Obviously, bigots weren’t too thrilled about its appropriation – “Gay used to be such a nice word”, they moaned. And we laughed at them.
Men who fuck men and women who fuck women have been called a lot of things over the decades. The word homosexual was coined in the 1860s by Karl Maria Kertbeny – he’d hoped it replace the current term of the day: pederast. Karl believed that homosexuals were actually superior to heterosexuals. Sadly, although the word caught on, Karl’s meaning of it didn’t. Instead that vicious bitch Richard von Krafft-Ebing got hold of the term and told everyone it meant an effeminate man who was mentally ill. Yeah, thanks for that.
At best homosexual is now used in a neutral “scientific” way to refer to us; at worst it still has those connotations of electric shock therapy and people getting arrested in loos while wearing beige cardigans and then killing themselves in the last act.
About five years ago when my bank manger asked me to fill in a life insurance form asking if “I was a drug user or a homosexual” I practically over-turned the desk in a sissy-fit of rage. “I am NOT a homosexual!” I screamed, channelling my inner Quentin. “I am gay. There’s a difference. And besides, it’s none of your business.” I didn’t get the life insurance. The ultra right-wing American Family Association hate the word gay so much that they automatically change it to homosexual when quoting news stories (with hilarious consequences for the sprinter Tyson Gay). Whichever way you look at it, homosexual=bad, gay=good.
The adoption of gay was a major breakthrough in our never-ending two-steps forward, one-step back march to equality. Prior to us taking over the word en masse in the early 1970s it had meant ‘disposed to joy and mirth’, although it could also refer to prostitution or impertinence. The liberationists gave it the good PR, but it had been used by upmarket British queens for decades before then.
I struggled to say the word when I came out in the 1980s, but I knew deep down that it was nothing to be ashamed of. You heard it so many times in the same breath as pride, liberation and community. It was a nice thing. Obviously, bigots weren’t too thrilled about its appropriation – “Gay used to be such a nice word”, they moaned. And we laughed at them.
Fast forward to the present day and here’s a typical case. On a computer games bulletin board, one of the users recently posted up the following message: “Fallout 3 could probably be the most anticipated game of ALL TIME. It’s so gay that Interplay cancelled it.” To most people under the age of 25, gay hasn’t referred exclusively to sexuality for about a decade now. Instead it means lame. But it also means gay as well. Like a pair of rutting snakes, the two meanings are fused solidly together – so that when someone says “that’s gay”, they’re not only being derogatory towards the thing they don’t like (mobile phone ringtones, snowboarding, small convertible cars to give a few high-profile cases) , but they’re getting a free dig in at people who like same-sex sex. Or are they? Some children are calling things gay – probably not understanding the word’s sexual meaning. And a while ago the young Liberal Democrats launched a “homophobia is gay” campaign, showing everyone just how postmodern and ironic they can be.
I tend to be one of those people who get worked up about words – and I know I’m in the minority. Most people (especially gay men) don’t seem to mind the derogatory use of gay – in fact they revel in making a big deal about how they don’t care, how they’re strong and big and “so past it” and that anyone who disagrees is part of the thought police who also wants to ban Christmas and put smokers and binge drinkers in Guantanamo Bay. If I try a lame argument like “But linguistics is my job – I wouldn’t tell you how to do conveyancing or fly that plane”, then I get accused of elitism. So I keep quiet. My main concern is that we no longer have a word for our sexuality that has a straightforwardly “nice” meaning any more. And that while most contemporary gay men are so sophisticated that they can cope with the multiply-layered meanings of gay these days, I’m not so sure that a sensitive 11 year old who’s just discovering that they really really like Ugly Betty, or a member of the BNP, would feel the same way. In 2008 a study by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers found that gay was the most frequent term of abuse heard in schools, with poof, batty boy, queer, lezzie, homo, faggot and sissy also making the top ten (although there were no racist words in the list). So, ironically, now it’s me who’s saying “gay used to be such a nice word”. And even more ironically, gay is now going the same way as homosexual (which also started off with such good intentions). Do you see a pattern here?
The answer to it all is that it’s not the words. We can invent word after word, but while the idea that “homophobia isn’t so bad” exists, it’s all ultimately pointless. All our shiny new words for ourselves will end up tainted. Words themselves are just bizarre noises that we make with our mouths – it’s the meaning that we give them that makes them important. One day I hope that there will be no word for us, because we will live in a polysexual utopia and sexual identities will be as unremarkable as breathing air. Until then, I’m afraid it’s back to the PR work – which at least we’re pretty good at.