Query: Gay Self-Appellations in 20s, 30s?

Joanne M. Despres jdespres at MERRIAM-WEBSTER.COM
Mon Feb 23 21:37:23 UTC 2004

A book entitled The Homosexual in America by Donald Webster
Cory (1951) states:

The word [gay, used of a homosexual] made its way to England
and America, and was used in print in some of the more
pornographic literature soon after the First World War.
Psychoanalysts have informed me that their homosexual patients
were calling themselves "gay" in the nineteen-twenties, and
certainly by the nineteen-thirties it was the most common word in
use among homosexuals themselves.  It was not until after Pearl
Harbor that it became a magic by-word in every corner of the
United States where homosexuals might gather....

pp. 107-08

Unfortunately, as far as I know, no citation has been turned up from
the pornographic literature of the period immediately following
World War I to support Cory's claim.  The earliest docmented use
of the adjective "gay" in the "homosexual" sense, as reported in
the OED, occurs in the word "geycat" (meaning "a homosexual
boy"), and is taken from a 1935 collection of prison and underworld

As far as some of the other terms for homosexuals are concerned,
"queer" is attested from the 1920s, but not in self-referential
contexts and almost always with a strongly negative connotation
(until very recently, of course).  "Pederast" and "Sapphist" certainly
existed during the 1920s -- in fact, both are recorded in the writings
of Bloomsbury circle members, who presumably weren't intolerant
of homosexuality -- but they do not seem to have been used in a
particularly self-referential way.  "Sodomite" and "Sodomist" are
entered in the Century Dictionary of 1891 (the former being attested
many centuries before), but the definition, "persons guilty of
unnatural sex," obviously carries a negative, "outsider's"
connotation.  A strong sense of disparagement also appears to
have been intended for early (1930s) uses of "dyke," "bulldyke,"
and its variants.

It might be worth checking Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet,
which deals with the representation of homosexuality in film from
early in the history of the genre, to see what anecdotal evidence
might be given there.

Joanne M. Despres, Senior Editor
Merriam-Webster, Inc.
jdespres at merriam-webster.com

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