Earlier Underground Gay Literature

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Wed Feb 25 19:37:06 UTC 2004

I certainly haven't read ALL the underground gay literature of the 1920s and
1930s that was out there, and it is not at all impossible that something will
come up that will prove me wrong. I don't think, though, that, given what
I've, seen the term GAY occurs with any greater frequency in the underground
literature than in the above-ground literature. My point is that GAY in those
novels is simnply used in its usual senses.

What does NOT make sense to me is the idea that the occasional parallelistic
references in Victorian England to GAY BOYS = male prostitutes would then have
resurfaced in the 1920s tramp slang as GEYCAT (where homosexuality was not
even a part of its ordinary meaning) and that from there it leapt to1930s Gay
Urban Males, who embraced it as a code word that they used to identify each
other (less for self-labelling, where the word QUEER was most often used). No part
of that fanciful etymology makes sociolinguistic sense. J Green said in an
earlier post that the early uses were "euphemistic," but this seems to me to be
not quite right label for a code word. Ironic, yes, and sardonic. But
euphemism to me indicates the polite substitution of one word for another, and these
early-day queers were not being polite, they were being sublte. Even when they
began using GAY openly to refer to themselves they were not substituting a
nice term for a pejorative one. Socially, whatever a gay person used for
self-labelling was negative. (Well, maybe "that way" was a euphemism.) Many gay men,
even in the 1950s, preferred QUEER to GAY.

GAY as a slang term had a wide range of meanings in the 1920s and 1930s, as
movies from that period (and short stories) attest. It meant "pugnacious." It
meant "decadent" (especially when applied to young men of means). It
"frivolous." It meant "colorful." It meant "joyous." It meant "wild." It seems quite
logical that 1920s queer men would have adopted such a term as a code word that
then developed in the 1940s into an underground term for self-reference. More
logical, at any rate, than the connection with Victorian callboys and the
occasional application to a hobo's occasional (and doubtless often unwilling)

In a message dated 2/25/04 9:37:07 AM, jdespres at MERRIAM-WEBSTER.COM writes:

<< If you've read the underground literature, then you're obviously in a
much better position to judge than I am, Ron.  And I do understand
your objection to interpreting the title of that 1895 film, or of Cary
Grant's line for that matter, as a full-blown use of the current
meaning of "gay."  I just wonder, particularly if the term "gay"
appears so often in the underground literature, whether its
contemporary use might have evolved from its use in contexts like
the 1895 film, perhaps from the association of  "gay" (meaning
something like "outrageously giddy") behavior with homosexuals.
But I suppose that's an argument from theoretical plausibility more
than from linguistic fact.


Joanne M. Despres, Senior Editor
Merriam-Webster, Inc.
jdespres at merriam-webster.com
http://www.merriam-webster.com >>

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