The language of the gays has debuted immensely into society’s vernacular in the past two decades. Words such as gay, homosexual, faggot, lesbian and dyke are at least known if not accepted throughout the entire country. Extensive work researching these words and this language has been appearing in such places as women’s studies, anthropology, and speech communication since the 1940s. This essay will review the research that has been done on the etymology of the word gay and lesbian and the terminology involved with, around and inside the gay and lesbian culture.
Homosexual is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “of or involving sexual activity with a member of one’s own sex.” The prefix homo is not from the Latin homo “man” but from the Greek homos, which means “the same,” thus giving the word homosexual its definition of “same sex relationship.” It seems that the word homosexual is not as highly accepted because it seems to emphasizes the word as just a sexuality but not as a cultural and social attitude which gay and lesbians considered themselves to have. (Safire).
The Oxford English Dictionary does defines gay as a slang noun that originated in the United States meaning “homosexual.” It originally meant “exuberantly cheerful.” The word “homosexual” was coined in 1870 and led to the binary of homo-hetero opposition which is still in debate today. The basic notions associated with this binary are sexual orientation and its inadequacy to identify and describe sexual practices. The debate had been fairly one sided with marital hetero-sex as normal and anything remotely “homo” as “wrong.(Smith). Men could actually go to jail for coming homosexual acts with other men, even in private. The interesting thing about this debate is that lesbian sexual practices were never as criminalized as sexual practices between men.
It wasn’t until 1967 that sexual acts between consenting adult males in private were decriminalized but even though the acceptable age for heterosexual sex was sixteen, the legal age for homosexual sex was twenty-one. This new act was only predominant in Britain when it first came out. It did not extend to the merchant marines of the armed forces however. It also didn’t extend to Scotland or Northern Ireland until 1980 when the British government was brought to the European Court of Human Rights (Smith).
The early 70’s celebrated a more liberal existence for homosexuals because of the formation of the Gay Lesbian Front in Britain, which was the first ever coalition for homosexual rights. The late 80’s was more involved and frustrated by oppression of the political correctness for the gay and lesbian services. They waned homosexuality to be looked as more “normal” than it had been in the past instead of a almost “freak or unnatural” way of living (Smith).
Lesbian is defined as “of or pertaining to homosexual relations between women.” This word originated from the Greek island “Lesbos.” Both of these terms were first cited in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s used in short stories and plays. Using the word gay to describe homosexuals worked for a short period in the late 1960’s but the feminist movement claimed that the word didn’t include woman of homosexual tendencies so in the 1990’s the word queer tried to replace gay but failed leaving only than the Bravo TV series “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and the Showtime drama “Queer as Folk.”
The word gay first appeared in the 1977 Associated Press Stylebook as “do not use as a noun meaning a homosexual unless it appears in the formal name of an organization or in quoted matter. In a story about homosexuals, gay may be used as an adjective meaning homosexual”(RESOURCE).
The first appearance of lesbian in the Associated Press Stylebook was “in references to homosexual women, except in names of organizations”(RESOURCE), but was deleted in 2006 when the new definition of the word gay included lesbianism in its definition after meeting with the Gay Lesbian Affiliation Against Defamation of GLAAD and the gender rights organization, GenderPAC.
Now in 2006 gay is “used to describe men and women attracted to the same sex, though lesbian is the more common term for women. Preferred over homosexual except in clinical contexts or references to sexual activity. Include sexual orientation only when it pertinent to a story, avoid references to “sexual preference” or to a gay or alternative “lifestyle”(AP, New York Times).This new definition adds language that positions gay as the ideal term instead of homosexual.
However the New York Times states that there is a difference between gay and lesbian and that gay refers to “homosexual men or more generally to homosexual men and women [and] in specific references to women, lesbian is preferred” (Safire). Now that the term gay is considered acceptable, it seems that the homosexual population needs more definitions and lines between men and woman.
According to Chris Crain, editor of the gay weeklies The Washington Blade and The New York Blade, “Historically, gay represented both homosexual men and women and technically still does…but a number of gay women felt that gay was too male-associated and pressed to have lesbians separately identified so they weren’t lost in the gay-male image” (Safire).
And according to Diane Anderson-Minshall, executive editor of Curve, a lesbian magazine in San Francisco “interjecting the word lesbian into the mix is a necessary reminder that we – gay women – are not simply a subset of that larger male world but rather our own distinct community of individuals” (Safire).
According to the “Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concerns” in the American Psychological Association, problems in homosexual language occur when terminology is unclear or associated with negative stereotypes. The committee drafted the “CLGC Nomenclature Guidelines for Psychologists” in 1980 (Avoiding). These guidelines include many of the problems of the terminology of homosexual language.
Such guidelines state facts such as that the word homosexual has historical implications with pathology and criminal behavior which can offend and lead to negative stereotyping and the fact that words can be seen as ambiguous in their reference, meaning and inclusion or exclusion of some homosexual lifestyles(Avoiding).
The American Psychiatric Association, removed homosexuality from that Association’s official list of mental disorders on December 15, 1973 and posted a resolution to discrimination of homosexuality in the psychiatric field. (Discrimination).
All of these definitions and identities lead to the popular acronym LGBT, “Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender” that is more highly and politically accepted in society today. The homosexual community embraces their terminology and is striving to further perfect the definitions and research being done about their lifestyle.
Every linguistic scholar knows that there are relationship between language, social context and historical tradition. A language is built around a culture. The gay community of today’s society has its own culture therefore it has its own language that one could call Gay English. As the history of the development of the language in that culture is examined, the different approaches to the study of the language and the reasons behind studying.
When looking at where Gay English came from and how it is used today, it is noticed that each time the word “queer” is used it defines a strategy, attitude and a self identity tool. Society is beginning to realize and accept how a lot of our history has been molded around a homo-hetero opposition and how our language has taken a huge toll because of it and new studies and philosophies of Gay English being apparent in American English have ignited.
Many find that Gay English refers to a “distinctive, gendered approach to oral, written and signed text” (Leap). Text is found to build on the “rule of grammar and discourse processes that are shared by a group of speakers” (Leap). Linguists refer to a group of speakers as members of the same speech community.
When speaking of discourse, it is found as the use of language in a generalized sense (Leap). And in terms of Gay English the group of speakers would predominantly include gays, lesbians and bisexuals in a discourse predominantly seen, spoken and heard in the gay, lesbian and bisexual community versus a predominantly straight environment.
It is important to consider how speaker and listener assumptions about what is appropriate language choice and speech topics and how awareness of how these choices affects the speakers details of word and sentence structure therefore influencing both the speakers and listeners discourse (Leap).
The distinction between grammar and discourse and how they relate to each other have become helpful when studying Gay English. Linguist M. A. K. Halliday explains that “text represents choice” (Leap). This states that any text used is always a choice of the speaker. The speaker chooses what language to use with different audiences and listeners. The speaker chooses what is acceptable in certain situations.
The text of Gay English is found to differ when around people of the same or different sexual orientation (Leap). This definition of text shows the need that Gay English needs to be examined in terms of different situations, different sexual orientations and the multiple interpretations Gay English can have. Such aspects as syntax of sentences and paragraphs, the use of interruptions and the placement of pauses will give insight to meanings and social practices of Gay English.
Some linguists of Gay English focus on the importance of this type of studying and how Gay English is defined as a “desired language”, a “performative display” and a “release from shame.” Such linguists include: Frank Browning, who characterizes gay experience in terms of a “culture of desire;” Judith Butler, who writes about the connections between ones gay gender and ones “performance”; and Eve Sedgwick, who places “shame at the center of queer experiences” (Leap).
All of these studies were predominant in the early 1990’s. William L. Leap also added two more definitions to Gay English as “a cooperative discourse” and “a language of risk” in 1996 (Leap). All of these definitions are based around the discourse of the speaker of Gay English in today’s society and the connection between language and social practices.
Different language is used for different occasions and those occasions and languages can create a entire culture in itself: entertaining friends, attending dinner parties, teaching, attending meetings and visiting bars and restaurants. Once the word “homosexual” was coined and the binary of homo-hetero opposition was brought out, the basic notions associated with this binary are sexual orientation and its inadequacy to identify and describe sexual practices.
While researching for this essay, it was difficult to locate books, essays, definitions or any linguistic study on “lesbian language.” Any homosexual information was categorized as “gay English” or the “queer perspective.” Neither category exactly excludes homosexual woman or completely limits research to only homosexual men, but it seems there is no separation between the two genders and that any sort of public lesbian vocabulary is somehow lacking and deemed inappropriate alone.
This lack of a lesbian language could show that lesbians are still defined by their relationship to men, whether excluding or accepting. By not assuming to name a lesbian existence and experience with a language that accurately describe lesbian sex and sexual experience, a relationship of to not having words to describe our collective sexual being and women’s sexual will could be suggested.
Another setback with the importance of etymology and terminology within a culture is the derogatory use of the same terms. Such words as “gay” “dyke” and “fag” are used in everyday life and language to poke fun at everyone including friends, enemies, and even strangers. The term “That’s so gay” is also used to substitute such words as “stupid” when referring to someone or something.
These derogatory uses are found from adults to children in elementary school. Many cases of children using derogatory name calling to other children as well as to children with homosexual parents have been reported all over the country. The difficultly is knowing when “playground insults used every day all over America cross the line into hate speech that must be stamped out?” (‘That’s so gay’ )
In 2002, at Santa Rosa’s Maria Carillo High School in California, Rebekah Rice was hassled about her Mormon upbringing with questions such as, “Do you have 10 moms?” When Rebekah replied with the phrase “That’s so gay,” she was sent to the principals office and received a warning and a notation in her file. Her parents claimed officials violated their daughter’s First Amendment rights by not letting her use a phrase “which enjoys widespread currency in youth culture,” according to court documents.
Rebekah testified that she was not referring to anyone’s sexual orientation but that the phrase meant: “That’s so stupid, that’s so silly, that’s so dumb.” The school officials took a strict stand against any sort of homosexual harassment after two boys were paid to beat up a gay student at the school the year before (‘That’s so gay’ ).Many incidents like Rebekah’s have been taken to court because of the new actions and strict stands schools are taking against any sort of homosexual harassment.
Such actions include a new state mandated homosexual indoctrination program in California. The new law states that “No teacher shall give instruction nor shall any school district sponsor any activity that promotes a discriminatory bias because of a characteristic [including perceived gender]” (Unruh).
Supporters believe it “effectively requires school instruction and school activities to portray homosexuality, bisexuality and transsexuality to the six million children in public schools in a positive light.” This new law seems to be from the heart but is walking such a fine line with the separation of church and state.
Opponents believe that their children should only be taught reading, writing and arithmetic at school. A law suit is being filed against the integrity and reality of the law itself and is set to go to court in 2008 (Unruh).
A San Francisco-based company, GroundSpark took action in route to snuff “gay-bashing” and the derogatory use of homosexual terminology by producing a film titled It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues In Schools for elementary and high schools educators ten years ago. The companion to this film is titled It’s Still Elementary: The Movie & The Movement was released in 2007. Both films deal with the theme of tolerance and acceptance(Aban).
The words gay and lesbian represent a wide variety of human beings that is working on being accurately represented in today’s society. The changing history of the words gay and lesbian show how English etymology is always evolving.
Linguists now realize how it is important to consider many aspects of the speaker and listener when dealing with Gay English because discourse and social setting are so important. The many definitions of text, discourse and Gay English itself are a huge part of the study of Language and Gender are proof that linguists are beginning to further understand Gay English as well as understand where it came from and how it became what it is today.
Aban, Ambrose. “Teaching Gay Acceptance to Kids: It’s Elementary.”
EDGE Boston Contributor. 6 Dec 2007. 07 Dec 2007.
“AP, New York Times & Washington Post Style.” Gay ; Lesbian Affiliation Against Defamation. 2006. 06 Oct 2007. ;http://www.glaad.org/media/guide/style.php;.
“Avoiding Heterosexual Bias in Language.” APA Online. Sept 1991. 04 Oct 2007.
“Discrimination Against Homosexuals.” APA Online. 24 Jan 1975. 04 Oct 2007. ;http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbc/policy/discrimination.html;.
“Homosexual, a. and n.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Ed. 1989. 05 Oct. 2007.
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“Gay, a., adv., and n.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Ed. 1989. 05 Oct. 2007.
Leap, William L. Words Out. Gay Men’s English. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
“Lesbian, a. and n.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Ed. 1989. 05 Oct. 2007.
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Smith, Cherry. Lesbians Talk. Queer Notions. London: Scarlet Press, 1992.
“‘That’s so gay’ prompts a lawsuit. Student sent to principal’s office insists it was not a homophobic putdown.” MSNBC. The Associated Press. 28 Feb 2007. 7 Dec 2007. <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17388702/>
Unruh, Bob. “Homosexodus! Students flee forced ‘gay’ agenda California parents start reacting to new ‘education’ requirements.” WorldNetDaily. 4 Dec 2007. 7 Dec 2007. <http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=59033>