[Ads-l] Further Antedating of the Term "Gay"

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Sat Dec 4 14:32:35 UTC 2021

The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest citation for the word "gay" meaning "homosexual" is dated 1934.  This citation derives from the Ernest Burgess Papers at the University of Chicago Library, and was brought to the attention of the OED by me.

I now notice what appears to be a 1933 citation for this sense of "gay."  The Archives of Sexuality and Gender database created by the Gale company includes a typescript essay by Greg Sprague, titled "On the 'Gay Side' of Town: The Nature and Structure of Male Homosexuality in Chicago, 1890-1935."  On page 22 of this typescript, Sprague wrote the following:

"A gay identity and group consciousness existed among many of the men who participated in the Chicago subculture.  This group consciousness was more than just the self-awareness that they, by desiring same-sex relations, were different from the general population; in addition, it was an awareness that they belonged to a separate category of people which they often labelled 'gay.'  This awareness can be seen in this brief excerpt from a love letter written in 1933 by a gay man in Baltimore to his friend Jimmy in Chicago: 'Gay People are generally people who live their own lives, speak their own thoughts and are in love with their own sex.'"

Sprague footnotes the passage above to "Burgess Papers, File 98," the same file as the 1934 citation.

I cannot be certain that this is a legitimate antedating of "gay" meaning "homosexual" without seeing the context and dating from the Burgess Papers, but it seems very promising.  I will attempt to investigate further.

Fred Shapiro

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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