January 21, 2013

He said "gay"


Like many, I gasped at the use of the word "gay" in the President's Inaugural Speech.

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. 

I can't say it better than Frank Bruni, so let me just quote from his column in the Times: 
 “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall," the president said, taking a rapt country on a riveting trip to key theaters in the struggle for liberty and justice for all.
Seneca Falls is a New York town where, in 1848, the women’s suffrage movement gathered momentum. Selma is an Alabama city where, in 1965, marchers amassed, blood was shed and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood his ground against the unconscionable oppression of black Americans. And Stonewall? This was the surprise inclusion, separating Obama’s oratory and presidency from his predecessors’ diction and deeds. It alludes to a gay bar in Manhattan that, in 1969, was raided by police, who subjected patrons to a bullying they knew too well. After the raid came riots, and after the riots came a more determined quest by L.G.B.T. Americans for the dignity they had long been denied.
He went on, seconds later, to explicitly mention “gay” Americans, saying a word never before uttered in inaugural remarks. What shocked me most about that was how un-shocking it was. Four years ago we lived in a country in which citizens of various states had consistently voted against the legalization of same-sex marriage. But on Nov. 6, the citizens of all three states that had the opportunity to legalize gay marriage at the ballot box did so, with clear majorities in Maryland, Maine and Washington endorsing it. Four years ago the inaugural invocation was given by a pastor with a record of antigay positions and remarks. This year, a similar assignment was withdrawn from a pastor with a comparable record, once it came to light. What’s more, an openly gay man was chosen to be the inaugural poet, and in news coverage of his biography, his parents’ exile from Cuba drew more attention than his sexual orientation. That’s how far we’ve come.

One reason the President has come this far is that, unexpectedly, Vice President Biden made him accelerate his stride. A year ago, the President's views on marriage equality were still officially "evolving", when Vice President Biden declared in an interview that he was "absolutely comfortable" with gay marriage. What could the President do but announce his support as well?

The word "gay" has come a long way itself. According to the OED, it was first used as a praise for women (14th century), it was then used more generally, always with positive connotations. Its second meaning, "bright or lively looking," developed in parallel and was often applied to someone's appearance. "Gay people" dedicated themselves to social pleasure. Poetry was referred to as "the gay science" in the 17th century. Its current meaning, "homosexual," developed in the 20th century in the US. As a first reference, the OED lists a text by Gertrude Stein. It took on the additional meaning "lame" or "foolish" in the 1980s. Will we see an excerpt from the Inauguration Speech added to the entry for "gay" in the OED soon?

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