Too Gay for the Times
By Jon Roth
Ralph Blumenthal's anecdote in The New York Times "City Room" blog has us thinking about words, words, words. In 1972, after he covered a gay rights march from Greenwich Village to Central Park, Blumenthal and his editors were speaking a different language: "I was cautioned, it was not the gay march, it was the homosexual march," he recalls.
The NYT stylebook could not be crossed. The headline ran "March Is Staged By Homosexuals." (Not only is the headline stuffy, but it makes the activists passive!)
It could have been worse. For hundreds of years, the closest approximation to homosexual was sodomite – which no one wanted to be called, as the punishment was often execution (and still is, in some countries). It wasn't until the 1880s that homosexual popped up in the work of German writers like Richard von Krafft-Ebing .
Homosexual won out over terms like invert (which connoted backwardness) and Uranian (which sounds like an alien species to us). But homosexual wasn't perfect either: it's a clinical term, and it describes sexual attraction, but not love.
Then there was gay, a word the community adopted as its own during the first half of the 20th century. Some people credit Gertrude Stein with giving it a Sapphic spin, some pin it on Noel Coward. Movie buffs like to reference 1938's Bringing Up Baby, when Cary Grant, attired in a frothy feathered robe, cites a fit of gayness as an excuse.
Gay as a label was more self-defining and rooted in a specific culture, without the pejorative tang of homosexuality (which, in 1972 when Blumenthal was reporting, was still listed as a disorder by by the American Psychological Association). These days, most major style books use gay, including The New York Times.
By the 1990s, queer entered the lexicon as a reclaimed word that eschewed neatly defined LGBT labels. Used predominantly by younger generations, it's sometimes seen as a reaction to oppressive mainstream gay and lesbian communities.
Basically, give us a label, and we're sure to pick a new one after a few decades.
Though just plain 'people' sounds like a nice simple descriptor to us.