Oct 082012
David Norris

Three tiny letters that signify the final acceptance of social revolution

While I played a part in making Ireland safe for gay people, I was also interested in the way the word “gay” made its way into general acceptance. I first heard the word used in that context in the late 1960s. Before that the word was “queer”, or “ho-mo-sex-ual” – delivered in a clipped, surgical tone. I have always hated the word “queer”, as it signalled that something was wrong with a person and I considered myself a perfectly normal ordinary person.

There is a vogue in gay circles to “reclaim” that ugly word, but it will never be reclaimed for anyone of my generation. Everything about the word connotes negative images of being different mentally and physically, and of being “queer-bashed”. I accept that the English language is organic, but I will not allow myself to be called “queer” by anyone.

“Gay” was good because it was the opposite of “queer” – it was bright, assertive and positive, and it challenged people. It was astonishing to see the squeals of protest on the letters page of The Irish Times expressing a terrible angst that a gang of perverts had appropriated what was hitherto a good, wholesome word.

Little did they know the etymological descent of the word from Shakespeare’s time, when it was principally used in connection with prostitution of both sexes, although it had been sanitised by Victorian composers of sentimental verse.

There was a lot of tripe from the middle classes, who protested that although, of course, they had lots of homosexual friends, they didn’t want that word to be taken from them.

Considering the suffering that gay people had gone through, leaving aside altogether the disproportionate contribution they made to English literature from Shakespeare to Wilde, one little word out of millions didn’t seem much in the way of compensation. It became a kind of litmus test which you could use to find the real, concealed agenda.

Once we hit upon the word, the Irish Gay Rights Movement began promoting its use in reporting. From the late 1950s onwards I had compiled press cuttings of every reference to gay matters in the Irish press. Many of the early stories told of isolation, desperation and suicide, or gay men were featured in women’s magazines as shadowy figures with their features blacked out.

After the Stonewall Riots in New York, the word “gay” arrived in Ireland and things started to change. Through the material that I had assembled it is possible to trace the change in the way the word entered the mainstream of the language.

The first references came in capital letters, shrouded in inverted commas, and punctuated with a question mark – “GAY?” Gradually the ornamentation was dropped, first the inverted commas, then the question mark, before finally it made its way into lower case. Now it sits unadorned on the page, three tiny letters that signify the final acceptance of a social revolution.

David Norris

PHOTO : David Norris takes part in a Gay Pride march in Dublin in 1990. Photograph: Derek Speirs