The Metamorphosis of the Word "Gay"

Gay is a word that is used widely today by both those in the gay community and the rest of the world to refer to somebody who is naturally sexually attracted to another person of the same sex. Gay is the word that the gay community prefers to use to refer to themselves as opposed to the word homosexual. This is because the word gay sounds more silent and does not overemphasize the homosexuality aspects and acts widely associated to the word homosexual. The word gay is also preferred because it expresses the full orientation of someone without focusing on sexual and physical attributes that defines the person. The word also has a wide usage to depict a merry, bright and lively mood. Though the word gay is in most cases used to refer to males, the word can also be used to refer to females as well. In cases of a context where the intended meaning of the word is unclear the word gay is used along with the word lesbian where the latter refers to a female.


This paper discusses the word “gay” and shows the fluid nature of the word by the way it has been molded like clay through varied and opposing images by human creativity.

Gay History

The word gay originated from an old French word “gai” which commonly meant “carefree” or “joyful”. In the 12th century the word was first used in English with the same meaning both in literature and speech. The word was associated to immorality for the first time in 1637 when it used to refer to someone who was seriously addicted to pleasures and one who lacked moral self control. Anything that was considered socially immoral was branded as gay, for example a brothel would be referred to as a gay house, womanizer would be called a gay man while a prostitute was a gay lady. The word could also denote unmarried man or woman to imply that he or she was “free” and “unattached”.

The meaning of the word gay evolved through the mid 20th century to denote frivolousness in dressing code. Perhaps this later shift to the meaning and association is the one that guided the eventual narrowing of the scope to take the today’s dominant meaning of “homosexual”.

The meaning of Gay

While many people may use the word gay to refer to the gay communities that are considered homosexual, the word may have different meaning depending on the user. When a person says that he is gay, it means that he is open to attraction to another man, but not necessarily that he can be or he is sexually active towards such a man or towards any one else. One can be homosexual but not necessarily gay and similarly all gays are not necessarily active homosexuals for example monks or youth who have not declared publicly their gay status and have not engaged themselves to any relationship as yet.

The young generation for example, uses the word gay with a totally derisive attitude and a derogatory implication. The word is used to denote to objects or people that are considered inferior, lame, cheap or stupid.

Gay Word Usage

The usage of the word gay and its meaning in most cases depend on whether the user belongs to the “gay friendly” camp or the “gay-bashers” camp.

This is because gay community has constituted a new sexual minority group in the world that has divided many in political, religious and social places on how to handle the emerging group. The current debate on gay marriage has especially divided the Christian communities with the majority opposing the marriage. The Christian clerics’ view of gay community is that of out casts, a people that are out to destroy the world moral fabric. There has been a social uprising in many nations as many people felt that the gay relationship should be illegal to minimize its spread. However most of the western nations have legalized the relationships. The leaders of the western countries are using the word gay freely in the discussions and debates geared at defending the plight of those affected. However in Africa the word gay is such a “dirty” word that is not supposed to be mentioned in public. Human rights activists are fighting endless battles in trying to clean the word gay. The gay relationships remain illegal in most African countries, though the movements are believed to continue spreading underground (Cook, 23).

The word that referred to such virtues as “happy”, ”bright” and  “joyful” has now become an international vice that those associating with it are being regarded as social misfits. It is seen by many as though the word gay was “stolen” by the homosexuals to re-brand and re-package their promiscuous acts so that it could be more society friendly. Going by this argument then the power of the word can be demonstrated by the growth that the re-branding has given to the gay (joyful) movement. It is almost obvious that the gay movement will soon win over the stiff opposition by religious and cultural groups and that will open another dawn where the word will be used freely as before.

Connotations of the word gay

In the religious realm the word gay is taken to connote or relate to the people that have chosen not to follow the God’s appointed path of development. The word therefore paints a repulsing picture of a person that need some define power to change. The word also refers to ignorant people that neither understands the environment they leave in nor their destiny. Gay is an important word in the religious circles because it can determine ones identity in a given group. In most religious groups gays are not welcome. However gay communities have resulted to forming their religious groupings where they address their spiritual needs. These gay communities are striving to re-brand the name to the rest of the religious groups so that it can be accepted. A recent attempt by a mainstream church in USA to dedicate a gay bishop to oversee its activities was received by such an uproar from over the world. That demonstrated the weight that the word had and the repercussions that those who took it lightly could face. Actually some of the USA churches have resulted to sending their leaders for dedication to Africa where the members and leaders are thought to be more conservative (Berg, 274).

The connotation of the word gay is also based on the society that the word is being used in. Societies in the world over have differed in the way they conceptualize the word gay. The urban dwellers especially in the western countries the word gay just refers to a group of people of certain sexual orientation, of which any one can join at will. People who have developed such a positive attitude from the word may not have a problem relating freely with the gay community at social places. This case is quite different with the majority of other conservative societies across the world. A mere declaration that you are a gay will result to an immediate rejection. The word is associated to rubbish and useless being that lacks the ability to socialize naturally. To some societies the word would just symbolize a highly contagious “disease” that anybody associated with it should be totally rejected, no matter how close the person is to the family. This social rift has resulted to the gays congregating together in the same neighborhood having gay social amenities where they meet (Jefferson, 88)

Culturally the word gay may also connote differently, depending on the environment in which one has been brought up. In some cultures discussion of sexual issues is detestable. Mentioning of words that are by any way sexually related is culturally forbidden. In such cultures mentioning of the word gay can be embarrassing and can only be mentioned in low tones and in a private place.

In the Political arena the word elicits mixed reaction between those defending the gay community and those against it. Many parliaments in the world today are in crossroads as they seek to find consensus over the gay issue. To some of the politicians the term gay denotes a source of extra votes while to others it may mean lose of support. Sometimes the political understanding of the word can be largely affected by other external forces that the politicians may be affiliated to, as well as human activism movements that are working very hard around the world to improve the image of the word (Benfey, 247).

The word “gay” and the its societal power relationships

For a long time since the word gay begun to refer to homosexuals the affected communities have been operating underground and did not want to be associated to the word. The people who would be associated to the word and the activities that go by it would face untold rejection and would even loose their positions in the society. Any leadership position in the society however junior could not be entrusted to a person who is gay, and therefore calling someone a gay would be tantamount to sacking such a person from his/her valued position.

The situation is changing fast today with people declaring their gay status without fearing to loose their influential positions in the society. It must however be noted that some societies are quite conservative and it will take time before such changes become practical among them. In such societies the mention of the word gay remains an obscure to their power and will be avoided.


It is clear that in a society neither the meaning of a word nor its implication is cast on a stone, such interpretation rather is molded by the society and changes with seasons. As a society advances so does its language develops and the meaning of the words may be distorted or changed through their use or misuse, to assume completely different meaning and connotations. The different connotation of a word by different groups of a society at any given time is by itself the fuel that causes the metamorphosis of the word.

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