Is It OK to Say "Gay"?
Exploring the different meanings of a controversial word.
The word “gay” is everywhere you look these days. Gay activists support gay rights such as gay marriage, while gay-bashers protest all things gay, including the gayby boom. There’s also been a rash of suicides involving gay youngsters who were bullied—which is perhaps why the trailer for The Dilemma caught major flak. In it, Vince Vaughn says: “Ladies and gentleman, electric cars ... are gay. I mean, not homosexual gay, but, you know, my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay.”
That controversy has passed, the director Ron Howard opted to keep the lines in the movie, and we all moved on to other business. But this incident raises some major issues, not just socially and artistically, but in the realm of word meanings. Most people are very aware of the meaning of “gay” as happy or lame, but the word has had an astounding range of other meanings as well. What “gay” means depends entirely on your time period and perspective, and these days, perspective can be hard to find.
The original sense of “gay” was entirely positive. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it: “Noble; beautiful; excellent, fine.” The sense of “gay” as happy or merry dates from the 1400s and inspired some bizarrely specific senses, such as “of a horse: lively, prancing” and “of a dog's tail: carried high or erect.”
In several earlier definitions, we can see the seeds of “gay” beginning to mean homosexual, if only because these meanings fit with what would become gay stereotypes. “With gay abandon” started meaning “with reckless abandon” in the mid-1800s. “Gay” also meant something like “prostitute-y” in the 1800s, as a “gay woman” or “gay girl” was what we call a sex worker these days. Another sense, used since the 1500s, fits gay stereotypes like a reductionist glove: “...dedicated to social pleasures; dissolute, promiscuous; frivolous, hedonistic ... uninhibited; wild, crazy; flamboyant.” That meaning was intended here, in 1879: “Besides being very handsome, there are reasons to fear that Mr. Charles Victor Fremy was sometimes very, very gay.”
As far as we can tell, “gay” only started meaning homosexual in the early 1940s. Earlier citations only appear that way retroactively, like this 1922 quotation from Gertrude Stein: “Helen Furr and Georgina Keene lived together then ... They were together then and traveled to another place and stayed there and were gay there ... not very gay there, just gay there. They were both gay there.”
The earliest OED examples of “gay” meaning homosexual are from 1941. This example from that year shows just how in-flux (and covert) the meaning was: “Supposing one met a stranger on a train from Boston to New York and wanted to find out whether he was ‘wise’ or even homosexual. One might ask: ‘Are there any gay spots in Boston?’ And by a slight accent put on the word ‘gay’ the stranger, if wise, would understand that homosexual resorts were meant.”
Meanwhile, examples of “gay” meaning “lame” don't turn up until the 1970s. The first known use is from 1978: “‘It looks terrific on you.’ ‘It looks gay.’” This takes us back to the Vince Vaughan lines. Let’s take another look at them: “Ladies and gentleman, electric cars...are gay. I mean, not homosexual gay, but, you know, my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay.”
I have mixed feeling about this. On the one hand, it’s 100 percent understandable why GLAAD is a little sensitive to anything that sounds like gay-bashing. If I could, I would personally bash gay-bashers with a nuclear bomb. On the other hand, I don’t think the lines deserve much, if any, criticism. Though this has been widely referred to as a “gay joke,” I don’t see any joke at all. It's just an observation with an unfortunate connotation that the screenwriters went out of their way to make clear wasn’t intended. Isn’t Vaughn’s clarification—“not homosexual gay, but, you know, my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay”—equivalent to the famous Seinfeld “Not that there’s anything wrong with that”? So what’s wrong with that?
I also have trouble seeing what the “lame” sense of “gay” has to do with homosexuality. Does anyone in the world think gay folks are lame? As I understand the homophobic viewpoint, gay people are considered sinners and evil-doers—a lot worse than lame, right? If the collective gay people of the world could magically transform all “gays are abominations” sentiment to “gays are like, totally lame,” I have a feeling they would take that bargain, because nobody bothers to legally discriminate against the lame. Maybe gay people can commiserate with the physically lame, who lost the battle over that word years ago.
The dislike of “gay” is an awful lot like the dislike of “retard”—both words, when used insultingly, are hated for reasons that are very compassionate. But language is an amoral beast that operates and evolves on its own, and “retard” is just one of many terms for someone of low intelligence—like “idiot” and “moron”—that moved from medicine to slang. You can’t stop language change, and I think that’s OK. It’s more important to take care of people who are retarded than to police every use of the word “retard”—even when it’s used by morons.
Similarly, with so much real, horrible homophobia in the world, trying to censor the “lame” sense of gay is a waste of energy and a losing battle. Fighting losing battles is retarded. And kind of gay.?