What does gay mean? How is it used in popular culture and in the LGBT community?
Textbook Definitions of Gay
According to a now-outdated 1976 version of Webster's New World Dictionary of American Language (ed. Guralnik):
1. Joyous and lively; merry; happy; light-hearted.
2. Bright, brilliant (As in bright colors)
3. Given to social life and pleasures (A gay life)
4. Wanton, licentious
5. [Slang] homosexual
Traditionally, gay has signified being happy and light-hearted. If you read older works of fiction and non-fiction, you might find gay meaning this very thing. Of course, for the purposes of this article, we are going to look at the fifth definition of gay: “homosexual”.
According to that same dictionary:
1. Of or characterized by sexual desire for those of the same sex as oneself
Now according to this definition, "homosexual" can be used to describe both homosexuals and lesbians, and in some cases, bisexuals also. So, homosexual men are attracted to other men, and homosexual women are attracted to other women.
Gay in the LGBT Community
In the LGBT community, however, gay refers almost exclusively to homosexual men. Gay defines the sexual orientation of men who are sexually, emotionally, and romantically attracted to other men, whether they act on those desires or not. In the LGBT community, gay almost never refers to any other non-heterosexual person. The exception to this is when we say, “gay rights” and “gay marriage”.
Gay as used in Politics and Popular Culture
Gay in popular culture nowadays refers to homosexual men. Gay isn’t usually referred to as light-hearted and jovial anymore, since the definition of gay as homosexual has taken over the definition. In politics, gay is used when talking about rights to the LGBT community. In that case, as in “gay rights”, the term gay is used to define the entire non-heterosexual spectrum (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, pansexual, questioning).
Gay is not
Gay is not a pejorative. Let me repeat that: Gay is not a pejorative!
What does that mean? It means using “gay” in the place of another word: stupid, annoying, etc. One word: don’t.
Other Words for Gay (Do not use!)
Gay men have been called many derogatory terms over the years. Some men embrace a few of these, but as a whole, these words are seen as inappropriate at best: Fag, Sissy, Nelly, Mary, Pansy, Homo, Queer, Queen, Poofter (UK), Femme, Fairy, Pole Slider, Fudge Packer, Faggot, Cowpoke, Nancy Boy, Flammer, Twinkletoes, etc.
Have questions? Head on over to the forum and discuss!
Lynn M. Wilson
Editor, Gay Lesbian News @ Bellaonline.com