Is It OK to Say "Gay"?

If "gay" can mean both "homosexual" and "lame," does it make us homophobic to use it for the latter? A discussion of a controversial word.

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.?

via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

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The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

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The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

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For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

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In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

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The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

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Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

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In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

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Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?


Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

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