The History Of The Word "Gay"

The meaning of the word gay has changed dramatically during the 20 th century—though the change evolved from earlier usages. It derives via the Old French gai, probably from a Germanic source. The word originally meant "carefree", "happy", or "bright and showy" and was very commonly used with this meaning in speech and literature.

The word started to acquire sexual connotations in the late 17 th century, being used with meaning "addicted to pleasures and dissipations". This was by extension from the primary meaning of "carefree": implying "uninhibited by moral constraints". By the late nineteenth century the term "gay life" was a well-established euphemism for prostitution and other forms of extramarital sexual behaviour that were perceived as immoral.

The use of the term gay, as it relates to homosexuality, arises from an extension of the sexualized connotation of "carefree and uninhibited", implying a willingness to disregard conventional or respectable sexual mores. Such usage is documented as early as the 1920's. It was initially more commonly used to imply heterosexually unconstrained lifestyles, as for example in the once-common phrase "gay Lothario", or in the title of the book and film The Gay Falcon (1941), which concerns a womanizing detective whose first name is "Gay". Well into the mid 20 th century a middle-aged bachelor could be described as "gay" without prejudice.

By the mid-century "gay" was well-established as an antonym for "straight" (respectable sexual behaviour), and to refer to the lifestyles of unmarried and or unattached people. Other connotations of frivolousness and showiness in dress ("gay attire") led to association with camp and effeminacy. This range of connotation probably affected the gradual movement of the term towards its current dominant meaning, which was at first confined to subcultures. The subcultural usage started to become mainstream in the 1960's, when gay became the term predominantly preferred by homosexual men to describe themselves. Gay was the preferred term since other terms, such as "queer" were felt to be derogatory. "Homosexual" was perceived as excessively clinical: especially since homosexuality was at that time designated as a mental illness, and "homosexual" was used by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to denote men affected by this "mental illness". Homosexuality was no longer classified as an illness in the DSM by 1973, but the clinical connotation of the word was already embedded in society.

By 1963, the word "gay" was known well enough by the straight community to be used fluently.


- Some Info Comes From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia




Gay History Links and Resources


The Experience of Homosexuality in the Middle Ages - Individual experiences and what can be gleaned about the subcultures or social networks homosexuals belonged to in this period.

New York Public Library Gay & Lesbian Studies - Information on Lesbian and Gay populations since 1911.

ONE/IGLA - ONE Institute International Gay & Lesbian Archives Research library on GLBT concerns.

Stonewall Center

Gay Heros

Reclaiming History - People self-identified as lesbian or gay, but not.

Homosexuality in History

Homosexuals in Government, 1950

Maracon - Maracon Challenges You To Believe It Or Not!

Hermeneutics of Homosexuality

Radical Faeries Women's Land Movement







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