If one clicks through to the entry pages from Germany, one can see that many Deutsche let Google Translate do the heavy lifting.
But Google gets tongue-tied translating queerspeak. Take this sentence from a recent post:
We often [do this] when we're feeling a bit gay, in the homosexual sense of the word.
The algorithm translated it as:
Wir [tun dies] oft, wenn wir ein bisschen Gefühl Homosexuell sind, in der homosexuellen Sinne des Wortes.
I played around with Google Translate for a little while. It wouldn't translate gay as bunte, hell or frölich, meaning bright, colourful, happy or carefree, no matter what. No, a house painted in gay colours, always becomes a house painted in homosexual colours.
Don't write this off to the crudity of online translation. Google had no such trouble with the word gaily; it ascribes no sexual meaning to the adverb, the same as in English. (This might have proved tricky, since adverbs are among the few elements of English grammar more complex than the equivalent German.) And it had no trouble with the double meaning of the word queer. Google does not mistake a queer bar for a queer noise from your car's diff.
You know what this means, don't you?
It means we've won.
Google doesn't pull this stuff out of its cyber-ass. Google looks at billions of sentences every day. This is mainstream speech. We've got gay, dammit!
Furthermore, Google Translate made gay respectable. It didn't use the German schwul, a mild vulgarity. In 1914, pioneering Berlin sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld lay the seeds of the term when he repeated the old wive's tale that gay men tended to have warmer skin. (Traditionally, a German would refer to his male lover as a "warm brother"). Schwul is a corruption of schwül, which can mean wet, close or muggy. To use Schwul would suggest the local chapter of Moist Liberation meets in a humid bar
What's second prize?
Yeah, we've won. Meh.
All this moaning over the word gay belies the fact that this stupid little word sat around idle for a century.
Nobody has talked about a nosegay for decades. In This Joint is Jumpin', Fats Waller sang that a rent party was "ten times higher than gay". But that was 1929. By mid century, the word had been quarantined to campy songs in musicals, usually sung by the female juvenile lead. Think Maria in West Side Story, or Nellie Forbush in South Pacific (Nellie Forbush. How obvious can you get?) Some used gay to mean hedonistic, uninhibited or louche—giving it a pejorative sexual twist. A gay house was a brothel, and a gay Lothario was a male libertine. A tone of distaste and disapproval pushed the word onto our team, as it were.
Gays have rehabbed the word, and now it means...well, us. Most people use it in a matter-of-fact way. It's almost neutral.
Almost. For some, gay means sad or lame. Especially to teen boys going through their anti-emo, wannabe-thug stage.
As more gay men and women tell their stories, sadness and struggle often emerge as themes. One could be mistaken for thinking every gay's life story contains tragedy—perhaps, in our current culture, it must.
Look at the thoroughly admirable (and absolutely necessary) It Gets Better Project. Storytellers know that the reason happily ever after ends tales is because happiness, while nice to experience, is pretty dull to watch. The Better bits, with the best will in the world, don't grab you like the bits describing how it was worse.
Frankly, that's unavoidable. Physical and psychological brutality against gay men and lesbians is so commonplace that it must feature in recounting our experiences. Besides, the only way we will rally the indifferent mainstream into active support is through arousing their emotions.
But all this tugging at the heartstrings might make us seem, as the youngsters say, gay. In our culture, powerful and angry earns more followers than powerless and sad. Dan Savage, founder the It Gets Better Project, manages this aspect carefully. In his public statements, he guides our response toward action, away from pity.
And even those who use the word as an everyday term for homosexual can't quite shake some of the baggage. To me, gay still holds echoes of flippant, unimportant, silly, immature, fluffy.
As I've said before, I'd rather be thought unimportant than immoral. And with all its faults, I'd rather be a gay man than a faggot, fruit, pillow-biter, Mary, nellie, pansy, nancy, sissy, turd-burglar, shirt-lifter, cock-, ass- or butt-pirate.
Of course, we can make all those terms neutral through usage, too. When will we remove the stigma attached to effeminacy, and ditch the assumptions we make about masculinity? When will words like cocksucker and sodomite be simple descriptions of behaviour rather than a condemnation of one's character?
(As I reflect on the last couple of paragraphs, I'm warming to the term -pirate. It's suggests an all-male environment. There's a sense of being an outsider, thumbing your nose at authority. Yet a pirate remains morally in the right, somehow—one becomes a thief out of desperation or wickedness, but piracy is a calling. Pirates act butch, but ain't afraid to wear earrings—their deportment drips with sexual transgression. Gay men of my generation claimed the pirate shirt and fulsome moustache as their own. Everybody loves pirates. Swab the dicks, me hearties!)
The hijacking of gay causes outrage, but pride slipped through the cracks.
Like gay, pride was a word that lounged around with its feet up until homosexuals took it out for a run. Pride smacks of immodesty; the correct response to someone complimenting you on an achievement is oh, it's nothing. It's uncool to try too hard. Proud people just stroke their own egoes.
Religious circles roundly condemn the word, since (at least on paper) "pride" is a sin. Fundies seem confused by the term gay pride. Why should we want to claim a sin as a virtue?
Even sympathetic straights get their knickers in a twist. "If you were born gay," they reason, "it's no achievement. There's no such thing as straight pride. Why are you proud to be gay?"
"Are you ashamed to be straight," I ask?
"No," they say.
"Precisely", I reply.
If one earns the right to pride only from personal accomplishments, then to be an open happy homosexual man or woman surely qualifies. It's easier than it was, but it still ain't a picnic.
In my own coming out, I experienced little resistance or condemnation, but it still took work. Work, inside my own head and heart. Work that took a long, long time. Courage? Maybe, maybe not. But certainly effort; effort which improved my character. Can I be proud? I leave that for others to judge. But, yeah. I feel proud of making that journey.
Let's get down to brass tacks. Right now, we need a new gay word.
Repetition of a word is not just a rhetorical device, it's a psychological tactic. If we use positive language around being gay, and don't allow ourselves to be trapped in the habit of irony, we can do our cause some good.
It's time we stole a word that the language hasn't orphaned already. One which the straight world values, and must sacrifice as a gesture of goodwill.
Here's the need. More jurisdictions recognise gay rights than ever before. Many, however, have moved in the opposite direction. How do we describe the difference between the two?
It should be an adjective. Since authorities may recognise more rights, or fewer, the adjective must be capable of degree. (Unlike, say, unique, dead or pregnant.)
You need to use the word in a sentence like this:
"Since it passed the gay marriage law, New York is much more "——" than Alabama."
Terms like just or progressive are too broad. Phrases like "gay-friendly" are both awkward and weak. This is more than just casual friendliness we're talking about.
It would be tempting to do a Santorum, another Savage invention. Can we take a homophobe's name and repurpose it, to make a point? But the point, then, is about the homophobe, not the cause. Not right.
Same goes for destigmatising an existing word. The point of this exercise is to take a new, baggage-free word and convert it to gay use. We clutch at bad words, simply because nobody else wants them. Let's stop that.
We need to adopt a word that's powerful. Is New York more juggernaut, high-caliber, horsepower, avalanche or Red Bull than Alabama?
We need to adopt a word that's righteous. Is New York more solar, low-emission, responsible, or Nelson Mandela than Alabama?
We need to adopt a word that's heroic. Is New York more freedom, Everest, liberation, or Wolverine than Alabama?
Perhaps we might adopt a word that refers to something everyone in the world likes. Is New York more sushi, pandas, Mad Men or brown-paper-packages-tied-up-in-string than Alabama?
I look forward to your suggestions.
* * * * *
The gay knitting wool ad was lifted from a post by Dr. Gloria Brame at the Bilerico Project—many thanks, Gloria! All others were taken at New York Pride in 2003.