Date: Wed, 28 Feb 1996 21:02:24 -0500


Subject: Re: GAY (Changes to the English Language)

I have done a good deal of research on the question of when GAY began to take

on the connotations 'homosexual'. I have an article on the subject which is

virtually complete (I gave earlier versions at the Dictionary Society of

America meeting last summer and at the Lavender Language Conference last

fall). The best SHORT treatment is found in the new RANDOM HOUSE DICTIONARY

OF AMERICAN SLANG, vol. 1. The best published LONG treatment is found in

George Chauncey's GAY NEW YORK.

Everyone agrees that the earliest definitive citing is in Gershon Legman's

1941 lexicon of homosexual terminology, where he lists GAY as used in this

way only by members of the "homosexual subculture"; it seems to have been

unknown to the general public, even in major metropolitan areas of the United

States. Many people also believe that Gertrude Stein used the term with this

meaning in the 1920s in "Miss Furr and Miss Skeen," though I find that

dubious myself. Chauncey and RANDOM HOUSE SLANG DICT. both repeat the

commonly held theory that Cary Grant was using the term to mean 'homosexual'

in a famous scene in the movie BRINGING UP BABY (1938). Again, I am dubious,

though whether or not that is what Grant had in mind (the use was apparently

an ad lib) his uttering of the phrase "I've just gone gay" as a way of

explaining why he was wearing a dress doubtless greatly amused large numbers

of members of the "homosexual subculture" and may even have helped spread the

term (though the movie was not wildly popular when it was first released).

Anyway, the short answer to the question is, "GAY was certainly used by

homosexuals as an arcane adjective of self-reference in the 1930s, at least

in major metropolitan centers of the United States. It spread socially and

geographically throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. It is interesting to

note (Chauncey reports) that many homosexual men in the 1940s resisted the

new term, preferring instead to refer to themselves as FAIRIES or QUEERS. GAY

seemed too trivial. Moreover, there was a common slang sense of GAY in the

United States that meant what CHEEKY and OUT OF LINE mean today (i.e.,

'brash', 'overbearing').

This is probably more than most of you wanted to know. If you want to know

even more, I'll be happy to send you a copy of my article ("What Did Cary

Grant Know and When Did He Know I?") as soon as I put the final finishing

touches on it.