About ‘Gay’. And some speculation on why the Religious Right insists we’re ‘homosexual’

In his hilarious post Monday noting that the American Family Association’s OneNewsNow website auto-replaces the word “gay” with the word “homosexual” — which led to some blogger fun when a sprinter named Tyson Gay won the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials — Jazz asks:

Is the word “homosexual” somehow perceived to be more pejorative than “gay” these days?

The answer, Jazz, is YES! There is a linguistic battle going on. And in my circles it’s got a long and contentious lineage.

While, as gays and lesbians, we seek to expand ourselves and our relationships to become whole people and full participants in broad communities, the Religious Right seeks to reduce us to nothing more than a sex act.

It’s as if we reduced every heterosexual to that too explicit coupled moment we all wish we hadn’t been forced to watch taking place on the park bench or at the beach or in the movie theater or any place else in public! Only with the gay person, the Religious Right hopes to evoke that moment — to force us to witness it — with just that one little word…

H o m o S E X u a l

For that — or whatever reason — the Religious Right has fought to keep the word homosexual in use in newsrooms across the country. And I have been following their fight for decades. In February The Washington Times, pretty much the last big hold out, tossed ‘homosexual’ out and approved the use of the word ‘gay’ instead.

Most everywhere else long ago accepted the use of ‘gay’ and/or ‘lesbian.’ In 2006 the AP updated its stylebook. Here is a history of LGBT-related Stylebook entries. Here the New York Times, Washington Post LGBT-Related Style Guidelines.

In 1982 I wrote a paper on the etymology of the word gay. I’ve excerpted a good bit of it again below…

Though the word ‘homosexual’ has about it a certain venerable quality, contrary to public convictions, the word has neither a long nor distinguished history. Coined in Germany in 1860 by a Hungarian physician named Henkert (using the pseudonym K.M.Kertbeny), it was not introduced into the English language until 1891(1) and was considered too new to be included when in 1899 the Oxford English Dictionary published its “Hod-Horizontal” volume.(2) It was conceived as a neutral term–and remains lexically opaque–at a time when no single terminology existed.

The ancient Greeks had no need for a word to describe homosexuality (they were ambisexual) but Europe in the eighteenth century not only believed there was a need, she found herself with a plethora of terms vying for public acceptance. ‘Uranian’ and its derivative ‘urning’ were popular among homosexual authors and their sympathizers, but as these words were derived from a speech in Plato’s Symposium wherein homosexual love is described as heavenly and heterosexual passions as vulgar,(3) their acceptance by the popular or scientific communities could scarcely have been expected. ‘Third sex’, intermediate sex’, and ‘inversion’, though not as hostile as queer (4), seemed to imply that gay people were not quite human. ‘Intersexual’ (sex between?), ‘simulsexual’ (sex at the same time?), and ‘isosexual’ (sex alone?), though valiant attempts at the allusive neutrality, failed miserably (5*). So ‘homosexual’ won its acceptance not for its linguistic integrity, but rather because no one came up with a better word.

* Others that failed: ‘androgenic’, ‘catamite’, ‘controsexuality’, ‘hermaphroditism’, ‘homogenic’, ‘invert’, ‘morphadite’, ‘pathic’, ‘platonist’, ‘psychosexual’, and ‘transsexual’ (sic).

When Havelock Ellis employed the word in an 1897 article, he wrote “Homosexual is a barbarously hybrid word and I claim no responsibility for it.” (6) But the word of choice in America then, as is evidenced by innumerable laws, some of which are still on the books, was ‘sodomite’. ‘Sodomite’ says nothing of erotic preference. A new word was plainly needed. The Germans had considerably more experience in the field and they were using ‘homosexual’. Further, the immigration of many German scientists and the increasing German presence in the states insured that by the 1930’s ‘homosexual’ would replace all others. Still, not all Americans liked the word. It is a macaronicism, a hybrid word which blends the Greek ‘homos’, meaning same, with the Latin ‘sexus’. The public immediately assumed it to be all Latin(7) (Latin ‘homo’ means ‘man’ ) which has lead to continuing criticism and repeated attempts at clarification.

In his 1911 book The Intersexes, Irenaeus Prince Stevenson (using the pseudonym Xavier Kayne) suggested that the ‘homo’ in ‘homosexual’ be considered a Latin prefix – “thus restoring the word to linguistic propriety”(8) – and that it be applied only to men. He coined the term ‘feminosexual’ for females and suggested ‘intersexual’ as a generic term. Forty years later his terminology had not caught on. Nor had the confusion ended.

George Legman, in the introduction to his pioneering and surprisingly (for its time, 1941) accurate “Glossary of Homosexual Terms”, complained, “It is not the etymological illegitimacy of this union that is disturbing, but rather the…confusion which has resulted in the current usage of homosexuality to refer only to male homosexuality.”(9) He went on to propose his own “standardization of terminology”,(10) that beings ‘homosexual’ the generic term, ‘male homosexual’ and ‘female homosexual’ the subdivisions. Said he, “It would seem the current clumsy terminology …must continue.”(11)

And so it has. So, too, has the popular impression that the word is all Latin. In a September 1981 New York Times “On Language” column, <a href=”http://www.atypicaljoe.com/archives/2006/03/william_safire.php”>William Safire wrote</a>, “If Lesbians argue that ‘homosexual’ should be limited to men, I would… (argue) that the ‘homo’ is the same as the ‘man’ in ‘mankind’ and covers women too.”(12) Though it seems likely that Mr. Safire was simply seeking mail for a subsequent column (one month later),(l3) it nevertheless illustrates a point, a point far less important to the word’s opponents today than those of half a century ago.

How about gay?

Its first public use in the United States is believed to be in the 1938 movie “Bringing Up Baby” when Cary Grant, while wearing a dress, said that he had “gone gay.”(17) By the early 1940’s ‘gay’ began to appear in magazines, gossip columns, and novels.(18) Still, the word is considered slang,(l9) a neologism whose new meaning has been attributed to the “kidnapping and debauching of the innocent word ‘gay’.”(20)

Etymologists tell a different story. It seems the “innocent word ‘gay'” has a long history of sexual association. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1637 usage of ‘gay’ as a euphemism for ‘a loose or immoral life’. The phrase ‘gaying (or gay) instrument’, meaning ‘the male member’, was used through the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries (21) when ‘gay’ came to be synonymous with immorality and prostitution. (22) The above meanings were all considered slang, and as such servile to the-true meaning ‘full of or disposed to joy’. (23)

The notion that ‘gay’ has been “kidnapped” recalls a time in early twentieth century America when `gay’ (along with red ties) was part of a code established to enable gay people to identify one another. It was intended to pass unnoticed, eliciting a response only from the initiated. Its success insured that when the word’s homosexual association was uncovered it would be perceived to be the result of a “collective assault on the language” (24) by a disreputable minority. This assumes that it was around this time that ‘gay’ acquired its homosexual connotation. On this point etymologists differ.

Bruce Rodgers says in Gay Talk that the derivation is “from sixteenth century ‘gaie’ (meaning) homosexual man”(25) but does not support this. John Boswell, in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, points out that the Provencal word ‘gai’ was used in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in reference to courtly love and its literature. His implied suggestion is that the homosexual connection might be found here:

“The cult of courtly love was most popular in the south of France, an area noted for gay sexuality and some troubadour poetry was explicitly homosexual. Moreover, both troubadour poetry and courtly love were closely associated with southern French heretical movements, especially the Albigensions, who were internationally suspected of favoring homosexuality.” (26)

‘Gail survives in Catalan, the modern language most directly related to Provencal, where it is used as a designation for an openly homosexual person. Mr. Boswell notes that this usage may have been “borrowed back from English, but such contamination would not constitute proof that ‘gai’ had not meant ‘homosexual’ at some earlier point.”(27) Reinhold Aman, editor of Maledicta: the International Journal of Verbal Aggression, suggests another line of thought. He traces ‘gay’ back to Indo-European ‘ghoilos’ (meaning ‘to effervesce, ferment, froth’), then to the Gothic ‘gailjan’ (meaning ‘to enjoy’), and then to Old English ‘gal’ (meaning 1.’very merry’, 2.’proud’, and 3.’lascivious, lewd’). This is where the sexual association begins. Mr. Aman rejects the suggestion that modern ‘gay’ took the awkward Germanic, Romance, Germanic route to its present meaning.

He supports his claim by paralleling the development of modern ‘gay’ with the German word ‘geil’, also from the Old English ‘gal’. He points out that both “Modern English ‘gay’ (and) Modern German ‘geil’ went through the same depreciation of meaning… changing its original positive meaning to the present negative (sexual) one.”(28) Presumably, due to the (apparently unfounded)(29) popular association of prostitution, immorality, and homosexuality the word acquired its homosexual meaning.

Not surprisingly, gay scholars have not been quick to embrace Mr. Aman’s theory. His would suggest that gay people have chosen for themselves a label coined by the heterosexual culture to denigrate a heterosexual subgroup (prostitutes and other lewd or lascivious sorts). Derivation from the Romance languages would suggest that gay people have chosen for themselves a label coined in the context of troubadour poetry, courtly love, and chivalry; a word whose association with homosexuality can be traced back to an atmosphere of social tolerance.

Some today don’t like it. They didn’t then either:

Many lesbians (30) reject the word outright. Jill Johnston, writing in MS. magazine notes: “The word ‘gay’ is…offensive to many lesbians …. it’s outrageous for (lesbian) women to submit to co-optation by yet another male movement (gay liberation).(31) Likewise, some gay men reject the word because of its “aura of curly blonde hair, blue eyes, and prettily vacuous laughter.”(32) Truman Capote said in Newsweek magazines “I do hate the word gay…I wish they would come up with some thing else. Even spell it backwards. Yags, I think, would be better.”(33) Christopher Iaherwood said at a San Francisco rally that ‘gay’ is “a declaration of joy in the face of a hopelessly ungay, sour puritan opposition. From that point of view it’s good.” He went on, though, to call the word “damned silly.” (34)</blockquote>

Me, I like it. I’m gay and I’m proud.

Hey, still am!

If anyone’s aware of more recent research, please let me know. I tried, unsuccessfully, to dig up links to my notes and bibliography from way back then…

(1) Probably by John Addington Symonds in A Problem in Modern Ethics. (Boswell, p.42).
(2) John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p.423
(3) Boswell, p. 43.
(4) Julia P. Stanley found, in a 1970 study, that ‘queer’ was the “least liked term” among homosexuals.
(5) Others that failed: ‘androgenic’, ‘catamite’, ‘controsexuality’, ‘hermaphroditism’, ‘homogenic’, ‘invert’, ‘morphadite’, ‘pathic’, ‘platonist’, ‘psychosexual’, and ‘transsexual’ (sic).
(6) Boswell, p. 43.
(7) Aided, no doubt, by the continuing American mispronunciation. Properly, the Greek ‘homo’ in ‘homosexual’ should rhyme with the Greek ‘homo’ in ‘homonym’, as it does in Britain.
(8) George Legman, “The Language of the Homosexual,” in Sex Variants, ed. George Wm. Henry (New Yorks Medical Books Department of Harper Bros., 1941),II, 1149.
(9) Legman, p. 1149.
(10) Lsgman, p. 1150
(11) Legman, p. 1150
(12) William Safire, “On Language,” New York Times, 27 Sept. 1981, Sec-5, p. 13.
(13) William Safire, “On Language,” New York Times, 25 Oct. 1981, See. 5, p. 16.
(14) Boswell, p. 44.
(15) Though ‘homosexuality’ was dropped, distress about one’s homosexuality (“Ego-dystonic Homosexuality”) is still listed, but with a cautionary: “This category… should be avoided in cases where the desire to change sexual orientations may be a brief, temporary manifestation of an individual’s difficulty in adjusting to a new awareness of his or her homosexual impulses.” Even so, a number of psychiatrists at a January 1982 conference entitled “Homosexuality: A Decade of Developments” deplored this listing, saying it “fosters continuing prejudice and discrimination.”
(16) Donald Webster Cory, The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach. (New York: Greenburg, 1951), p.
(17) Boswell, p. 42.
(18) Cory, p.
(19) ‘Slang’, from slang itself, met with considerable resistance before it was finally accepted and first recorded in 1756.
(20) Roger Scruton, “English and Where It’s At,” Time’s Literary Supplement, 4013 (22 Feb. 1980), 212.
(21) Grosses Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 1825, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1785.
(22) A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon, and Cant, 1826.
(23) Oxford English Dictionary.
(24) Scruton, p. 212.
(25) Bruce Rodgers, Gay Talk: A Dictionary of Gay Slang. (New York: Straight Arrow Books, 1972)
(26) Boswell, p. 43.
(27) Boswell, p. 43.
(28) Rheinhold Aman, “On the Etymology of Gay,” Maledictas The International Journal of Verbal Aggression, No. 2, (1979). P. 257.
(29) See Paul Gebhard, “Misconceptions about Female Prostitution,” Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality 3, No. 3 (1969). PP. 24-30.
(30) The meaning of the word ‘lesbian’ is as clear as its etymology (from the alleged practices of the poetess, Sappho and her followers on the island of Lesbos) and it is the term favored by lesbians. If such a term had evolved for men, I would be out soaking up the sun on this, the first beautiful day of Spring’
(31) J. Johnston, “Are Lesbians Gay?,” Ms, June 1975, p.85
(32) Eric Bentley, “The Homosexual Question,” in American Review. ed. Theodore Solotaroff (New York: Bantam Books. No. 26, 1977), p. 288.
(33) Leonard Ashley, “Kinks and Queens: Linguistic and Cultural Aspects of the Terminology for Gays,” Maledicta, No. 2 (1979). p. 227
(34) Ashley, p. 220.
(35) Legman, p. 1150.
(36) In Scott County, Iowa, early in 1979, more than 100 drivers returned license plates prefixed ‘G-A-Y’ (Ashley, p. 227) which would lead one to believe that the meaning of ‘gay’ is not confined to urban areas with high concentrations of gay people.
(37) “‘Gay’ Not Proper,” Alternate Magazine, Nov. 1977, p.7.
(38) Scruton, p. 212.
(39) Safire, 27 Sept. 1981, p. 13.
(40) Ashley, p. 226.
(41) Ashley, p. 228.
(42) Joseph J. Hayes, “Lesbians, Gay Men, and Their, ‘Languages’,” in Gayspeak, ed. James W. Chesebro (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1981), p. 33.
(43) Boswell, pp. 45-46.

Selected Bibliography
Atan, Reinhold. “On the Etymology of Gay.” Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression, Vol. 3 No. 2 (1979), pp. 257-258
Ashley, Leonard R.N. “Kinks and Queens: Linguistic and Cultural Aspects of the Terminology for Gays.” Maledicta, Vol. 3 No. 2 (1979), pp. 215-256.
Boswell, John. Christianity. Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, Gay People in Western Europe From the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Chesebro, James W. Gayspeak. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1981. Cory, Donald Webster. The Homosexual in Americas A Subjective Approach. New York: Greenburg, 1951.
Johnston, J. “Are Lesbians ‘Gay’?” Ms. June 1975, PP-85-86.
Henry, George Wm. Sex Variants. 2 vols. New York: Medical Books Department of Harper Bros., 1941.
Michaels, Leonard, and Christopher Ricks, ed. The State of the Language, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980.
Murray, Stephen 0. “The Art of Gay Insulting.” Anthropological Linguistics, Vol.21 No.5 (1979), 211-223.
Safire, William. “On Language” New York Times, 27 Sept. 1981, pp. 11,13.
Safire, William. “On Language.” New York Times, 25 Oct. 1981, pp.16,18.
Scruton, Roger. “English and Where It’s At.” Times Literary Supplement, 4013 (22 Feb. 1980), 211-212.
Solotaroff, Theodore, ed. American Review. No. 26 New York: Bantam Books, 1977.
Stanley, Julia P. “Homosexual Slang.” American Speech. vol.45 (1970), pp-45-49

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  • Holly_in_Cincinnati

    For this lesbian, neither term is pejorative.

  • Holly_in_Cincinnati

    …and then there is the term Sapphic, from Sappho the famous poet from the Greek island of Lesbos.

  • Holly_in_Cincinnati

    For this lesbian, neither term is pejorative.

  • Holly_in_Cincinnati

    …and then there is the term Sapphic, from Sappho the famous poet from the Greek island of Lesbos.

  • pacatrue

    Thanks for the history, Joe. I was also happy to hear you support my pet theory that “homosexual” is the term of choice because of the emphasis on sex. It's similar to the use of the term “sodomite” in that it reduces people to a single sexual act.

  • http://stubbornfacts.us/ Tully

    I don't consider either term pejorative, but I'm not gay, so what do I know?

    I did find the auto-substitution at AFA to be absolutely hilarious, and symptomatic of reflexive idiocy.

  • runasim

    I don't care what the term is. My reaction to the word is no different when I read 'homosexual' than when I read ''gay'. Neither makes me think less of the people so described.
    I understand that people who are referred to by these terms would be reacting to past experiences with them, and might see it differently.
    As there is some rejection of 'gay' as well, how about hearing what the consensus is? I'll gladly go along with whatever that is.

    I'm equally confused by what the current correct way it is to refer to members of he Negro race. Afro-Americans? Blacks? People of color? I've been using 'black' simply because it's shorter, but I always wonder whom I'm offending when I do.

  • ralphstone

    start a more accurate useful terms that don't emphasize sex behavior:
    same gender attraction = sga
    different gender attraction = dga

    that may be more useful