What does “Gay” mean?

Gay, adj.—a word for someone who finds themselves romantically attracted to another person of the same sex (without any other qualifiers related to gender or exclusivity to same-sex attraction).

"Gay 1934," artwork by N.M.

Happy 90th Birthday, “Gay”

The term “gay,” as used in this inclusive context, recently had its 90th birthday, tracing its roots back to approximately 1934, when gay people used it as a non-derogatory slang word to describe themselves. However, its inception most likely began during the prohibition era of the 1920s. At the time, it was the preferred alternative to “queer,” which was considered derogatory, and “homosexual,” which was considered too clinical and lacked a sense of community and vibrancy. The beauty of the word “gay” in the 1930s was that it applied equally to all genders, and it assigned no specific connotations as to the exclusivity or degree to which a person was attracted to the same (or opposite) sex. It is important to understand that in these early years, the understanding of transgender identities was limited. For a time, “gay” encompassed this spectrum as well.

Gay is a Beautiful Word

The word “gay” originated from the Old French term “gai,” which brimmed with positive connotations of happiness and joy. This cheerful meaning seeped into Middle English (spoken between 1150 and 1500 AD), where “gay” could describe someone feeling happy and radiating nobility, beauty, excellence, or even being finely dressed and striking in appearance. Fast forward to the 1930s and the gay community’s early adoption as a self-identifier. This wasn’t just a matter of choosing a convenient label.  The choice held a deeper meaning. By adopting a word associated with happiness, self-worth, and vibrancy, the community was essentially declaring, “We are worthy of love and happiness, just like anyone else. We accept ourselves for who we are and are proud of it.” This act of claiming a word and imbuing it with a new layer of meaning became a powerful statement of self-acceptance.

Gay is an Inclusive Word

The use of the word “gay” has occupied a fascinating and dynamic space within our vocabulary. In the mid-20th century, it served as a broad umbrella term, encompassing same-sex attraction. However, the linguistic landscape has shifted since then. The use of related yet exclusive words with more specific meanings and nuance changed the verbal topography surrounding the word “gay.” For example, the 1970s saw the rise of the term “lesbian” as the preferred self-identifier for gay women. Similarly, “bisexual” emerged to describe individuals romantically attracted to both genders. More recently, a wave of even more specific and nuanced terms has gained in popularity. The diversification, while enriching the language of identity, has also subtly reshaped how some perceive “gay.”

Despite these evolving terms, the core meaning of “gay” remains unchanged. It is simply a word for someone who finds themselves romantically attracted to another person of the same sex. A lesbian is also gay. A bisexual person is also gay. Some transgender people are also gay. The term “gay” is inclusive and broad.

Words that Divide and Words that Unite

Language is a living thing, constantly adapting to the times. Just like any living organism, vocabulary evolves – words gain new meanings, some fade away, and new ones are born. This is especially true within our community, where terminology has flourished to reflect a better understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity. These new terms are powerful tools that allow us to speak about ourselves with a greater degree of nuance and empathy.  However, words also have the power to divide a community as well as unite it. As we continue to break ourselves up into increasingly distinct categories of sexual expression and gender, it is important to remember that we are also one community. While celebrating diversity is essential, we must also remember the power of shared experience. “Gay” holds a significant historical weight. It was once the unifying term that brought us together under a single banner. We should nurture it and other words like it that we can share, and which bring us together as a collective group. Let’s continue fostering both the rich vocabulary of our identities and the sense of collective belonging that binds us together.

References

Bronski, Michael (2011). A Queer History of the United States. Beacon Press.

D’Emilio, John (1983). Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: the Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. The University of Chicago Press.

Eaklor, Vicki L. (2008). Queer America: A GLBT History of the 20th Century. Greenwood Press.

Meyerowitz, Joanne (2002). How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Harvard University Press, 2002.

Onions, C. T., Burchfield, R. W., & Friedrichsen, G. W. S. (1966). The Oxford dictionary of English etymology. Clarendon Press.

Stryker, Susan (2008). Transgender History. Seal Press.

Watkins, C. (2011). The American heritage dictionary of Indo-European roots (3rd ed.). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.