Gay, in addition to meaning happy, also means, simplistically, "preferring the same sex" in current usage, though to tie down the word to a specific cultural meaning might be to misrespresent a huge community of individuals who find themselves described by the word "gay".
The term "gay", or "lesbian" for women, is preferred by many in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community because it describes the overall "orientation" of the person and does not focus the definition only in sexual or physical terms, though there are possibly genetic and pheromonal precursors to all manifestations of sexuality and gender. The LGBT community represents the emotional, cultural, social and erotic lives of its members; a natural-born community without an innate cultural unity. The LGBT community has been and still is a community of struggle.
Aside from their long-term romantic and/or erotic relationships, gay and lesbian people establish same-sex friendships, love interests, and life partners; this means that they may choose to attend same-sex friendly social gatherings and church services, rather than face discrimination. The modern gay and lesbian community has no real commercial bias.
The gay and lesbian community represents a social component of the global community that is underrepresented in the area of civil rights. The current struggle of the gay community has been brought about by social globalization: the LGBT community seeks marriage rights, in all places, at all times, because marriage might actually matter. Currently, it matters most when lovers are not from the same country: not allowing legal marriage is not only an issue of health benefits, it is a decision that the majority makes against the gay community about whether love will even happen at all, especially when the members of a couple might be from two different countries.
Gays and lesbians are very often portrayed negatively in television, films, and other media. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation works with the media to help portray fair and accurate images of the gay community. Many large cities have gay and lesbian community centers. The Human Rights Campaign represents gay and lesbian political issues.
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The word gay has had a sexual orientation meaning since at least the nineteenth century, and possibly earlier. Sometimes, specifically extracted histories of word origins are incomplete and not useful to communicating modern meanings of socioculturally potent words.
A quote from Gertrude Stein's Miss Furr & Mrs. Skeene (1922) is possibly the first traceable use of the word, although it is not altogether clear whether she uses the word to mean lesbianism or happiness.
- They were ...gay, they learned little things that are things in being gay, ... they were quite regularly gay.
- Pretty boys, witty boys, You may sneer
- At our disintegration.
- Haughty boys, naughty boys,
- Dear, dear, dear!
- Swooning with affectation...
- And as we are the reason
- For the "Nineties" being gay,
- We all wear a green carnation.
The usage of any word changes dramatically as the culture in which it is embedded changes.
Gay can be used exclusively or inclusively. The exclusive meaning refers only to male homosexuals. The inclusive meaning refers at a minimum to homosexual men and lesbians, and arguably to bisexuals, and, when used in the phrase the Gay community it may include transgendered and transsexuals, and possibly intersexuals as well, though this is also a subject of some debate. See also: LGBT and queer
Gay originally was used purely as an adjective ("he is a gay man" or "he is gay"). Gay is now also used as a plural collective-like noun: "Gays are opposed to that policy" but rarely as a singular noun "he is a gay."
Another folk etymology accrues to Gay Street, a small street in New York's West Village—a nexus of homosexual culture. The term also seems, from documentary evidence, to have existed in New York as a code word in the 1940s, where the question, "Are you gay?" would denote more than it might have seemed to outsiders.
When used as an adjective not describing a person who is part of the gay community, (e.g. "that hat is so gay"), the term "gay" is purely pejorative and deeply offensive. The derogatory implication is that the object (or person) in question is inferior, weak, effeminate, or just stupid. This usage is common among young people who may not link the term to homosexuality, much as some people may not link the term "Jew down" (to be talked down in price) to Jewish people, or "I was gypped" (I was cheated) to Gypsies. It may also be used in a pejorative slang sense without merely pragmatic semantics to describe something that is considered overly bright, colourful and/or festive (esp. girlish).
According to the Safe Schools Coalition of Washington's Glossary for School Employees:
- "Homosexual: Avoid this term; it is clinical, distancing and archaic. Sometimes appropriate in referring to behavior (although same-sex is the preferred adj.). When referring to people, as opposed to behavior, homosexual is considered derogatory and the terms gay and lesbian are preferred, at least in the Northwest."
However, some same-sex oriented persons actually prefer the term homosexual to gay, seeing the former as describing a sexual orientation and the latter as describing a cultural or socio-political group with which they do not identify 1.
In addition, it is important not to confuse "Sexual Preference" with "Sexual Orientation" when defining homosexuality. The word "preference" implies "choice", where as "orientation" conveys something that is out of a person's control.
- List of gay-related topics
- coming out
- gay rights
- civil rights