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In contemporary usage, the adjective gay usually describes a person's sexual orientation, being the standard term for homosexual. In earlier usage, the word meant "carefree", "happy", or "bright and showy", though this usage is infrequent today. Gay sometimes also refers to commonalities shared by homosexual people, as in "gay history", the ideological concept of a hypothetical gay culture, as in "gay music." The word gay is sometimes used to refer to same-sex relationships more generally, as in "gay marriage", although this usage is discouraged by some LGBT supporters: the rationale is that this usage is exclusive of bisexual and transgendered people. While gay applies in some contexts to all homosexual people, the term lesbian is sex-specific: it is used exclusively to describe homosexual women. Sometimes gay is used to refer only to men.



Enlarge picture
A cartoon from Punch magazine from 1857 illustrating the use of "gay" as a euphemism for being a prostitute. One woman says to the other (who looks glum), "how long have you been gay?" The poster on the wall is for La Traviata, an opera about a courtesan.

The primary meaning of the word gay has changed dramatically during the 20th century—though the change evolved from earlier usages. It derives via the Old French gai, probably from a Germanic source.[1] The word originally meant "carefree", "happy", or "bright and showy" and was very commonly used with this meaning in speech and literature. For example, the title of the 1938 ballet aptly named Gaîté Parisienne ("Parisian Gaiety"), a patchwork compiled from Jacques Offenbach's operettas, illustrates this connotation, and the optimistic 1890s are still often referred to as the Gay Nineties.

The word started to acquire sexual connotations in the late 17th 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 behavior that were perceived as immoral.

The first name Gay is still occasionally encountered, usually as a female name although the spelling is often altered to Gaye. (795th most common in the United States, according to the 1990 US census[2]). It was also used as a male first name. The first name of the popular male Irish television presenter Gabriel Byrne was always abbreviated as "Gay", as in the title of his radio show The Gay Byrne Show. It can also be used as a short form of the female name Gaynell and as a short form of the male names Gaylen and Gaylord. The "Gaiety" was also a common name for places of entertainment. One of Oscar Wilde's favourite venues in Dublin was the Gaiety Theatre.

Development of modern usage

The use of gay to mean homosexual was in origin merely an extension of the word's sexualised connotation of "carefree and uninhibited", which implied a willingness to disregard conventional or respectable sexual mores. Such usage is documented as early as the 1920s. It was initially more commonly used to imply heterosexually unconstrained lifestyles, as for example in the once-common phrase "gay Lothario",[3] 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 20th century a middle-aged bachelor could be described as "gay" without any implication of homosexuality. This usage could apply to women too. The British comic strip Jane was first published in the 1930s and described the adventures of Jane Gay. Far from implying homosexuality, it referred to her freewheeling lifestyle with plenty of boyfriends (while also punning on Lady Jane Grey).

A passage from Gertrude Stein's Miss Furr & Miss Skeene (1922) is possibly the first traceable published use of the word to refer to a homosexual relationship, though it is not altogether clear whether she uses the word to mean lesbianism or happiness:

They were, they learned little things that are things in being gay, ... they were quite regularly gay.

—Gertrude Stein, 1922

The 1929 musical Bitter Sweet by Noel Coward contains another use of the word in a context that strongly implies homosexuality. In the song "Green Carnation", four overdressed, 1890s dandies sing:

Pretty boys, witty boys,
You may sneer
At our disintegration.
Haughty boys, naughty boys,
Dear, dear, dear!
Swooning with affectation...
And as we are the reason
For the "Nineties" being gay,
We all wear a green carnation.

Noel Coward, 1929, Bitter Sweet

The song title alludes to Oscar Wilde, who famously wore a green carnation, and whose homosexuality was well known. However, the phrase "gay nineties" was already well-established as an epithet for the decade (a film entitled The Gay Nineties; or, The Unfaithful Husband was released in the same year). The song also drew on familiar satires on Wilde and Aestheticism dating back to Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience (1881). Because of its continuation of these public usages and conventions – in a mainstream musical – the precise connotations of the word in this context remain ambiguous.

Other usages at this date involve some of the same ambiguity as Coward's lyrics. Bringing Up Baby (1938) was the first film to use the word gay in apparent reference to homosexuality. In a scene where Cary Grant's clothes have been sent to the cleaners, he must wear a lady's feathery robe. When another character inquires about his clothes, he responds "Because I just went gay...all of a sudden!"[4] However, since this was a mainstream film at a time when the use of the word to refer to homosexuality would still be unfamiliar to most film-goers, the line can also be interpreted to mean "I just decided to do something frivolous". There is much debate about what Grant meant with the ad-lib (the line was not in the script). The word continued to be used with the dominant meaning of "carefree", as evidenced by the title of The Gay Divorcee (1934), a musical film about a heterosexual couple. It was originally to be called The Gay Divorce after the play on which it was based, but the Hays Office determined that while a divorcee may be gay, it would be unseemly to allow a divorce to appear so.

By the mid-20th century "gay" was well-established as an antonym for "straight" (which had connotations of respectability), 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 association no doubt helped the gradual narrowing in scope of the term towards its current dominant meaning, which was at first confined to subcultures. 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 (DSM) 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.

One of the many characters invented by 1950s TV comic Ernie Kovacs was a "gay-acting" poet named Percy Dovetonsils. In one of his poems (which were always read to an imaginary off-screen character named "Bruce") he mentions the expression "gay caballero".

By 1963, the word "gay" was known well enough by the straight community to be used by Albert Ellis in his book The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Man-Hunting.

Paul Kirchner's Everything You Know Is Wrong claims that the term goes back to a term for Renaissance actors playing female roles when women were not allowed on the stage, "gaieties;" however, Shakespeare scholars dismiss this explanation and claim that the term is a neologism. Kirchner's bibliography is one page with no direct citations, so it is difficult to ascertain the source of his claim.

Parts of speech

Gay was originally used purely as an adjective ("he is a gay man" or "he is gay"). Gay can also be used as a plural noun: "Gays are opposed to that policy"; although some dislike this usage, it is common particularly in the names of various organizations such as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and Children Of Lesbians And Gays Everywhere (COLAGE). It is sometimes used as a singular noun, as in "he is a gay", such as in its use to comic effect by the Little Britain character Dafydd Thomas.

Street banners at Davie Village, a popular gay village in Vancouver.

Folk etymologies

A folk etymology refers to Gay Street, a small street in the West Village of New York City — a nexus of homosexual culture.

Common usage

Sexual orientation

Sexual orientation, behavior, and self-identification are not necessarily aligned in a clear-cut fashion for a given individual (See sex for a discussion of sex and gender.) Most people consider gay and homosexual to be synonyms. This is how, in fact, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it. However, some consider gay to be a matter of self-identification, while homosexual refers to sexual orientation. Indeed, the British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell has argued that the term gay is merely a cultural expression which reflects the current status of homosexuality within a given society, and claiming that "Queer, gay, homosexual ... in the long view, they are all just temporary identities. One day, we won't need them at all." [5]

If a person engages in same-sex sexual encounters but does not self-identify as gay, terms such as 'closeted', 'discreet', or 'bi-curious' may be applied. Conversely, a person may identify as gay without engaging in homosexual sex. Possible choices include identifying as gay socially while choosing to be celibate or while anticipating a first homosexual experience. Further, a bisexual person can also identify as "gay" but others might consider gay and bisexual to be mutually exclusive. There are some who are drawn to the same-sex and may not have sex and also not identify as gay, these could have the term 'asexual' applied even though an 'asexual' generally can mean no attraction and includes heterosexual attraction that is not sufficient to engage in sex or where the sex act is not desirable even though titillation may occur.


Self-identification of one's sexual orientation is becoming far more commonplace in areas of increased social acceptance, but many are either reluctant to self-identify publicly or even privately to themselves. The process is fairly complex, and many groups related to gay people cite heterosexism and homophobia as leading obstacles for those who would otherwise self-identify.

Selecting the appropriate term

Some people reject the term homosexual as an identity-label because they find it too clinical-sounding. They believe it is too focused on physical acts rather than romance or attraction, or too reminiscent of the era when homosexuality was considered a mental illness. Conversely, some people find the term gay to be offensive or reject it as an identity-label because they perceive the cultural connotations to be undesirable or because of the negative connotations of the slang usage of the word.

According to the Safe Schools Coalition of Washington's Glossary for School Employees:

Homosexual: Avoid this term; it is clinical, distancing and archaic. Sometimes appropriate in referring to behavior (although same-sex is the preferred adj.). When referring to people, as opposed to behavior, homosexual is considered derogatory and the terms gay and lesbian are preferred, at least in the Northwest [of the United States].

—Safe School Coalition, Glossary for School Employees [6]

The term gay is used to describe both same-sex male and same-sex female relations, although it is more commonly applied to men. More rarely, gay is used as a shorthand for LGBT: lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. Some transgender individuals find their inclusion in this larger grouping to be offensive.

Gay community

Main article: Gay community

The notion of the gay community is complex and controversial.

Just as the word "gay" is sometimes used as shorthand for LGBT, so "gay community" is sometimes a synonym for "LGBT community." In other cases, the speaker may be referring only to gay men. Some people (including many mainstream American journalists) interpret the phrase "gay community" to mean "the population of LGBT people".

Some LGBT people are relatively isolated, geographically or socially, from other LGBT people, or don't feel their social connections to their LGBT friends are different from those they have with straight friends. As a result, some analysts question the notion of sharing a "community" with people one has never actually met (whether in person or remotely). But other advocates insist that all LGBT people (and perhaps their allies) share political and social interests that make them part of a global community, in one way or another.

Hate crime against gays

"Sexual orientation remains the third-highest recorded bias crime in our country, which underscores that anti-gay hate crimes are a very real problem [in the US]," state Joe Solmonese (President of Human Rights Campaign). [7]


The term gay can also be used as an adjective to describe things related to gay people or things which are part of gay culture. For example, while a gay bar is not itself homosexual, using gay as an adjective to describe the bar indicates that the bar is either gay-oriented, caters primarily to a gay clientèle, or is otherwise part of gay culture.

Using it to describe an object, such as an item of clothing, suggests that it is particularly flamboyant, often on the verge of being gaudy and garish. This usage pre-dates the association of the term with homosexuality, but has acquired different connotations since the modern usage developed.

Using the term gay as an adjective where the meaning is akin to "related to gay people, culture, or homosexuality in general" is a widely accepted use of the word. By contrast, using gay in the pejorative sense, to describe something solely as negative, can cause offence.

Pejorative non-sexualized usage

When used with a derisive attitude (e.g. "that was so gay"), the word gay is pejorative. While retaining its other meanings, it has also acquired "a widespread current usage" amongst young people, as a general term of disparagement.[8] This pejorative usage has its origins in the late 1970s, when homosexuality was more widely seen as negative by a majority of people. Beginning in the 1980s and especially in the late 1990s, the usage as a generic insult became common among young people, who may or may not link the term to homosexuality, especially when directed at inanimate objects. This practice is frowned upon in some communities that seek to ensure respect for people of all sexual orientations, and is considered by some to be on par with ethnic slurs. Many defenders of the word's pejorative usage choose to spell it "ghey" to avoid any sexual connotations. Critics object to this change of spelling, often comparing it to the use of words like "knigger" or "nigga" for nigger to evade accusations of racism.

A 2006 BBC ruling by the Board of Governors over the use of the word in this context by Chris Moyles on his Radio 1 show, "I don't want that one, it's gay", stated that:

The word 'gay' ... need not be offensive... or homophobic... The governors said, however, that Moyles was simply keeping up with developments in English usage. [...] The committee... was "familiar with hearing this word in this context." The governors believed that in describing a ring tone as 'gay', the DJ was conveying that he thought it was 'rubbish', rather than 'homosexual'. [...] The panel acknowledged however that this use... in a derogatory sense... could cause offence in some listeners, and counselled caution on its use.

—BBC Board of Governors, [9]

See also


1. ^
2. ^
3. ^
4. ^
5. ^
6. ^
7. ^
8. ^ The Times (June 6 2006, p.3)
9. ^
Sexual orientation refers to the direction of an individual's sexuality, usually conceived of as classifiable according to the sex or gender of the persons whom the individual finds sexually attractive.
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Sexology is the systematic study of human sexuality. It encompasses all aspects of sexuality, including attempting to characterise "normal sexuality" and its variants, including paraphilias.
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The neutrality of this article's title and/or subject matter is disputed.
This is a dispute over the neutrality of viewpoints implied by the title, or the subject matter within its scope, rather than the actual facts stated.
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Heterosexuality is sexual or romantic attraction between opposite sexes, and is the most common sexual orientation among humans. The current use of the term has its roots in the broader 19th century tradition of personality taxonomy.
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Paraphilia (in Greek para παρά = besides and -philia φιλία = love)—in psychology and sexology, is a term that describes a family of persistent, intense fantasies, aberrant urges, or behaviors involving sexual
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Questioning is a term that can refer to a person who is questioning their gender, sexual identity or sexual orientation.[1] People who are questioning may be unsure of their sexuality, or still exploring their options.
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Kinsey scale attempts to measure sexual orientation, from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual). In the Kinsey Reports, an additional grade was used for asexuality.
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Klein Sexual Orientation Grid attempts to further measure sexual orientation by expanding upon the earlier Kinsey scale which categorizes from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual).
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29 :1057–1066.
  • Rines, J.P. & vom Saal, F.S. (1984). Fetal effects on sexual behavior and aggression in young and old female mice treated with estrogen and testosterone. Horm. Behav. 18:117-­12.
  • Rosemary C. Veniegas & Terri D. Conley (2000).
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    This is the main article for the and .

    This article discusses issues related to sexual orientation and medicine including medical associations and societies, medical schools, health, health policy, access to health care and health disparities.
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    Spotted Hyena is a moderately large, terrestrial carnivore native to Africa.]] The female Spotted Hyena has a unique urinary-genital system, closely resembling the penis of the male.
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    Intersexuality is the state of a person whose sex chromosomes, genitalia and/or secondary sex characteristics are determined to be neither exclusively male nor female. A person with intersex may have biological characteristics of both the male and female sexes.
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    Transgender (IPA: /trænzˈdʒɛndɚ/, from trans (Latin) and gender (English)) is a general term applied to a variety of individuals, behaviors, and groups involving tendencies that diverge from the normative
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    Transsexualism is a condition in which a person identifies as the gender opposite to the sex assigned to them at birth. Transsexualism is considered a taboo subject in many parts of the world. Negative beliefs about transsexualism may stem from religious beliefs or cultural norms.
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    Sexual orientation refers to the direction of an individual's sexuality, usually conceived of as classifiable according to the sex or gender of the persons whom the individual finds sexually attractive.
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    Transgender (IPA: /trænzˈdʒɛndɚ/, from trans (Latin) and gender (English)) is a general term applied to a variety of individuals, behaviors, and groups involving tendencies that diverge from the normative
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    Old French was the Romance dialect continuum spoken in territories corresponding roughly to the northern half of modern France and parts of modern Belgium and Switzerland from around 1000 to 1300.
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    Germanic languages are a group of related languages constituting a branch of the Indo-European (IE) language family. The common ancestor of all languages comprising this branch is Proto-Germanic, spoken in approximately the latter mid-1st millennium BC in Iron Age Northern Europe.
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    Ballet is academic dance form and technique which is taught in ballet schools according to specific methods. There are many ballet schools around the world that specialize in various styles of ballet and different techniques offered.
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    Jacques Offenbach (20 June 1819 – 5 October 1880) was a French composer and cellist of the Romantic era with German-Jewish descent and one of the originators of the operetta form.
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    Optimism is an outlook on life such that one maintains a view of the world as a positive place. It is the opposite of pessimism. Optimists generally believe that people and events are inherently good, so that most situations work out in the end for the best.
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    18th century - 19th century - 20th century
    1860s  1870s  1880s  - 1890s -  1900s  1910s  1920s
    1887 1888 1889 - 1890 - 1891 1892 1893

    Subjects:     Archaeology - Architecture -
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    Gay Nineties is an American term that refers to the decade of the 1890s.

    The decade was a period of extremely exceptional economic expansion, and, in particular, of rapid wealth gains in New York City and Boston.
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    Gabriel Mary Byrne, known as Gay Byrne and nicknamed Gaybo (born 5 August, 1934) is an Irish broadcaster. He was the presenter of the Late Late Show, from 1962 to 1999 except for one year.[1] He also presented a regular morning radio show on RTE.
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    Gaiety Theatre is a theatre on South King Street in Dublin, Ireland, off of Grafton Street and close to St. Stephen's Green. It specialises in operatic and musical productions, with occasional dramatic shows.

    Designed by architect C.J.
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