Consider the word gay.  Blunt, yet with a bright ring, this synonym for robust mirth graced our common tongue through the centuries, from Chaucerian verse to the ballads of Cole Porter.  The music died in the late 1960’s, however, when newly “liberated” homosexuals adopted the word to describe their supposedly happy lifestyles.  Through repetition and the negative connotations the word has assumed among those who are “straight” (as opposed to crooked?), gay has become their pet word.

In January 2003, during my tenure as letters editor for the Washington Times, a fellow from the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, Rick Rosendall, submitted a letter criticizing another writer for linking male homosexuality to pedophilia.  In the service of clarity, the copy desk changed his references to gay to what that word actually signifies, homosexual (e.g., “gay and lesbian youth” became “homosexual youth”).  Otherwise, Mr. Rosendall’s excoriation of “homophobes” and the “hateful political agenda” of the “intolerant religious right” ran almost verbatim and got top billing on the letter roster.  Just another day of giving our gentle readers their say, I thought as I punched out, if I thought anything at all.

The next day, when I noticed that I had received an e-mail from Mr. Rosendall, I thought it would be a thank-you for running his letter.  Not quite.  “This [substitution of words] is such a relic, I cannot believe you would insist on doing this,” he declared.  “Why can’t you let people speak in their own voices, short of obscenity?”  Taken aback and never one to dither in delicacy, I fired back: “Per the Times’ policy against Orwellian abuse of the English language, the euphemism ‘gay’ is not used to describe the homosexual lifestyle.”  Calling a spade a spade stuffed a beehive under Mr. Rosendall’s bonnet, but what the heck: You have to make a stand for the right when you get the chance.  Besides, another day confined to the drab, windowless editorial room could use a little excitement, and I was interested to see where this ball would bounce.

Next, the ball bounced to my superiors.  Mr. Rosendall informed them of “my” “outrageous violation of journalistic standards” that had “significantly colored the viewpoint” he had expressed.  (Evidently, the root word of “homophobe,” the epithet Mr. Rosendall bandied about, did not occur to him.)  “Even the Gray Lady, the New York Times, got over its stuffiness about the term a decade ago,” he wrote.  Presumably, the Washington Times also would have to print “gay marriage” announcements, should it want to be as hip as the hoary broad.  (Thankfully, it has not.)

By that time, Mr. Rosendall had put out an APB on me to his fellow travelers, which elicited a bevy of responses.

Samuel S. Croft of Washington informed me,

I, sir, am not a euphemism, I am a GAY Man.  Call me anything else to my face and I would be hard pressed not to belt you in the jaw.  You are the type of person that shakes your hand, looks you in the eye and slips a knife between your ribs.  You, sir, are a criminal.

An employee at the Lambda Rising bookstore in Dupont Circle wrote (presumably with a straight face) that I left him with a bad taste in his mouth.

On a lighter note, an officer friendly from the D.C. police, Sgt. Brett Parson, informed me that the DCPD has had a “Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit” since June 2000.  Well, fancy that: a notoriously corrupt police force that bungles the majority of murder cases (“Chandra?  Chandra who?”) being cutting-edge where it counts.

Next, Metro Weekly Magazine ran coverage featuring a mug shot of Mr. Rosendall ( that illustrates beyond the power of words how far gay has drifted from its linguistic moorings.  “It makes the Times look petty and silly and desperate,” Mr. Rosendall said, referring to a matter that no one else had independently remarked upon until Mr. Rosendall’s media blitz.  He also admitted that, while he considers gay to be a synonym for homosexual, “homosexual just sounds clinical.”  (In other words, gay is a euphemism, that is, a word employed to disguise an unbeautiful reality.)  This was no hit piece, however, and the article quoted Francis Coombs, the Times’ managing editor, defending the Times’ dedication to “preservation of the language” from faddish changes.

By now, everyone was weighing in: a characteristically paradoxical Andrew Sullivan charging me with failure to maintain “linguistic honesty and simplicity”; Independent Gay Forum columnist Stephen H. Miller calling me “a thoroughly, even laughably, reactionary letters editor”; and even Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post media columnist, noting the affair.  Although Mr. Kurtz recounted the bare facts, merely featuring this story in his high-profile column must have dropped the cherry on the generous dollop of whipped cream already on Mr. Rosendall’s sundae.

It is Mr. Miller’s comment, however, that deserves the final say.  As laughable as it may be, only a corpse (or dead soul) fails to react to potentially harmful stimuli.  Defending language against perversion was the stimulus here—the necessary response after the issue had been forced, even on so minor an incident.  As Orwell shows us, the perversion of language is a form of intellectual dishonesty that sows confusion and may even accommodate outright evil.  But thanks to “straights” acquiescing to word perversion—to demand honesty would not be “nice”—gay is a damaged word that, if used at all, should not be employed as a meaningless euphemism.  For pricking the veneer of “gay pride” tends to expose some truly unhappy campers.