As promised, here’s the follow up to the previous post, Casual Homophobia.
Homophobic language didn’t always exist in society. In fact, many of the words we view as derogatory didn’t start out that way.
This post will address the following terms: gay, faggot/fag, queer, and dyke – as these are the terms most often used in a pejorative context.
The ultimate origin of the word ‘gay’ is unknown, but seems to come from the Old French word gai, meaning joyful, happy; pleasant, agreeably charming. The earliest documentation of the word comes from the 12th Century as a surname.
In the early 14th Century, gay was defined as ‘stately and beautiful; splendid and showily dressed’ – still an adjective, and not a noun. Certainly there was no negative connotation to the word at this point. In fact, it wasn’t until the 17th Century that the word gay was used to suggest immorality. Geoffrey Chaucer, lauded as the Father of English Literature, wrote in The Canterbury Tales in 1630:
But in our bed he was so fresh and gay,
And ther-with-al so wel coude he me glose,
Whan that he wolde han my bele chose,
That thogh he hadde me bet on every boon,
He coude winne agayn my love anoon.
Which, when translated, reads:
He was an animal in bed, though, and knew how to turn me on so much when he wanted my vagina that even if he beat every bone in my body, he could win my love again in no time at all.
This trend towards a negative connotation to the word gay continued, and in the 1890s, was used to suggest promiscuity. Brothels were referred to as gay bath houses. However, the word was still not used to specifically
describe homosexual men. It most likely got a boost in that direction during the same time period. The term gay cat
was used by transients to describe a young or new hobo. The Gay Cat was often singled out and beaten, and many times, would become a slave of sorts to older, more experienced hobos, like a personal assistant. And while none of the older transients would come out and say so, it was known that being in that position, sexual acts were often part of the deal. These Gay Cats became a subculture, and apparently, homosexuality was a norm for the group.
Then, in the late 1940’s, ‘gay’ showed up as a slang term for homosexuality in psychological writings. However, it was still not easily distinguishable from older meanings of the word. From Rorschach Research Exchange and Journal of Projective Techniques, written in 1947:
After discharge A.Z. lived for some time at home. He was not happy at the farm and went to a Western city where he associated with a homosexual crowd, being “gay,” and wearing female clothes and makeup. He always wished others would make advances to him.
As you can see, the term ‘gay’ as used in the above example could either refer to the fact that the man was homosexual, or that he dressed in a flamboyant and showy fashion.
In the mid-20th Century, the term was applied to homosexuality, as in gay being deviant from the norm (homosexuality) and straight applied to heterosexuality – as in following the normal course of nature.
However, the Dictionary of American Slang claims the word was used by homosexuals among themselves since at least 1920, lending to the password nature of the speak-easies during Prohibition. The term wasn’t openly used as a noun to reference homosexual males until 1971, but had been used prior to that as an adjective to describe the effeminate behavior of homosexual men. It was at this time that the term ‘gay’ began its journey into becoming a pejorative word. The use as an insult increased in the 1980’s (especially with the rise of AIDS and its stigma) and especially in the late 1990’s.
However, it wasn’t until 2000 that the term took on the slang meaning of ‘bad; inferior or undesirable’.
Initially, this word appeared in the late 13th Century, again derived from an Old French word, fagot, meaning a bundle of twigs bound up. This word quickly took on negative connotation in 1914 when it was applied to male homosexuals. The reference came from Jackson and Hellyer – A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang, With Some Examples of Common Usage. The shortened term ‘fag’ didn’t appear until 1921. The application of this term to gay men could have come from a contemptuous term for a woman, especially an old, homely woman. The reference is to the bundle of sticks – something awkward that has to be carried – like that of a worthless woman. This term came from a slang for baggage, referencing the woman, and was from the 1590’s.
There is a bit of an Urban Legend behind the use of the term. It’s been said that the term became widely used to
reference homosexual males when Christianity was burning heretics at the stake. Heretics that recanted were required to wear an embroidered faggot on their sleeve, reminding them of who they were. It’s akin to the scarlet letter. However, the term was used mainly in England, where the preferred method of punishing homosexuals for violating the law was hanging. There is no evidence to back up the claim that faggot was applied to gay males in this fashion.
Now the term is primarily used in a pejorative sense in North America, especially by protest groups, most notably the Westboro Baptist Church, as an epithet to cause shock and garner attention.
Initially appearing in 1922 in a derogatory sense to describe homosexual men, the word queer dates back to the 1500’s, when it meant ‘strange or peculiar’. The term has never really taken the same kind of pejorative stronghold as ‘faggot’ and ‘gay’ have, however. This doesn’t mean it has lost its derogatory nature. It is now applied to those individuals who don’t necessarily classify themselves under the LGBT identities.
Again, us lesbians are sort of left behind. Originally, the term ‘dyke’ shows from 1896 as vulgar slang for the vulva. Its application to lesbians are not clear, but could be from the term bulldyker – a term that appeared in 1920’s novels connected to the Harlem Renaissance. For example, in Claude McKay’s 1928 novel, Home to Harlem he writes:
There’s evidence that the term may have come from the word morphodite, a dialect variant of hermaphrodite – a term that was once used to reference homosexuals. The word dyke originally referred to a specific type of lesbian – those with more masculine qualities, and today the word has a large spectrum for application to various types of lesbians based on appearance and demeanor.
What I find incredibly interesting is that these words didn’t really fall under the classification of pejorative language until after the United States was established. A country that was once called a ‘Melting Pot’ was also the least tolerant of many forms of diversity. And it seems to have continued that way, even today. I mean, it wasn’t until 2000 that someone suddenly decided that gay was synonymous with stupid. And with the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness did nothing but further the derogatory nature of these words.
And why? Why was it necessary to associate these words with homosexuality, especially in a negative fashion? Was it an attempt to contain that which was misunderstood? Even so, why do we perpetuate the negativity with these words today?
I don’t know that we’ll ever truly be able to answer those questions. At least not satisfactorily. But, from here on out, I’m going to be far more aware of the words others use around me, and I will hold them accountable for their words.