by N. David Williams
Department of Archives & Special Collections
University of Louisville
Use of the word “gay” in a homosexual context may date to as long ago as Paris in the late 16th century, when homosexuals were reportedly called ‘gai,” but there are a couple of other intriguing and perhaps more provable theories.
The first asserts that the word derives from the late Victorian era. At the time, East London was home to a great many male and female prostitutes. It’s where Jack the Ripper made his name. At some point ladies of the night came to be known as “gay ladies,” a natural nickname since “gay” originally meant merry, carefree, happy-go-lucky. As the theory goes, when London’s police started cracking down on male prostitution in the 1890s, especially after the Cleveland Street Scandal and the arrest of playwright Oscar Wilde, some East London male prostitutes began dressing up in female attire to deceive the police. Eventually they started calling themselves gay ladies. Homosexual American military personnel wandering the streets of London during World War I may have picked up on the phrase and brought it back to the United States after 1918.
There is another more plausible theory which was discovered only during the course of this research.
In Abigail van Buren’s “Dear Abby” advice column of August 9, 1982 (#721 below), a reader objects to the use of the word “gay” to describe homosexuals and feels “queer” is more appropriate. He didn’t like homosexuals much. Abby responds that while no one really knows where the word “gay” in its homosexual context came from, it could have originated across the English Channel. For a long time the French (as well as the British) did not allow women to perform on stage, so all the female parts had to be played by men. Over time they came to be known as “les gais,” or the “merry ones.” (This could be a variation of the “gai” theory in the first paragraph). English tourists attending the French theater might easily have picked up on the phrase and brought it back home. The male “gay ladies” of East London may also have heard about it.
Around 1920, during a time when homosexuality was widely condemned, the American homosexual subculture may have started using “gay” as a convenient code word just to survive. If, for example, a homosexual man were at a party and started conversing with a man he found attractive, he might throw the word slyly into the conversation to see how the other man reacted. If he showed any sign of recognition, a connection could be made and they could go from there. No one else at the party would known what was going on.
First known public reference comes from a 1922 story by Gertrude Stein entitled Miss Furr & Miss Skeene, which subtly describes a lesbian relationship. Bing Crosby warbled a tune called “Gay Love” in 1929. Its lyrics refrained from revealing the sex of the love interest, leaving it to the imagination. In 1933, the word as a homosexual descriptor appeared in Noel Erskine’s Dictionary of Underworld Slang, where it was spelled “gey.” Cary Grant used it in a scene from 1938’s screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby, but most audiences would not have understood what he was talking about.
The word didn’t start percolating into mainstream culture until the 1950s and 1960s when it showed up occasionally in tabloid magazines. It also started slipping into plays and movies. Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 musical Candide includes a number called “Glitter and Be Gay.” As a homosexual New Yorker, he undoubtedly understood the double entendre, as would have many New York theatergoers, but its meaning would have been lost on most audiences in the provinces.
Besides a fleeting reference in 1949, the first time the Courier-Journal used the word in its modern context was in a 1969 display ad for a homosexually-themed Hollywood movie entitled The Gay Deceivers. In the early 1970s the newspaper started using it more widely as the Gay Liberation movement began making noise. By 1980-81 the word’s traditional meaning had virtually disappeared from the newspaper. Americans in general adopted it amazingly quickly. It took only ten years for the new meaning to become dominant.
For all practical purposes “gay” is a brand new word with no connection to the older “gay” beyond its etymology. It’s a word that homosexuals chose for themselves. Despite efforts to replace it with “queer” or other terms over the last thirty years, it has become so ingrained in the language that it would be nearly impossible to dislodge it today.
There are many companion studies that have tabulated other homosexual words and phrases as published in the Courier-Journal. All are housed under the name David Williams or N. David Williams at the Williams-Nichols Collection in the Department of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Louisville’s Ekstrom Library.