Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

The History of the Word 'Gay' and other Queerwords

Lesbians may have a longer linguistic history than gay men. Contrary to the incomplete information given in the OED, the word lesbian has meant “female homosexual” since at least the early eighteenth century. William King in his satire The Toast (published 1732, revised 1736), referred to “Lesbians” as women who “loved Women in the same Manner as Men love them”. During that century, references to “Sapphic lovers” and “Sapphist” meant a woman who liked “her own sex in a criminal way”. For centuries before that, comparing a woman to Sappho of Lesbos implied passions that were more than poetic.

Unfortunately we don’t know the origins of the most common queerwords that became popular during the 1930s through 1950s – gay, dyke, faggot, queer, fairy. Dyke, meaning butch lesbian, goes back to 1920s black American slang: bull-diker or bull-dagger. It might go back to the 1850s phrase “all diked out” or “all decked out”, meaning faultlessly dressed – in this case, like a man or “bull”. The word faggot goes back to 1914, when “faggots” and “fairies” were said to attend “drag balls”. Nels Anderson in The Hobo (1923) said that “Fairies or Fags are men or boys who exploit sex for profit.” The word fairy appeared in the 1870s, and was universally understood by the 1890s.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s faggot was used mainly in the black culture of Harlem. It is unrelated to the British public school fag system, and has no connection to faggots as bundles of sticks. Gay men were never tied up in bundles and used to burn witches – can you imagine how long it would take to get such a fire going? Faggot probably comes from the word baggage, sixteenth-century slang for “harlot” – as in the affectionate insult “You saucy baggage!”

Gay meaning “merry”, “exuberantly joyful”, can be traced back to medieval French gai, but its earlier origins are unknown. For the past two or three centuries gay has had sexual overtones in general. In the eighteenth century lewd behaviour was part of the “gay life”, enjoyed by both men and women. Rakes and men-about-town were called “gay blades”. A Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue published in 1811 gives “the gaying instrument” as a slang term for the penis.

In the nineteenth century, good-time girls and streetwalkers were called “gay ladies” and brothels were called “gay houses”. Male hustlers plied the same streets as female prostitutes, and the word gay acquired a homosexual connotation. One of the male prostitutes rounded up during the Cleveland Street scandal of 1889 described himself in court as “gay”. Some people argue that Walt Whitman used the word gay with a knowing wink to the hustlers who plied their trade in 1860s Brooklyn. In London, Rev. John Church, a minister who performed marriages between men at a homosexual brothel in Vere Street in 1810, was described in a pamphlet of 1813 as “the gay parson”: the word gay was italicized, obviously to call attention to it.

Admittedly, evidence that the word “gay” was applied specifically to homosexual men as early as this is weak. However, I would hesitate to categorically rule out the possibility that homosexual connotations go back even further. For example, in Mary Pix’s play The Adventures in Madrid, which was performed in 1706, a girl dressed as a boy is pursued by a man named “Gaylove” who calls her his little “Ganymede” and “fairy”. Surely this means what it seems to mean?

We can say without doubt that gay was used in the 1930s in Midwest America as slang for “homosexual”. In a Dictionary of Underworld Slang published in 1933, a gay cat was defined as “a homosexual boy”. It was prison slang for the younger man who serviced older partners. Jack London in The Road published in 1907 said a gay cat was an apprentice hobo. In the hobo subculture of the 1920s and 1930s, it was common for older and younger tramps to pair up. The young hobo would keep a look-out while the older man did some pilfering. It’s not hard to see how gay cat became slang for a punk who offered sex in return for money, or a treat, or protection.

The upper classes became familiar with the term by the late 1930s, probably while “slumming it” in the underworld, or perhaps through artistic bohemian circles. Some early movies even used the word “gay” as a coded reference. In the 1938 comedy Bringing Up Baby, when Cary Grant is asked why he’s wearing a frilly nightgown, he replies “I just went gay all of a sudden.” Apparently this line wasn’t scripted, but was ad-libbed by Grant on the spur of the moment. Some argue that this code-word was used in even earlier movies.

Speaking of codes, Gertrude Stein in her story “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” (published 1922 but written 1908–11) describes a female couple who are more than just merry: “They were guite regularly gay there, Helen Furr and Georgine Skeen, they were regularly gay there where they were gay. To be regularly gay was to do every day the gay thing that they did every day. To be regularly gay was to end every day at the same time after they had been regularly gay.” But perhaps Miss Stein’s writing is too deeply encoded.

The word queer was used by gay men about a decade earlier than gay, and it similarly has a centuries-long non-gay history, meaning odd, eccentric, disreputable or bent. The earliest documented homosexual use is a 1914 description of a party in Long Beach, California, when some “chickens” were invited to meet some prominent “queers”. It was the most commonly used term (together with fairy) before World War II. It was used mainly by “ordinary” and “straight-acting” gay men in preference to a host of words for effeminate gay men: nellie queens, margeries, fairies, pansies, nancy-boys.

By the 1940s the homosexual meaning of gay was common knowledge to those in the gay subculture and in the bohemian demi-monde in America. It became common in Britain in the 1950s. From the late 1950s it was increasingly extended to cover women as well as men. There were organizations for “gay men and women”, and in the commercial subculture there were “gay women’s bars”. For a short period, about 1965 to 1973, lesbian activists employed it, but they began rejecting it as the gay liberation movement began fragmenting into ever-purer ideological camps.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, there had been many campaigns for “homosexual” equality, and by the time of the Stonewall Riots of June 1969, there were 50 “homosexual” and “homophile” organizations in the United States. Immediately following the riots, political activists embraced the slang term gay which was now common in the street culture, and attached it to their liberation movement. By the end of 1970 there were 200 organizations calling themselves “gay”, and by the end of 1973 there were more than 1,000 “gay and lesbian” organizations, not only in San Francisco, Chicago and New York, but across the United States. There is no doubt that an explosion had occurred. Was it caused by a word?

Probably not. There were other important factors: the sexual revolution, the black liberation movement, the women’s liberation movement, the student anti-war movement, and the rise of popular youth culture. But we should not underestimate the power of words, and the power of words used as visual images. Crucial to the gay explosion was the formation of the Gay Liberation Front in July 1969, and the adoption of the slogans “Gay Power”, “Gay is Good” and “Gay Pride”. GAY was perfect as a short, powerful, arresting image, on posters, on lapel badges, on manifestos.

Gay became a powerful word for organisations, leaflets, newspapers and magazines, publishing collectives, T-shirts. Two New York papers titled GAY and Gay Power were founded in 1969 and quickly achieved a circulation of 25,000 – compared to earlier “homophile” papers that were lucky to reach 200 readers. London’s Gay News was born in 1972.

Gay became the global standard in numerous countries, displacing indigenous terms. For example, in 1972 the kathoeys or transvestite and transgender male prostitutes of Thailand reconceptualized themselves as masculine “gay kings” and effeminate “gay queens”. Queerwords don’t construct identities, but they can widen or narrow the possibilities for expression.

Words can be powerful motivating forces, but it would be a mistake to assume that an identity doesn’t exist prior to the words currently used to describe that identity. For example, plenty of words were used to identify different types of gay men in England in the eighteenth century: molly, endorser, Gany-boy, madge cull, mameluke, margery, patapouf, queen and aunt. These words were in addition to older terms such as catamite, sodomite and buggerer. Eighteenth-century lesbians were called tommies, tribades, sapphists – and lesbians.

Terms like “unnaturalist” or “invert” (which were both used in the eighteenth century) and “homosexual” (coined in 1868), were eventually taken up by the modern medical establishment, but they had no impact on the working-class subcultures where most queerwords are employed. In the 1920s – when the medical discourse is supposed to have been exercising its social control – a doctor who interviewed self-identified “fags” in New York City’s jails lamented that they were “proud to be degenerates”.

I think it is wrong for LGBTQ activists to simply reject the use of labels. The problem is not labels themselves, but the stigma attached to labels. Gay was important to the lexicon of liberation because it was cheerfully free from such stigma. It captured a more affirmative gay identity than most other labels that had been used over the centuries. It lacked suggestions of odd peculiarity, and even when it was disreputable it was still sexy and vital. It’s a pity to bury it in the acronym “LGBTQ”. In the golden age, gay was understood to include lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered individuals as well as gay men and queers. Though we might not regain its use for lesbians today, the term is still a useful umbrella. It shelters masculine gays while not excluding outrageous queens, and includes both the political and the personal. Importantly, it is still inclusive enough to help bring together a diverse social community.

Copyright © 2005, 2015 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. My comments originally appeared in Gay Times in June 2005, issue 321, pp. 30 and 32.

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