Last chance to gay
Can we eulogize the old sense of a term that has come a very long way?
This is the second in an occasional series of posts on the death and revival of particular terms and idioms. At some point each post might become a chapter in an as-yet unwritten book called Last Chance To Say. This post explains more about the concept:
I am too young to remember a time when the word 'gay' wasn't primarily associated with same-sex attraction. But I am old enough to remember a time when the word could still sometimes mean jolly, lively or happy, even if these usages were rapidly passing into history. I was born in the 70s and reached maturity at the end of the 80s. During that time, you would inevitably encounter the non-sexual kind of gaiety in books, films and music produced only a few years before.
This newly-minted consensus as to what gay predominantly meant, also allowed for a certain frisson of ambiguity; a sense that gayness could mean more than one thing.
Take Larry Grayson, one of the most popular entertainers of the 70s and 80s. These days, watching videos of his camp-as-Christmas act, it is hard to believe that he wasn't actually 'out', but that was indeed the case (although he wasn't closeted enough to pretend he was straight). One of his most popular catchphrases was 'what a gay day', also the title track of his 1972 album of the same name.
The record is an extraordinary period piece. While one track 'My Friend Everard' appears to be a tender tribute to same-sex friendship, the title track proclaims the gayness of the day only in relation to ridiculous everyday dramas. Grayson's gayness is still bound to the older meaning of the term; where to exclaim 'what a gay day!' is to find lightness in the travails of the quotidian. Grayson sparked mirth through the simultaneous rejection and acceptance of newer associations of the word.
Of course, this gossamer-thin deniability did not satisfy homophobes. One common trope of the resistance to gay visibility was to moan that: 'Gay is such a lovely word! How dare the gays mire it in filth!' You might think that such complaints have passed into history - even homophobes have to acknowledge that the older usage has long been superseded - but I did find online a letter to The Oklahoman from 2000 that stated that 'they [homosexuals] have ruined a term that was so proudly and favorably used by our ancestors'.
While homophobes have not succeeded in turning back the linguistic tide, they have succeeded in poisoning the word. Gay is now a common slang term - largely, but not exclusively, used by young people - for weak, lame or lousy. While it is quite likely that the ubiquity of this use means that some openly gay young people and their straight peers may use it without seeing the contradiction, it's certainly not a flattering association.
I also suspect that the gay-meaning-lively use of the term may well be unknown to young people today (unless they have a penchant for older books, films and so on). So I suppose that those who railed against the dirtying of innocent gaity may comfort themselves that gays are still associated with negative traits.
In this context, to look for remnants today of the older usage may seem either futile or homophobic. Still, when a word's meaning shifts, there is inevitably a loss of something. We don't have to mourn it but we should acknowledge it. And gay did connote something that no one replacement term can quite capture.
The homophobes were right in one sense: Gay is/was a lovely term. It connotes larks on the croquet lawn on a warm sunny day, tipsy laughter at a cocktail party, snowballs and hot chocolate on a snowy Christmas morning.
The associations I have for old-style gaiety are themselves archaic and vaguely upper class. That's understandable as the only times I encounter the term are in old movies and books. At the same time, I wonder whether the archaism goes beyond the age of the source material. Perhaps the word gay resonated more strongly when life was more buttoned up; when the boundaries of permissible behaviour were more tightly-drawn and gaiety of even the most innocent sort was a wonderful release. Can those of us who have spent our entire lives in a more permissive society truly understand what it was to be gay (in any sense)? I'm not sure.
That isn't to say that the world is any more cheerful or joyful than it was decades ago. I sometimes think that there is a relentless seriousness to our manic contemporary revels. Today's libidinous dancefloor can be a space of fevered sexual pressure; and while I don't think that sex was invented in the 1960s, the 1920s tea dance might have been lighter in some respects; gayer in fact.
The seriousness of permissive society is paradoxical. 'Liberation', sexual or otherwise, may require an austere commitment to reshaping society. And liberation, if it is achieved, can be a liberation into the dull routines of everyday life. The struggle for gay liberation has allowed gay couples to start families and embrace the unremarkable. That's an incredible achievement; it's also not very gay.
Of course, the association of same-sex attraction with gaiety was itself paradoxical. I recently read Paul Baker's fascinating book Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain's Secret Gay Language. Polari, which was incubated within multiple British underground milieu, became in the first half of the twentieth century a marker of gay identity and a means of escaping state and other forms of surveillance. Full of cheeky and often highly-sexual wordplay, Polari constructed pre-decriminalisation gay subculture as a space that was at once flamboyant and secretive. Camp performance went along with persecution and furtiveness.
The term gay is (as I understand it) not a specific Polari term, but it certainly seems to embody something of the defiant lightness of Polari culture. Another paradox here is that political gay activism, as it emerged in the 1970s, embraced the term (over alternatives like the quasi-medical 'homosexual') but often rejected playful camp. Use of Polari rapidly declined as there was less need for secrecy and also because many gay activists loathed it's flamboyance. Larry Grayson, as well as other obviously-gay-but-closeted performers such as John Inman, often got a hard time from gay activists who refused to be stereotyped as effeminate and laughable. And there was nothing gay about the 1980s as HIV/AIDS decimated a minority that still suffered persecution despite the decriminalisation.
Baker does note that Polari might be making a comeback as a new generation emerges that has not faced the same dilemmas as their ancestors. There's even a Polari bible. Perhaps the word gay has been so shorn of its older connotations that people who are gay are free to decide whether or not they want to embrace some of that archaic gaiety. Maybe one day we will see a self-conscious gay-led revival of the older sense of gay. That would be a deliciously paradoxical response to the 'you ruined gay' accusations of the homophobes.
It's not for me to decide what people who are gay do with the term, or how they choose to identify themselves. I have no desire to 'reclaim' gayness for those of us who are straight. I can survive perfectly well with other synonyms for gaiety.
All that said, I would still love to dig deeper to find people who still use gay in the old sense but do not do so to make an homophobic statement. I suspect if such people do exist they are likely to be old. Yet such is the anarchic flux of today's online culture and fluid identities, I wouldn't bet against the possibility that somewhere there exists a little milieu that has self-consciously decided to say gay.
Maybe also we have now reached the point where, in some circles at least, the association of gayness with same-sex attraction is so benign that the occasional use of the older sense of the term is not so loaded with significance. The most recent non-ironic us of gay in the old sense that I could find is 'Happy Working Song', from the 2007 Disney movie Enchanted:
And you’ll trill a cheery tune in the tub
As we scrub a stubborn mildew stain
Lug a hairball from the shower drain
To the gay refrain
Of a happy working song
It's a lovely tune - fantastically gay in fact:
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