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Etymology

The first definite use of the term gay to mean homosexual came in 1929, a double entendre sung by dandies in Noel Coward's operetta Bitter Sweet:

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.
(Green Carnation is the name of the song, and an Oscar Wilde reference; he was famous for wearing them.)

The term was probably used this way for some time before, though, and had had a sexual connotation since at least the 1800s, when it meant promiscuous (a gay house was a brothel). By the turn of the century (the plot thickens) a geycat was a young hobo, perhaps in an implicitly sexual relationship with his older charge.

Gay-meaning-homosexual began to be used by non-gays only beginning in the late 1960s, concurrently with an acknowledgement of the existence of homosexuality and, in parts of the counterculture, a relative acceptance of it.

Ghey

Throughout the last few decades, of course, gay was also a general-purpose perjorative (more common as fag or faggot). Being homosexual was taboo until very recently, and its undesirability axiomatic to most people; calling someone gay was often less a serious accusation than a more potent equivalent to you're stinky!. (In my early-'90s elementary school, jinx was accompanied by the admonition, "if you talk, you're gay!")

Fag, like its racial equivalent, is dropping from general usage, but the perjorative gay remains (though mostly not in reference to someone). In parts of the U.S., it's the predominant usage, ubiquitous among young people.

And so we're faced with a dilemna. Most of these kids, raised in an era of increasing tolerance toward gays, don't intend bigotry. Some have gone so far as to type the word out as ghey to further detatch it from former usage. The "language evolves, deal with it" crowd paints the evolution of the term simply --

  1. happy
  2. homosexual (with regard to a person)
  3. lame (with regard to a mode of thinking, style, computer game, etc.)

-- but of course, it's not simple.

  • Gay, to non-gays, always meant both "homosexual" and "all manner of ungood"; the two were equivalent.
  • The non-negative, homosexual gay can also be used to refer to non-persons -- a hairstyle, maybe, or a Wilde-eqsue worldview. (I'm ambivalent about assigning meaning this way, but people certainly do it. There are many traits overrepresented among gay people that have nothing to do with being attracted to members of the same sex.)
  • What happens if the perjorative gay colonizes all the available mental terrain as the homosexual gay did before it, permanently monopolizing the word? Homosexual can't be fallen back on; to many gays, "gay" is not just a less-formal synonym.
  • The specific meaning of the modern kid-used "gay" also bears examination: it has exactly the connotations of typical homophobic stereotype: spectacularly uncool, totally lacking in self-awareness.