The definition of Gay is a term that primarily refers to a homosexual person or the trait of being homosexual.
The term was originally used to refer to feelings of being "carefree", "happy", or "bright and showy". The term's use as a reference to homosexuality may date as early as the late 19th century, but its use gradually increased in the 20th century. In modern English, "gay" has come to be used as an adjective, and as a noun, referring to the people (LGBT community), especially to males, and the practices and cultures associated with homosexuality.
The word gay arrived in English during the 12th century from Old French gai, most likely deriving ultimately from a Germanic source. For most of its life in English, the word's primary meaning was "joyful", "carefree", "bright and showy", and the word was very commonly used with this meaning in speech and literature. For example, the optimistic 1890s are still often referred to as the Gay Ninties. The title of the 1938 French ballet Gaîté Parisienne ("Parisian Gaiety"), which became the 1941 Warner Brothers movie, The Gay Parisian, also illustrates this connotation. It was apparently not until the 20th century that the word began to be used to mean specifically "homosexual", although it had earlier acquired sexual connotations.
The word may have started to acquire associations of immorality as early as the 14th century, and had certainly acquired them by the 17th. By the late 17th century it had acquired the specific meaning of "addicted to pleasures and dissipations", an extension of its primary meaning of "carefree" implying "uninhibited by moral constraints." A gay woman was a prostitute, a gay man a womanizer and a gay house a brothel.
The use of gay to mean "homosexual" was in origin merely an extension of the word's sexualised connotation of "carefree and uninhibited", which implied a willingness to disregard conventional or respectable sexual mores. Such usage is documented as early as the 1920s, and there is evidence for it before the 20th century, although it was initially more commonly used to imply heterosexually unconstrained lifestyles, as in the once-common phrase "gay lothario", or in the title of the book and film The Gay Falcon (1941), which concerns a womanizing detective whose first name is "Gay." Similarly, Gilbert and MacDermott's music hall song of the 1880s, "Charlie Dilke Upset the Milk" – "Master Dilke upset the milk/When taking it home to Chelsea;/ The papers say that Charlie's gay/Rather a wilful wag!" – referred to Sir Charles Dilkes's alleged heterosexual impropriety. Well into the mid 20th century a middle-aged bachelor could be described as "gay", indicating that he was unattached and therefore free, without any implication of homosexuality. This usage could apply to women too. The British comic strip Jane was first published in the 1930s and described the adventures of Jane Gay. Far from implying homosexuality, it referred to her free-wheeling lifestyle with plenty of boyfriends (while also punning on Lady Jane Grey).
Shift to homosexual
By the mid-20th century, gay was well established in reference to hedonistic and uninhibited lifestyles and its antonym straight, which had long had connotations of seriousness, respectability, and conventionality, had now acquired specific connotations of heterosexuality. In the case of gay, other connotations of frivolousness and showiness in dress ("gay apparel") led to association with camp and effeminacy. This association no doubt helped the gradual narrowing in scope of the term towards its current dominant meaning, which was at first confined to subcultures. Gay was the preferred term since other terms, such as queer, were felt to be derogatory. Homosexual is perceived as excessively clinical, since the sexual orientation now commonly referred to as "homosexuality" was at that time a mental illness diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM).
In mid-20th century Britain, where male homosexuality was illegal until the Sexual Offense Act 1967, to openly identify someone as homosexual was considered very offensive and an accusation of serious criminal activity. Additionally, none of the words describing any aspect of homosexuality were considered suitable for polite society. Consequently, a number of euphemisms were used to hint at suspected homosexuality. Examples include "sporty" girls and "artistic" boys, all with the stress deliberately on the otherwise completely innocent adjective.
The sixties marked the transition in the predominant meaning of the word gay from that of "carefree" to the current "homosexual". By 1963, a new sense of the word gay was known well enough to be used by Albert Ellis in his book The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Man-Hunting. Similarly, Hubert Selby, Jr. in his 1964 novel Last To Exit to Brooklyn, could write that a character "took pride in being a homosexual by feeling intellectually and esthetically superior to those (especially women) who weren't gay..." Later examples of the original meaning of the word being used in popular culture include the theme song to the 1960–1966 animated TV series The Flinstones, whereby viewers are assured that they will "have a gay old time." Similarly, the 1966 Herman's Hermits song "No Milk Today", which became a Top 10 hit in the UK and a Top 40 hit in the U.S. and included the lyric "No milk today, it was not always so / The company was gay, we'd turn night into day." In June 1967, the headline of the review of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album in the British daily newspaper The Times stated, "The Beatles revive hopes of progress in pop music with their gay new LP". Yet in the same year, The Kinks recorded "David Watts". Ostensibly about schoolboy envy, the song also operated as an in-joke, as related in Jon Savage's "The Kinks: The Official Biography", because the song took its name from a homosexual promoter they'd encountered who'd had romantic designs on songwriter Ray Davies' teenage brother; and the lines "he is so gay and fancy free" attest to the ambiguity of the word's meaning at that time, with the second meaning evident only for those in the know. As late as 1970, the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show has the demonstrably straight Mary Richards' downstairs neighbor, Phyllis, breezily declaiming that Mary is, at age 30, still "young and gay."
Modern Day EditToday the topic of Gay Rights is seen as extremely controversial, and many countries and communities still do not accept the idea of homosexuality. Only recently has America made it illegal to discriminate against sexuality. Many religions shun homosexuals, and in some countries it is illegal to be gay. Hopefully, with the passing of time, the concept of homosexuality will become more widely accepted.