothy, or could that be an "urban legend"? If true, that's remarkable!

Randy Shiltz reported it in his book on gays and the military, "Conduct Unbecoming".

It looks like for a reply to properly nest some of the text to which it's a response has to be retained. So not a tech issue, apparently.
Reply Dennis Stone
11:22 AM on June 25, 2013 
John - Is that a true story about the Navy searching for Dorothy, or could that be an "urban legend"? If true, that's remarkable!

I'm not even sure how the ordering of comments is supposed to work. I'll research that when I get a chance. (I've been swamped at work lately so haven't had as much time for the site as I'd like.)
Reply John
11:03 AM on June 25, 2013 
During the bad old days of military witch hunts, the Naval Investigative Service stumbled across the fact that some gay men called themselves friends of Dorothy. The NIS launched a massive search for this Dorothy woman, hoping she would give up the names of gay servicemembers. Shockingly they never found her. Probably because Kansas is landlocked.

ETA: This was submitted as a reply to Andy's comment above. Tech issue?
Reply John
10:58 AM on June 25, 2013 
A bemusing memory of mine is of a guest column written for Newsweek in the late 1980s or early 1990s by some hapless lexicographer bemoaning that he could no longer use "gay" because of the homosexual connotations and complained about how school kids couldn't make it through "Deck the Halls" without snickering at "gay apparel". He suggested that the gays give up "gay" in favor of "fabulous". The response in a later letters column included one person pointing out that we kinda owned "fabulous" already, another praising his genius and a third suggesting that kids be taught no to snicker at the word "gay" any more than they snicker at being told to get in a "straight" line.
Reply Cole
12:25 AM on June 23, 2013 
Dennis, I'm glad you like it! I have always thought of it whenever I happen to see a guy in a locker room or any similar situation with red underwear. Maybe we should start a campaign to send red boxers to politicians suspected of being closeted and voting anti-gay? LOL

Dennis Stone says...
Cole - I LOVE the "he wears red underwear" story! That's a terrific code phrase.
Reply Dennis Stone
8:24 PM on June 22, 2013 
Cole - I LOVE the "he wears red underwear" story! That's a terrific code phrase.
Reply CATHY CRONIN
6:22 PM on June 21, 2013 
Great article Andy! The way language is used, & how it changes, is endlessly fascinating to me. I'm especially interested in English words & slang (we need to get Darrien on this!). As it relates to this site, I'm sure that fag is still mostly used as slang for a cigarette in the UK. And queer always seems more English than North American.
Reply Cole
5:32 PM on June 21, 2013 
My first memory of hearing the word gay in its "proper context" was on Three's Company. What a great cultural touchstone to reference, LOL.
Reply Cole
5:29 PM on June 21, 2013 
I'm with Dennis in not having heard the term "gay" (as a synonym for lame) during high school or even college, as far as I can remember. I would have said that it came about in the late 90s. I suspect that regional differences really is to blame. It would be interesting to know when it was first used on TV or in a movie in that sense. Can anyone think of an early instance?

When I was in high school (1984-1988), "queer" was frequently used and was certainly derogatory. It could mean that someone was actually suspected (never admitted) of being a homosexual or that the speaker simply didn't approve of whatever the subject happened to be.

I can't think of any really good euphemisms at the moment, except for one that is entirely personal rather than common. One of my close friends in college told me that every guy who came out to her was somehow wearing red underwear at the time. SHe had three of four stories of being around guys at parties or some similar situation where the guy would either tell her he was gay or would be known to be gay, and would be without pants and wearing red underwear. She coined the phrase "he wears red underwear" or "I think his underwear is red" as a way of saying she suspected a guy of being gay. I was so disappointed when, years later, I came out to her by telling her that I had red underwear on and she had NO IDEA what I was talking about, LOL.
Reply The_Fixer
4:11 PM on June 21, 2013 
I first heard Gay as a synonym for Lame or Stupid in the later 1980s and earlier part of the 1990s. It may be regional, it may have started becoming popular later than that in some parts of the country. But that's a whole different discussion, and it could go on for quite some time. Regional colloquialisms are a study unto themselves, as are how they get picked up in other regions.

I do know a few people who, in spite of being told that it's not cool, still use it that way (and they are in their 30s!). My response is something like "I don't see how that relates to two men in love or even having sex..." I get a puzzled response and a rapid change in topic after that.
Reply Dennis Stone
12:27 PM on June 21, 2013 
I hadn't thought that "gay" as a synonym for "lame" started until the 2000s (the "aughts"). What's fascinating to me is that for a lot of kids, using "gay" that way is not considered to be related to gay people at all. It's a wholly separate usage of the word. Going back to origins of the term itself, if you step back from it, it just seems to me that "gay" is a really odd word to end up meaning "homosexual". We take it for granted now, but it's really kind of an odd choice.
Reply Ulysses Dietz
8:40 AM on June 21, 2013 
Fascinating bit, Andy. For sure, you and I (and Yiannis) can attest, the use of the term gay in its old-fashioned meaning of happy or high spirited continued throughout our childhoods (well, honestly, I have no idea about how it worked in Greek, Yiannis!)... Only in the late 1970s did I begin to hear plaintive comments from the straight world (from the press, from people I knew) that they couldn't use the word "gay" anymore because it had been "usurped by the homosexuals." In the 1980s, gay had become so commonly associated with, well, gay folk, that it also began to appear in the high-school crowd as a generic negative connotative of sissyhood or effeminacy - and in the 1990s it actually became (as it is) disassociated with necessary connotations of sexuality, and simply became a negative word equivalent to "lame, stupid, bad." Those are merely my perceptions over the last 38 years of my life... does this seem to coincide with others' experience?
Reply The_Fixer
1:43 AM on June 21, 2013 
Yiannis, the whole cord word thing is very interesting! Yes, there are other phrases, perhaps one most popular in the USA was "Friend of Dorothy". But it would be interesting to hear of code words/phrases from other cultures.

But I am developing a like for "really shakes the pear tree". It conjures up quite a visual, doesn't it? :)

Thanks for your great comment!
Reply Yiannis
1:02 AM on June 21, 2013 
Great article Andy! I especially liked the code word part. In my country there were also coded expressions to establish recognition between "kindred spirits". Usually, they were used in the third person, i.e. "he regularly carries the letter" (that came about as it was customary when one gay wanted to share his lover with a friend, he would give him a letter to supposedly carry to him). Or "he plays the piano and speaks perfect French" (as gays were considered more cultured and sophisticated than straight men, this was appropriate. Or "he really shakes the pear tree" (outdoor sex was the most common occurrence and the image of a guy holding onto a tree for balance is quite eloquent). I would be interested to hear of similar expressions from other cultures. :-)