Need a Better Word for “Gay?” Just Ask My Daughter.


220px-Punch_1857My daughter and I were in the car a few days ago, when she piped up from the backseat with a question:

“Daddy,” she asked, “why do they say Gay?”

It took me a little by surprise: “Huh? Why do who say what now?”

“If Gay is the opposite of Straight, then the word doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand why people say ‘gay’ instead of something else.”

At first, I thought she was speaking from a psychological standpoint, and I got all excited that we might have a frank discussion about the spectrum of sexuality. How smart of you to bring it up, Youngling! I was ready to say. Yes, its true that Gay and Straight aren’t actually polar opposites! In fact, many researchers believe that one’s orientation exists on a wider range and that delineating preference is a cultural phenomenon that we employ to create an archetype allowing us to blah blah blah blah blah WHY ARE YOU FALLING ASLEEP BACK THERE? Pay attention to your father!

Homosexuality and Heterosexuality aren’t directly opposing concepts, of course. That mentality has caused all manner of social problems for us. But she wasn’t thinking about that. She was just thinking in terms of word play. And it occurred to me that I myself actually didn’t know what the linguistic origin of the word “gay” is in reference to homosexuality. And whenever I discover something that The Kid and I both don’t know…

Teachable Moment Alert! To the Internet!

Normally, I sit my daughter down next to me when we hit the computer to do us some learnin’. She loves that. (Not.) But when we got home that afternoon, I decided to conduct my Wikipedia investigation solo, and then share my findings with her later. Turns out that was a wise choice.

According to Internet smart people, the word “gay” originated in England around the 12th century, and came from the French word “gai,” meaning “joyful, carefree, full of mirth, bright and showy.”

Sounds pretty familiar. I think we all knew that. It seems a bit like Renaissance Liberace coined the term, but still. I wasn’t surprised to learn this.

Over the centuries, the term molded itself into a new meaning. “Carefree” became “less inhibited,” which became “loose and immoral,” as well as “addicted to pleasures and dissipations.” Being gay meant being wanton, going against a society’s accepted moral rules, and possibly being some sort of addict.

Well. That’s a little judgmental. Moving on?

Later, in the 19th Century, the word “gay” started referring to women who were prostitutes, or men who slept with a lot of prostitutes. A verb emerged as well. To “gay it” meant to have sex. And it took on a lurkier connotation in the 1890s: a “gaycat” was a young man in the itinerant (hobo) community who went off with, er, older hobos to provide sexual favors in exchange for protection or instruction.

Huh. I did not know that. That’s sort of… porny.

It was many years later, in the 1920s and 30s, that the word “gay” began to refer to men who had sex with other men. Such behavior was linked to both foppishness and immorality.

Finally, in the 1980s, the term took on its more contemporary definition. Gay: referring to one who wears tight pants, enjoys listening to George Michael songs, and will likely die young of a horrible disease understood to be God’s punishment.

We’ve mostly moved past that last one. At least I hope we have.

Of course, the word “gay” actually lost some of its linkage to sexuality over the last few years, but has still remained derogatory. “Gay” remains an insult in many circles, albeit sometimes a nebulous one: “Dude, are you actually reading a book? That’s so gay.”

Anti-masculine? Anti-manly? Too excited about literacy? So gay.

I wasn’t sure how much of this to relay to my daughter. I sort of wanted to skip the part about gaycat hobo male prostitutes. But she brought up the conundrum of being called “gay” again herself, a few days later.

“There should be a better word for you if you’re gay,” she announced.

“Like what?” I asked, a little wary.

“Well, if you’re not straight, you’re… squiggly! That’s the opposite of straight!”

I chuckled in spite of myself. “Squiggly, huh? I’m not sure I feel squiggly.”

Her brow furrowed as she thought some more. Then her lightbulb went on again: “Wait, I know. I totally got it. If you’re not straight, you’re… ZIG-ZAG! Right? THAT makes more sense and it sounds more awesome!”

I laughed. “I like it. It sounds sort of cool, and Speed Racer-y.”

“Totally. Daddy, you’re zig-zag!”

And then she patted my head and moved on to other topics.

I’m not sure what to take away from this. For the moment, I choose to ignore the fact that this whole conversation might mean: a) my daughter’s uncomfortable with the word “gay,” b) she’s uncomfortable with the notion of gay people, or c) she’s secretly ashamed that her father is gay and therefore wants to use a different word to mask the reality of it. She could be feeling any one of those. Hell, I might be too.

But I’ll open that can of worms another day. For now, I think I’ll just be grateful for the fact that we have these conversations at all, and charmed by the fact that my daughter wants to find the right word to use on me.

She seems happy to have a father who’s Zig-Zag.

I’ll take it.

A self-portrait. Apparently.
A self-portrait. Apparently.

I can’t wait for Zig-Zag Pride Month this year. Mapping that parade route may be rough, though.


Seth Taylor writes about parenting at DadCentric, and on his own blog The Didactic Pirate. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Article Posted 4 years Ago

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