What Does Gay Mean? Meaning & Definition Etymology

The term “Gay” originally means to be cheerful and untroubled. But in the 19th century, the term gay is used as a reference to someone that is sexually attracted to the same sex. Even in the mid-20s, the term “gay” becomes more common and is used as a name (of people or communities) or cultures related to homosexual practices. 

In the 1960s, the group of men practicing homosexuality adopted the term “gay” to define their sexual orientation. Later, it was commended by major LGBT groups to identify people that are only interested in individuals of their sexual orientation. It was explicitly used for men that are attracted to other men.

Meanwhile, some young speakers in some region of the world disapproved of using the word and claimed that the word has other meanings. They claimed that it might mean “mockery or ridicule” and may also mean “rubbish or stupid”. How the meaning of the word is related to suggestions of homosexuality has been deliberated and questioned.

Sexual Orientation and Personalities

The APA, American Psychological Association gave the definition of sexual orientation as a consistent pattern of sexual or emotional attractions to either men or women or both. It ranges from interest to the opposite sex to affections to the same sex. Sexual orientation can be categorized into three, namely; the first being gay/lesbian. 

In this category, individuals of the same sex have a romantic relationship with each other. The second is the heterosexual where individuals are romantically attracted to individuals of the opposite sex. The third category is bisexual, where the individuals involved have sexual attractions to both sexes.

Taking an LGB (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual) sexual Identity is a whole complicated process. These set of people are not raised where they could find a model to emulate. They are always one amid many heterosexual beings. 

So, they get little or no support from society. To tell the truth, these individuals are raised in an openly hostile community. A gay right activist in the UK, Peter Tatchell claimed that gay is the only social expression which shows us the status of homosexuality in society. He also claimed that whether gay or queer or homosexual is only a matter of time, and they are just identities that will pass.

But in a scenario when an individual who doesn’t openly identify himself as a gay, but engages in sexual activity with another individual of the same sex, such is called discreet or closeted or bicurious. And on the contrary, a person may identify himself as gay but does not get involved in sexual activities with another individual of the same sex. One may identify himself as gay socially and also choose to abstain from sex with the same-sex partner. 

Also, a bisexual may identify himself as gay, while many may think that gay and bisexual are the same.

Origins of the Term

The term ‘’gay” was originated from a German source and appeared in English in the 12th century. The main interpretation of the word is to be carefree, joyful, or be “bright and showy.” It is even used in texts, speeches, and movies. The “Parisian Gaiety,” which was initially a French ballet performed in 1938 before it was produced as a movie by the Warner Brothers in 1941, is a perfect illustration. 

An abstract noun “Gaiety,” derived from gay, was only used to name some entertainment places. It has never had any meaning related to sexuality. It was only until the 20s that other meanings related to sexuality were derived.


Early in the 14th century, the term gay may have been gathering meanings relating to sexuality. However, in the late 17s, gay has now been interpreted to be “addicted to dissipations and pleasures” in addition to its initial meaning, carefree. It now has a new meaning, “untroubled by moral restrictions,” apparently from combining the two initial meanings. 

So, practically, a gay man was a womanizer, while a gay woman was a prostitute; a place that houses them is called a brothel. Using the term gay in the context of being homosexual is often used when talking about prostitution. For instance, a gay boy is a young boy or man that satisfies clients of the same sex. 

Likewise, a gay cat is usually a young boy assigned to a male traveller, offering him intercourse in return for sponsorship and protection. It was also termed to homosexuality as their perceived meaning of “carefree and uninhibited,” which is intentionally scorning traditional sexual values. 

In the mid-20s, a bachelor or a spinster could be called a gay. This means that he was single and free, without necessarily meaning that he is attached to another individual of the same sex. 

Another instance is a book titled “The British Comic Jane,” published in the 1930s, portrayed Jane as gay. However, it only described her lifestyle as someone that is lighthearted and nothing related to homosexuality. 

 The book Gertrude Stein’s Miss Skeene & Miss Furr is arguably the first published that used the word gay with the meaning of a homosexual relationship. This book has been published as far back as 1922 and a passage in the book particularly repeated the word “gay” with the intent of homosexuality. So we can say that gay’s sexuality meaning began in 1922. 

From then on, the word was continued to be used with its main meaning of “carefree,” as also seen in a musical movie “The Gay Divorcee” produced in 1934. The first movie to utilize the word gay concerning homosexuality is “Bringing Up Baby,” which was produced in 1938. Cary Grant was left with no other choice than to wear feminine clothing as all his clothes have been taken to the laundry for cleaning. 

So, when he was asked about what he was putting on, he simply responded, “Because I suddenly become a gay”! Nevertheless, since gay (in the context of homosexuality) may be strange to most viewers at that time, that line could also be interpreted as “I only chose to do something silly”!

The executive secretary for Henry W. George Foundation, Alfred A. Gross, also mentioned the term gay as a self-proclaimed name for homosexuals. This was made evident in the June edition of the SIR magazine: “although they call themselves gay, the term contradicts. People that visit the bar frequently are the saddest I have seen, but I haven’t seen a homosexual that is happy with his life” says Alfred.

The Shift to Homosexual per Se

In the mid-20s, gay has been ascertained to be an uninhibited and hedonistic kind of lifestyle and has its antonym to be straight. Straight, which initially had its meanings to be conventionality, seriousness, and respectability, is now termed to be heterosexual in meaning. Other signals that will showcase a gay are gay dresses display, frivolousness combined with feminism and the kind of people he associates with.

This association has, however, limited the perception of people to the dominant meaning of gay today. Furthermore, because other terms like queer were perceived to be disparaging, the term gay was chosen. However, many people thought homosexuality is quantifiable since sexual orientation became rampant, and homosexuality was diagnosed as a mental illness. 

At that time, male homosexuality was illegal in Britain. However, it was also found in the sexual offences act 1967 to be criminal when you publicly pinpoint an individual as homosexual. Moreover, no words that may be used to describe any characteristic of homosexuality were deemed fit for a cultured society.

As a result of this, a lot of neutral terms were used to give a sign about suspected homosexual beings in society. Terms like the artistic boys and sporty girls were used just to avoid being guilty of the law.

The new meaning added to the original definition of gay became rampant in the 1960s. This was evident in a British comedy movie titled “Light Up the Sky”, directed by Gilbert Lewis in 1960. In 1963, the new sense of gay was well used in The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Man-Hunting, a book written by Ellis Albert. 

Likewise, Hubert Selby Jr. Wrote something similar in his novel titled “Last Exit to Brooklyn”. He noted that a character “was happy to be gay and that he feels superior to others that are not gay (women, especially)”. These show that gay (related to homosexuality in meaning) became well known in the 1960s. 

On the other hand, the original meaning of the word was also brought into play during the years with some lyrics in one of the Herman Hermits’ songs. The song titled “No Milk Today” used gay in its lyrics and hit the top 10 and top 40 in the UK and US respectively. Also, viewers were guaranteed that they would “have a gay old time” in the theme song that accompanied the 1960 – 1966 animated TV series titled “The Filmstones”.

The word gay has been used variably since then on, and there has been some scepticism about how homosexual meaning was developed. Yet, it has been claimed to be an acronym for “Good As You”, though without proof. That was just formed as a popular derivation.

The Terminology

Some believe that the term homosexual is too clinical, and so, they prefer not to be identified by that name. They believe the term homosexual may be too indicative, more especially at a time it was clinically found to be a mental illness.

The Gay and LGBT communities

The gay community started up in the United States in the 80s. Conscious efforts are also being put in place to create communities that involve homosexuals of both sexes and use the term gay or lesbian when referring to them. Hence, the National Gay Task Force as an organization was changed to National gay and Lesbian Taskforce. 

Even for feminist lesbians, it was made compulsory to name the lesbian first to avoid inferring that women are superior to men. Subsequently, terms such as les/bi/gay, LGBTQI, LGBT, LGBTQ and so on have been derived, and most of the new organizations formed have adopted these terms.


The term gay may be used to describe things that are related to homosexuality as a culture. For instance, “a gay bar” is used to describe a bar that is generally for homosexuals or is part of the homosexual culture. When used to describe an object, for example, a cloth or pieces of jewellery, it indicates that such a thing is extravagantly flashy. 

Although this usage has been in existence before it is now associated with homosexuality. And since the modern practice developed, it has acquired various meanings.

The term gay can also be used as a noun as it has been since the 70s with the meaning “homosexual man”. Relatives of gays and lesbians commonly use this usage popularly known as PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). The term is also widely used by Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere popularly known as (COLAGE). 

It may also be used as a name of an individual, although, some feel it might be offensive on one side. 

Bottom Line

Gay as an identity and its usage may not be understood or used correctly in the non-westernized cultures. They have different cultures; their definitions of sexuality are basically different. The western culture believes that the sexual identity of an individual is spiritual, consecrated and ceremonial. 

They also believe that it needs to be confirmed by two or more spiritual elders. But in the LGBT community, sexual identity is a thing of choice. They believe that it is personally chosen.

However, it is best to try and understand people and their cultures, instead of trying to judge them. This is why today, more countries are starting to accept the reality of this term.

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