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

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Tue Feb 24 22:54:31 UTC 2004

In a message dated 2/24/04 3:13:55 PM, jdespres at MERRIAM-WEBSTER.COM writes:

<< 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
boss... >>

I've done some of this, and the evidence for your theory is pretty slim. For
one thing, GAY is used all over the place in such literature--even up into the
1950s and 1960s--with its standard meanings. There are a few environments in
which the characters MIGHT be interpreted as using GAY 'homosexual', just like
the cross-dressing dancers in 1895 (one such appears in HDAS), but they just
as likely might be using GAY in the conventional sense. NONE of the
underground literature that I have seen makes any clear reference to GAY as an insider
term--though they do discuss lots of other insider terms.

Not until 1940 do we find anyone noting that the term is a secret word for
'that way'.

The impulse is really really POWERFUL to read our own meaning into the use of
a word like GAY in an earlier time. But if GAY in 1895 was a secret term
meaning 'homosexual' (and, again, the concept pretty much didn't even exist in
1895) what would the point have been in making such a veiled allusion? Who would
the author of such a title have been appealing to? Other "homosexuals"? To
what end? Who, in 1895, would have been so daring as to have made such an appeal?

Why do we have to see GAY as meaning 'homosexual' in the 1895 film when there
are other meanings that are perfectly adequate to explain the title from a
Victorian  point of view (and when it is virtually impossible to imagine a
Victorian using the term in its modern sense).

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