November 8, 1991
Every once in awhile I run across one of those essays from some guy who says he's not a homophobe but just wants to be able to use the word "gay" to mean "happy" without being misunderstood. It's a fair enough concern, I guess -- I know there are plenty of times when I've wanted to say, "I feel positively gay today," or "It was such a gay affair last night," without someone drawing the wrong conclusion about my sexual preference. I'm happily straight, even gaily straight, you could say.
Oh sure. I could say I was happy, cheerful, delighted, glad, pleased, giddy, elated, joyful, joyous, exhilarated, merry, jolly, lighthearted, vivacious, sunny, mirthful, ecstatic, jubilant, or overjoyed, but it just wouldn't be the same. No other word will do -- they want their gay. I guess it all comes down to the awful tnuth that it's hard for a man to use eighteenth-century language and not sound at least a little funny. I remember more than one little snicker in ninth-grade English class over words and usage once familiar and esteemed but now out of place. Of course we were reading Oscar Wilde, but that's not the point. After all, we laughed at Herman Melville, too.
You would think from reading those essays that the word "gay" has been taken over by a gang of grammatica] deviates and somehow could be given back to its exclusive usage. This is sort of like the attitude I used to run into in high school that our language had originally been put together by English teachers and librarians. Every new word or meaning had to be given their stamp of approval before we could use it without shame. To them, ianguage is a dead, regimented thing, pressed between dictionary pages.
That attitude is a lot of pagenfloss. You can look up "pagenfloss" in a dictionary, but you won't find it there. I just made it up. If pressed by dictionary people, I'11 explain that it comes from the Old Czech pagien,meaning trout, and Dutch flos,meaning to ciean one's teeth with a length of twine. But that would be a lie. Ijust made it up. If someone else wants to use the word to mean happy, or sad, or gay, or straight, I won't correct them or claim copyright infringement: It's your word now. Do with it as you please.
But back to the word "gay." People can use that word as they please, so long as they don't mind snickers and stares from teachers, librarians, schoolchildren, and the ~ unhappily repressed, but if the essay writers need permission, here it is. It's decided now. Yes, they can use the word "gay." They can share. They can feel unashamed.
For those still hesitant about using the word, we can work out a system. If sameone wants to say the word "gay" and mean happy rather than attracted to their own gender, they can cough to let everyone know.
For example: "I feel gay (ahem) today. I feei as gay (ahem) as a schoolboy." This will set the straight, so to speak.
They could smile instead, but that might give the wrong impression and defeat the whole purpose. If someone wants to use the word in writing, they can mark it with an asterisk and a corresponding note at the bottom of the page:
"*Not meant to be construed as homosexual -- just happy, that's all."
There. Now repressed men everywhere can run giddily through the fields, strewing posies hither and yon and shouting, "I feel gay!" without people getting the wrong idea. They can make a joyful noise without having that noise misunderstood. Of course, if they do all that coughing, their giddiness may be mistaken for plain old strangeness.
In some ways, "queer,'' an equal-opportunity word once used for plain old strangeness, is a better term. With it you can avoid the whole argument about whether you should say, "gays and lesbians" or "lesbians and gays." Sure, alphabetically G comes before L, but there's enough hatred in the world without letting the alphabet be an excuse for more conflict.
Not too many people are going to write essays about how they'd like the word "queer" back, although it's been a tidy term for "out of sorts." True, every once in awhile someone may want to say, "I'm in a queer mood today," without referring to their sexual orientation. But they can get around that by coughing. They may even get a little sympathy that way.
I'll save "faggot" for another day. Even Dan Savage is backing away from that one. Let's face it, the general public is much slower on the uptake than Lenny Bruce, and he's dead.
© 1991 Randel Shard
First published in an earlier form in Equal Time on November 8, 1991,
and in Firsthand in January 1996.