Query: Gay Self-Appellations in 20s, 30s? (Modified by Grant Barrett)

Joanne M. Despres jdespres at MERRIAM-WEBSTER.COM
Tue Feb 24 20:14:51 UTC 2004

Okay, Ron, I'm sorry I neglected to re-read your article before
venturing to comment on this issue.  (Obviously, my memory failed
me miserably when I took Russo's interpretation at face value!)

The original query had to do with "insider" self-referential
vocabulary, though, and, given the evidence, I'd be inclined to think
that we can't totally rule out the possibility that homosexual men of
the 1920s and 30s attached a special self-referential significance,
be it in the form of double-entendre or straightforward denotation,
when they used the word "gay" of each other (or of themselves).
Though it almost certainly meant no such thing to the population at
large, as you argue,  I imagine that there must have been a sort of
slow semantic creep towards that meaning in the minds of gays
themselves, just as today "androgynous" can have a dual meaning
when used by one gay woman of another (though whether it
actually carries that meaning in a particular case would depend on
the context).  So I guess I'd be a bit more willing than you to
entertain the possibility that, to some people, "gay" might have
carried a "homosexual" double-entendre, perhaps even in nonce
fashion, in the context of its application to two cross-dressed men
dancing together, even as early as 1895.  But -- not to worry! -- I
would never base a Collegiate date on such evidence.  If I had the
option to bracket the usage, though, I might.

I'd really love to follow the lead in Cory's book and look at some
1920s-era gay underground literature.  The NYPL has a very good
GLB archive, from what I understand.  Now to pitch this idea to my

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

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