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In modern society, “gay” is a word which can be used as either a noun or adjective. In both forms, it is equivalent to homosexual, although it is less formal.

In noun form, it is commonly used as a term to specifically identify men with homosexual orientation, instead of homosexuals of both genders. The term lesbian, on the other hand, is used exclusively in a gender specific way to describe homosexual females.

Gay used as an adjective describes traits associated with gays and lesbians, their culture, or perceived lifestyle.


A cartoon from Punch magazine from 1857 illustrating the use of "gay" as a euphemism for prostitution. One woman says to the other (who looks glum), "how long have you been gay?"

A cartoon from Punch magazine from 1857 illustrating the use of “gay” as a euphemism for prostitution. One woman says to the other (who looks glum), “how long have you been gay?”

The primary meaning of the word gay has changed dramatically during the 20th century – though the change evolved from earlier usages. It derives via the French gai, from the Latin gaius, and originally meant “carefree”, “happy”, or “bright and showy” and was very commonly used with this meaning in speech and literature.

In more recent times, starting in the mid 20th century, the word gay cannot be used solely in this former context without the expectation that one will assume a double entendre, or that the person using the term is out of touch with contemporary society. Some have tried to recover the original denotation of the word, but with limited success.

The word started to acquire sexual connotations in the late 17th century, being used to mean “addicted to pleasures and dissipations”. This was by extension from the primary meaning of “carefree”: implying “uninhibited by moral constraints”. By the late nineteenth century the term “gay life” was a well-established euphemism for prostitution and other forms of extramarital sexual behaviour that were perceived as immoral.

The first name Gay is still occasionally encountered, usually as a female name although the spelling is often altered to Gaye. (795th most common in the United States, according to the 1990 US census[1]). It was also used as a male first name. The first name of the popular male Irish television presenter Gabriel Byrne was always abbreviated as “Gay”, as in the title of his radio show The Gay Byrne Show. It can also be used as a short form of the female name Gaynell and as a short form of the male name Gaylen.

The “Gaiety” was also a common name for places of entertainment. One of Oscar Wilde’s favorite venues in Dublin was the Gaiety Theatre, first appearing there in 1884.

Etymology of the modern usage

The use of the term gay, as it relates to homosexuality, arises from an extension of the sexualised connotation of “carefree and uninhibited”, implying a willingness to disregard conventional or respectable sexual mores. Such usage is documented as early as the 1920s. It was initially more commonly used to imply heterosexually unconstrained lifestyles, as for example in the once-common phrase “gay Lothario”,[2] or in the title of the book and film The Gay Falcon (1941), which concerns a womanising detective whose first name is “Gay”. Well into the mid 20th century a middle-aged bachelor could be described as “gay” without prejudice.

A passage from Gertrude Stein’s Miss Furr & Mrs. Skeene (1922) is possibly the first traceable published use of the word to refer to a homosexual relationship, though it is not altogether clear whether she uses the word to mean lesbianism or happiness:

They were …gay, they learned little things that are things in being gay, … they were quite regularly gay.

The 1929 musical Bitter Sweet by Noel Coward contains another use of the word in a context that strongly implies homosexuality. In the song “Green Carnation”, four overdressed, 1890s dandies sing:

Pretty boys, witty boys, You may sneer
At our disintegration.
Haughty boys, naughty boys,
Dear, dear, dear!
Swooning with affectation…
And as we are the reason
For the “Nineties” being gay,
We all wear a green carnation.

The song title alludes to Oscar Wilde, who famously wore a green carnation, and whose homosexuality was well known. However, the phrase “gay nineties” was already well-established as an epithet for the decade (a film entitled The Gay Nineties; or, The Unfaithful Husband was released in the same year). The song also drew on familiar satires on Wilde and Aestheticism dating back to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience (1881). Because of its continuation of these public usages and conventions – in a mainstream musical – the precise connotations of the word in this context remains ambiguous.

Other usages at this date involve some of the same ambiguity as Coward’s lyrics. Bringing Up Baby (1938) was the first film to use the word gay in apparent reference to homosexuality. In a scene where Cary Grant’s clothes have been sent to the cleaners, he must wear a lady’s feathery robe. When another character inquires about his clothes, he responds “Because I just went gay…all of a sudden!” [3] However, since this was a mainstream film at a time when the use of the word to refer to homosexuality would still be unfamiliar to most film-goers, the line can also be interpreted to mean “I just decided to do something frivolous”. While there is much debate about what Grant meant with the ad-lib (the line was not in the script), Grant’s Hollywood background should leave little doubt as to what he meant–he knew the connotation of the term, even if the audience did not.

The word continued to be used with the dominant meaning of “carefree”, as evidenced by the title of the The Gay Divorcee (1934), a musical film about a heterosexual couple. It was originally to be called The Gay Divorce after the play on which it was based, but the Hays Office determined that while a divorcee may be gay, it would be unseemly to allow a divorce to appear so.

By the mid-century “gay” was well-established as an antonym for “straight” (respectable sexual behavior), and to refer to the lifestyles of unmarried and or unattached people. Other connotations of frivolousness and showiness in dress (“gay attire”) led to association with camp and effeminacy. This range of connotation probably affected the gradual movement of the term towards its current dominant meaning, which was at first confined to subcultures.

The subcultural usage started to become mainstream in the 1960s, when gay became the term predominantly preferred by homosexual men to describe themselves. Gay was the preferred term since other terms, such as “queer” were felt to be derogatory. “Homosexual” was perceived as excessively clinical: especially since homosexuality was at that time designated as a mental illness, and “homosexual” was used by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to denote men affected by this “mental illness”. The illness of homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973, but the clinical connotation of the word was already embedded in society.

By 1963, the word “gay” was known well enough by the straight community to be used by Albert Ellis in his book The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Man-Hunting. By 1968 mainstream audiences were expected to recognise the double entendre in the ultra-camp musical entitled Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchesgarten — which formed part of the plot of the film The Producers. The camp implications of the concept were explicit in the ludicrous pastiche of Coward’s style epitomised by the title song:

Springtime for Hitler and Germany
Deutschland is happy and gay!
We’re marching to a faster pace
Look out, here comes the master race!


Gay was originally used purely as an adjective (“he is a gay man” or “he is gay”). Gay can be also used as a plural collective-like noun: “Gays are opposed to that policy”; although this usage may be deprecated by some, it is common [4] particularly in the names of various organizations such as PFLAG: (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere). It is sometimes used as a singular noun, as in “he is a gay”, such as in its use by the Little Britain comedy character Daffyd Thomas (a gay man who believes himself “the only gay in the village” despite abundant evidence to the contrary).

Folk etymologies

It has been claimed that “gay” was derived as an acronym for “Good As You”, but this is a backronym (based on a fake etymology).

Another folk etymology accrues to Gay Street, a small street in the West Village of New York City — a nexus of homosexual culture. The term also seems, from documentary evidence, to have existed in New York as a code word in the 1940s, where the question, “Are you gay?” would denote more than it might have seemed to outsiders.

Commonly accepted usage

  • Gay is used as an adjective to describe sexual orientation (attraction, preference, or inclination) and is usually chosen instead of homosexual as an identity-label.
  • Gay sex involves acts between or among people of the same sex or gender.
  • Gay is usually used to describe the “gay community” by both insiders and the mainstream media.
  • Gay can be used as a nonspecific derogatory comment towards a person or object. This may not be seen as polite as many gays feel that using “gay” in this form is personally demeaning.
  • Gay is sometimes used to describe an object of particular flamboyance.
  • Other connotations can vary widely based upon speaker and situation.

Sexual orientation

Sexual orientation, behavior, and self-identification are not necessarily aligned in a clear-cut fashion for a given individual. See sex for a discussion of sex and gender. Some people consider gay and homosexual to be synonyms. Others consider gay to be a matter of self-identification and homosexual to refer to sexual activity or to sexual attraction that is predominantly to members of the same sex. By using these definitions, a person could be gay and not homosexual, or homosexual and not gay.

If a person has had same-sex sexual encounters but does not self-identify as gay, terms such as ‘closeted’, ‘on the down low’, ‘discreet’, or ‘bi-curious’ may be applied. Conversely, a person may identify as gay without engaging in homosexual sex. Possible choices include identifying as gay socially while choosing to be celibate or while anticipating a first homosexual experience. Further, a bisexual person may identify as gay while maintaining a monogamous relationship with a member of the opposite sex. Still others might consider gay and bisexual to be mutually exclusive.

Some same-sex oriented persons prefer ‘homosexual’ as an identity over ‘gay’, seeing the former as describing a sexual orientation and the latter as describing a cultural or socio-political group with which they do not identify.


Self-identification of one’s sexual orientation is becoming far more commonplace in areas of increased social acceptance, but many are either reluctant to self-identify publicly or even privately to themselves. The process is fairly complex, and many groups related to gay people cite inadvertent heterosexism as a leading problem for those that would otherwise self-identify.

Selecting the appropriate term

Some people reject the term homosexual as an identity-label because they find it too clinical-sounding. They believe it is too focused on physical acts rather than romance or attraction, or too reminiscent of the era when homosexuality was considered a mental illness. Conversely, some people find the term gay to be offensive or reject it as an identity-label because they perceive the cultural connotations to be undesirable or because of the negative connotations of the slang usage of the word.

According to the Safe Schools Coalition of Washington’s Glossary for School Employees:

“Homosexual: Avoid this term; it is clinical, distancing and archaic. Sometimes appropriate in referring to behavior (although same-sex is the preferred adj.). When referring to people, as opposed to behavior, homosexual is considered derogatory and the terms gay and lesbian are preferred, at least in the Northwest [of the United States].”

Sometimes the term gay is used to describe both same-sex male and same-sex female relations. More rarely, it is used as a shorthand for terms queer or gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc. The term also sometimes includes transgender, transsexual, and intersex. Some trans and intersex individuals find their inclusion in this larger grouping to be offensive. It is commonly used to refer specifically to gay men; the precise meaning may need to be made clear from context. The term lesbian, however, is exclusively female.

Gay community

The notion of the gay community is complex and slightly controversial.

Just as the word “gay” is sometimes used as shorthand for “gay, lesbian, and bisexual” and possibly also “transexual” and others, so “gay community” is sometimes a synonym for “LGBT community” or “Queer community”. In other cases, the speaker may be referring only to gay men. Some people (including many mainstream American journalists) interpret the phrase “gay community” to mean “the population of gay people”.

Some LGBT people are entirely geographically or socially isolated from other LGBT people, or don’t feel their social connections to their LGBT friends are different from those they have with straight friends. As a result, some analysts question the notion of sharing a “community” with people one has never actually met (whether in person or remotely). But other advocates insist that all LGBT people (and perhaps their allies), are part of a global community, in one way or another.


The term gay can also be used as an adjective to describe things related to gay people or things which are part of gay culture. For example, while a gay bar is not itself homosexual, using gay as an adjective to describe the bar indicates that the bar is either gay-oriented, caters primarily to a gay clientele, or is otherwise part of gay culture.

Using it to describe an object, such as an item of clothing, suggests that it is particularly flamboyant, often on the verge of being gaudy and garish. This usage pre-dates the association of the term with homosexuality, but has acquired different connotations since the modern usage developed.

Using the term gay as an adjective where the meaning is akin to “related to gay people, culture, or homosexuality in general” is a widely accepted use of the word. By contrast, using gay in the pejorative sense, to describe something solely as negative, can cause offense.

Pejorative usage

When used with a derisive attitude (e.g. “that film was so gay”), the term “gay” is purely pejorative and can be deeply offensive. The derogatory implication is that the object (or person) in question is inferior, worthless, effeminate, or stupid. This usage has its origins in the 1980s, when homosexuality had already become mainstream but was still taboo. Beginning in the 1990s and especially in the 2000s the usage became common among young people, who may or may not link the term to homosexuality.


  • 1995. The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, Merriam-Webster, 189-191. ISBN 0877796033.
  • Harper, Douglas (2001). Online Etymology Dictionary: gay. URL accessed 13 February 2006.