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 supposedly shared by homosexual people, such as "gay history", "gay music" and "gay sensibility".

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 not only bisexual and transgender people but also lesbians who generally reject labels of being a subset of men, even gay men. While gay applies in some contexts to all homosexual people, the term lesbian is sex-specific: it is used exclusively to describe gay women. Sometimes gay is used to refer only to men.

In contemporary culture, the word 'gay' also has pejorative non-sexualized usage (especially among younger generations) to mean 'rubbish'; for something not considered good . The use of the term in this manner is contentious .

Outside of Western culture the concept of "gay" identity is less clearly defined and may clash with local models of sexuality.



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. 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). 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", 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:

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:

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!" 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.

In mid-20th century Britain, (where male homosexuality was illegal until the late 1960s) to openly identify someone as homosexual was considered very offensive and an accusation of serious criminal activity. Additionally, none of the words describing any part of homosexuality were considered suitable for polite society. Consequently, a number of ironic euphemisms were used to hint at suspected homosexuality. Examples include "Such a nice man", "Such a gay man", "Such beautiful handwriting", all with the stress deliberately on the otherwise completely innocent adjective.

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.

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."

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:

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

The lesbian and gay movement is a social movement, whose development is attributed to the Stonewall Riots of June 28, 1969 in New York City. Its direct predecessor was the homophile movement of the 1950s and 60s.

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.

Cultural relativity of the term

The concept of gay identity and the use of the term gay itself may not be used or understood the same way in non-Westernised cultures, since models of sexuality may differ from those prevalent in the West. Shivananda Khan notes that "About three-quarters (72%) of truck drivers in North Pakistan who participated in a recent survey published in AIDS Analysis Asia admitted that they had sex with other males, while 76% stated that they had sex with female sex workers. Are these 72% gay? Homosexual?". He suggests that debate on sexuality can take a neocolonial form "whereby Western sexual ideologies have 'invaded' Indian discourses on sexuality and identity by professionals, laypersons, 'straights' or 'gays,' and whereby indigenous histories and cultures become invisible." A similar argument is made by Joseph Massad, with reference to Arab culture. Massad argues that "Following in the footsteps of the white Western women's movement, which had sought to universalize its issues through imposing its own colonial feminism on the women's movements in the non-Western world -- a situation that led to major schisms from the outset -- the gay movement has adopted a similar missionary role."


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. 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:

See also

Index: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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