Q: Why does the New York Times use “gays” to refer to male homosexuals and “lesbians” for females? “Gay” has always covered men and women. When did it become a term for male homosexuals?
A: The Times does indeed often refer to gay men as “gays” and gay women as “lesbians,” as in its reporting on a gay rights rally in Washington last month. The phrase “gays and lesbians” crops up over and over again in the paper.
Why not use the single term “gays” for both men and women?
The simple answer is that many gay women want a term of their own—at least in public discourse. This is what we’ve been able to gather after reading extensively in lesbian discussion groups and other forums on the Web.
The preference for the term “lesbian” appears to reflect a desire among many gay women to have a public label all their own and to emphasize the fact that gay men and gay women are not a homogeneous group.
So much for the public terminology. Privately, however, it’s a different story.
We’ve concluded that the terms “gay woman” and “lesbian” are often used interchangeably, and that a woman’s choice of a personal label for herself is highly individual.
We also get the impression that some women who identify with the masculine or “butch” end of the spectrum prefer to call themselves “gay,” while some at the “femme” end think of themselves as “lesbian.”
But some of the women commenting online see no difference at all between the labels, and still others reject both labels in favor of “queer.”
In short, there are not only public and private aspects to the use of “lesbian,” but there are intensely personal and idiosyncratic aspects as well.
Let’s examine the terms. (First let us note that many gay women as well as gay men discourage the use of “homosexual” because they see it as a medical or psychological term.)
The word “Lesbian” (originally capitalized) has been in the language since 1601, when it had no sexual meaning. It was an adjective pertaining to the Greek island of Lesbos.
A “Lesbian rule,” for example, was a pliable mason’s rule made of a kind of lead, found on the island, that was flexible enough to be shaped to fit a curved edge. (We wrote a blog entry on the subject earlier this year.) And “Lesbian wine” was made from grapes grown on Lesbos.
Lesbos, as you probably know, was also the home of the ancient Greek poet Sappho, who addressed some of her love lyrics to girls.
This connection, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, gave the word “lesbianism” the meaning of “female homosexuality,” a sense that originally appeared in print in 1870. The adjective “lesbian” first showed up in the sexual sense in 1890 and as a noun in 1925.
“Gay” has had many meanings since it was introduced into English around 1300. Its etymology is murky, but it was borrowed from Old French (gai) and may come from Frankish or Old High German (gahi).
In English, according to the OED, it first meant noble, beautiful, or excellent. In the later 1300s it came to mean “bright or lively-looking, esp. in colour; brilliant, showy.”
In the 1400s it was first used in the modern sense of merry or cheerful, though it was also used to mean wanton, lewd, dissolute, or even (in the case of women) living by prostitution. All of these negative meanings are now either rare or obscure.
The adjective “gay” has been used as slang term for homosexual since at least as far back as 1937. As the OED explains, some citations from the 1920s and ’30s could be read that way by innuendo, but such interpretations might just be the result of hindsight.
Here’s one such example, from the writings of Gertrude Stein in 1922: “Helen Furr and Georgina Keene lived together then. … They were together then and traveled to another place and stayed there and were gay there … not very gay there, just gay there. They were both gay there.”
And here’s another, from a 1939 song lyric by Noel Coward: “Everyone’s here and frightfully gay, / Nobody cares what people say, / Though the Riviera / Seems really much queerer / Than Rome at its height.”
As the OED says, those examples can’t be regarded as definitive, though they are certainly suggestive in hindsight. But we do know that “gay” was used to mean homosexual when Coward wrote that lyric, because the OED’s first definitive example is from an anonymous typescript believed to be from 1937:
“Al had told me that Kenneth was not gay but jam [i.e. heterosexual], and so I acted very manly.” (The quotation is from research documents contained in the Ernest W. Burgess Papers at the University of Chicago Library. Burgess was a professor of sociology at the university.)
Another definitive OED citation comes from Gershon Legman’s “The Language of Homosexuality: An American Glossary,” which was published in 1941 as an appendix to a two-volume medical study of homosexuality.
Legman’s glossary includes this entry: “Gay, an adjective used almost exclusively by homosexuals to denote homosexuality, sexual attractiveness, promiscuity … or lack of restraint, in a person, place, or party. Often given the French spelling, gai or gaie by (or in burlesque of) cultured homosexuals of both sexes.”
You asked when “gay” became a term for male homosexuals. The answer is that it doesn’t necessarily mean males—or not always.
In their book Language and Sexuality (2003), Deborah Cameron and Don Kulick write: “Many lesbians prefer the gender-specific term ‘lesbian’ to ‘gay,’ which, they argue, obscures the presence of women by subsuming them under a label whose primary reference is to men.”
And indeed the OED says the term is more frequently used to refer to men.
One final note about “gay.” There’s no evidence, according to the OED, that there was an earlier use of gai or gaie in French to mean homosexual. Rather, the French use of the word in this sense is a late-20th-century borrowing from English.
As for “queer,” its origins are uncertain but it may be related to the German quer (oblique or at odds). It’s been in English in the ordinary sense (peculiar or strange) since the 1500s.
The OED’s first citation for the use of “queer” in the sexual sense is from a letter written in 1894 by Oscar Wilde’s archenemy, the Marquess of Queensberry, who used the word as a noun: “I write to tell you that it is a judgement on the whole lot of you. Montgomerys, The Snob Queers like Roseberry & certainly Christian hypocrite Gladstone.”
The adjective “queer,” according to the OED, was first recorded in a 1914 article in the Los Angeles Times: “He said that the Ninety-six Club was the best; that it was composed of the ‘queer’ people. … He said that the members sometimes spent hundreds of dollars on silk gowns, hosiery, etc. … At these ‘drags’ the ‘queer’ people have a good time.”
As the OED points out, “queer” was a derogatory term until it was reclaimed as a positive or neutral word by gays in the 1980s. It’s since become a respectable term in academia.
“In some academic contexts,” the OED says, “it is the preferred adjective in the study of issues relating to homosexuality (cf. queer theory …); it is also sometimes used of sexual lifestyles that do not conform to conventional heterosexual behaviour, such as bisexuality or transgenderism.”
[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 8, 2019.]