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How ‘gay’ got its rainbow: What once meant merry is now a badge of identity for homosexuals

The dictionary traces the origin of gay to the French word Gai. But how did something that meant cheerful become synonymous with homosexuals, who have had to fight long and hard for their identity?

Updated: Sep 21, 2018 16:18:51

By Poulomi Banerjee

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby, where Grant used the word ‘gay’ on screen. Opinion is divided though, on whether he used it to mean homosexual or happy and cheerful. (Alamy Stock Photo)

On Thursday, as the Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality, reading down the controversial British-era section 377 of the penal code, Mumbai-based Arnab Nandy took to social media to express his joy, as many across the country and the world were doing. “I am so Gay today…” he wrote in a coming-out post that has since gone viral. But while Nandy’s choice of word was bang on that day, how did a word that had originally meant light-hearted, carefree or cheerful, become associated with a community whose life has been often been anything but?

The Oxford English dictionary traces the history of the word ‘gay’ to the French word Gai. Merriam Webster takes it further back to a Germanic origin “akin to the Old High German Gahi” that meant “quick or sudden”. According to both dictionaries, in English the use of ‘gay’ to mean happy, excited, merry, carefree or bright started in the Middle English period that stretches between the 12th and the 16th century.

All For An Identity

While some books and websites on the history of the global homosexual movement claim the word gay was used as a secret code by homosexuals to identify themselves even as far back as the early twentieth century, professor Ashley Tellis says “it was in the 1960s that the word came to be popularly associated with the community”. R Raj Rao, writer and professor of English at Pune University, adds: “The Stonewall Riots (a series of violent confrontations between members of the LGBT community and the police in New York in 1969) are the beginning of most gay-rights movements in the world. It was around this time that the community started using the word gay to identify itself. In the beginning, gay was also an acronym for ‘Good As You’.”

In India, while Tellis says the use of the word gay to mean homosexuals started in the 1970s and ’80s with Indian men who travelled to the West and came back, Rao and writer Hoshang Merchant say the word started getting used here in the 1990s after the setting up of Bombay Dost, the country’s first LGBT magazine, by activist Ashok Row Kavi.



Globally, the community preferred gay to homosexual, says Tellis, because the latter had a negative feel to it – it was a more clinical term, suggestive of a medical condition. As an article on the website of The New England Journal of Medicine mentions, it was only in 1980 that homosexuality was deleted from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, thus changing the view that it was a behavioural disorder.

““Whereas homosexuality is just a word denoting a sexual preference or tendency and used derogatorily, gay is an identity. Ever since Stonewall, sexual politics had come into play and identifying as gay was a way for the community to be a part of that politics,” says Rao. “It was a subversion of the established vocabulary by the community. The same way that ‘queer’ would be used, later on,” he adds. “While the conventional meaning of queer is weird, and it is a discriminatory term in itself, the community has been using it as an identity,” he points out.

The LGBTQ have their own vocabulary, one that often varies from city to city, and has taken on regular words that mean something quite different when applied to themselves or used within the community, says Ashok Row Kavi. “In Bombay for example, the LGBTQ community uses the word ‘ghodi’ to mean a plainclothes policeman,” he explains.

A New Use

Today, though gay has become synonymous with homosexual, the Washington Post in 2017 published an article on whether social perceptions about the two are really the same, after a news website reportedly published an article with the headline “Homosexual eases into 100 final at Olympic trials’, following Olympian Tyson Gay’s qualification for the 100-metre run final. According to the Washington Post article. “The mistake was caused by the site’s editorial filter, which changed the athlete’s last name automatically — in keeping with the outlet’s policy against running stories that use the term ‘gay’, replacing it with ‘homosexual’ instead.”

The first definition of gay in the Oxford dictionary is: adjective; (of a person) homosexual (used especially of a man), though Rao clarifies that gay is not gender specific, as lesbian is. “While lesbian refers to a homosexual woman, gay, though more commonly used for men, is not gender specific. Those of us who teach gender studies, use the phrase ‘gay man’ while referring to a homosexual man,” he says, adding, “Queer as an identity is more radical.”

A few years back, a petition was started in change.org to make the Merriam Webster dictionary change the order of its definitions of gay. The first definition of gay in Merriam Webster is still ‘happily excited’. “Of, relating to, or characterised by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex” is the fourth definition of gay in that dictionary. But as Merchant questions, “Who uses gay to mean happy anymore?”

Despite the LGBTQ community’s efforts to use it as a more positive word than homosexual, however, the negative perception of the community among many has also tainted the word gay. A 2008 BBC report refers to a study that found that the word ‘gay’ was the most frequently-used term of abuse in schools.

Also, the claiming of identity does not change the fact that if one goes by its Middle English meaning – happy, merry or cheerful – the community’s use of the word gay for itself is somewhat paradoxical. For years homosexuals have been fighting social discrimination and legal challenges. Gay men and women have been branded mentally ill and thrown out of jobs and homes. Merchant agrees, “In the first Broadway gay play The Boys in the Band there is a line, ‘show me a happy homosexual and I will show you a gay corpse’.”

First Published: Sep 08, 2018 23:18:51

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