The adjective gay once meant bright or lively or characterized by cheerfulness. But today these old definitions of gay are obsolescent, and any attempt to reclaim them would be pointless and confusing. Gay now means homosexual.

Using gay may seem tricky, but it’s actually straightforward. The word had derogatory connotations long before it was first applied to homosexuals in the mid-20th century, but over the last few decades it has evolved into a neutral term that many gay people use to describe themselves. In fact, gay, which connotes a cultural movement and an aspect of one’s identity, is often preferable to homosexual, which emphasizes sexual orientation only.

Gay can apply to both males and females, although it’s often used to refer to males only, especially in the phrase gay and lesbian. Its noun sense is still controversial, particularly in its singular form. Referring to a homosexual person as a gay may be objectionable to some, but referring to homosexuals collectively as gays is increasingly common.

The use of gay as a synonym of bad or stupid is offensive.


That gay is common in recent news articles and books from throughout the English-speaking world suggests that it is now a widely accepted, inoffensive term for homosexuals:

Cassidy was appointed on Saturday from a field of 23 hopefuls and will become the third openly gay member of the House. [Chicago Tribune]

Likewise, mid-century discourse has shaped recent debates, ones driven by new issues like gays in the military and gay marriage but also embedded in the past. [Gay Artists in Modern American Culture, Michael S. Sherry]

David Pepper and other gay folks his age spent the last 25 years winning the right to be treated equally. [Winnipeg Free Press]

In those days, gay activists needed to prove the very existence of a gay community [Sydney Morning Herald]

In the typical view of suburban informants New York was extraordinary and so were its gays, and suburban Northgate, New Jersey, was ordinary and so were its gay men. [Peacocks, Chameleons, and Centaurs, Wayne Brekhus]

There are signs that the GOP is going soft on gay rights. [Telegraph]

2 thoughts on “Gay”

  1. So is there any point in distinguishing “gay” from “lesbian”?
    Meaning: homosexual men are gay, and homosexual women are lesbian.
    Or has “gay” become simply an overarching term for homosexuals, both men and women?

  2. I think it’s like cow and bull. To my knowledge, there’s not a common word for just a female cow, it’s just “cow.” But a bull is also a cow.


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