Date: Wed, 28 Feb 1996 13:50:58 -0800
From: Arnold Zwicky zwicky[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Subject: Re: GAY (Changes to the English Language)
tom uharriet asks when GAY shifted from meaning 'homosexual'
to meaning 'male homosexual'. stewart mason suggests it's
very recent, in the past five years.
first, the meaning hasn't shifted. the word is ambiguous
between the wider reference (all homosexuals) and the narrower
(just the central instances, male homosexuals); in this the
word is like ANIMAL, which is ambiguous between the wider
reference (all animals, including human beings) and the narrower
(just the central instances, non-human anomals; we are rather
reluctant to admit that we are animals).
second, the ambiguity has been around a long time. it was there
when the modern gay liberation movement began. i can say this
because i was there; already in 1970 there was considerable
discussion as to whether GAY was sufficiently inclusive of
lesbians (and whether it should be, etc.).
my references on the subject are back in ohio, but i would be
very surprised if the ambiguity didn't go back well before
the stonewall moment (which was, indeed, crystallizing, but it
was scarcely the beginning of the world).
third, all such ambiguities tend to be problematic in many
contexts. hearers will go for the more specific reading,
because it is more informative, unless context absolutely
prevents them from doing so. (in the particular case at hand,
this tendency is reinforced by the well-known phenomenon of
"lesbian invisibility"; even the adjective HOMOSEXUAL calls
up images of *male* homosexuals.)
all this is about the *adjective* GAY. now, many lgb-folk
are not particularly comfortable with using GAY as a noun
(i hope i have never uttered the sentence I AM A GAY), though
i believe the usage is spreading. since this is not my dialect,
i'm reluctant to report on it, but i believe that there is a
much stronger tendency to view the noun GAY as male-only than
to view the adjective GAY this way. that is, i believe it's
much harder to get a lesbian or two into the picture if you
say THERE WERE LOTS OF GAYS AT THE PARTY than if you say THERE
WERE LOTS OF GAY PEOPLE AT THE PARTY.
in any case, given the tendency for hearers to go for the
narrower reading, it makes sense to enumerate the groups in
question, if you want to be inclusive. the same instinct that
leads the careful person to say or write ANIMALS, INCLUDING
HUMAN BEINGS or HUMAN BEINGS AND OTHER ANIMALS will lead such
a person to say or write LESBIAN AND GAY STUDENTS or LESBIANS
AND GAY MEN. (of course, doing so only accelerates the tendency
to see LESBIAN and GAY as opposed to one another, and hence to
see even the adjective GAY as male-only. linguistic change
arnold zwicky (zwicky[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]ling.ohio-state.edu OR zwicky[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]csli.stanford.edu)