“A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.” Raymond Chandler
Before the advent of the interweb, I frequented libraries and secondhand bookstores in search of good short stories, my appetite for cuentos pequeños insatiable. I am not keen on most contemporary short stories that find their way into mass media print, so I mainly feed on authors dead and obscure.
When I was living in Berkeley in the 1990’s, I came upon a library cache of short story anthologies published annually in the 1920’s and 1930’s, hardbound volumes featuring now mostly forgotten literary darlings of America and England. Many of the stories were well written, in stark contrast to their equivalents today, though few of the stories were great. And in every volume there was a story by Gertrude Stein, though the word story does not do justice to her conglomerations of words, for her conglomerations do not tell tales so much as they weave verbal webs that may mean something to someone, but mean very little to me.
However, whilst devouring these relatively ancient anthologies, I came upon a particular Gertrude Stein story that excited me tremendously, for I felt I had discovered the origin of the current meaning of the word gay. The story is entitled Miss Furr & Miss Skeene and featured the use of gay in the following manner.
“…she liked to stay in one place and be gay there. They were together then and traveled to another place and stayed there and were gay there. They were quite regularly gay there, Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene, they were regularly gay there where they were gay. They were very regularly gay. They were regular then, they were gay then, they were where they wanted to be then where it was gay to be then, they were regularly gay then. They were gay, they learned little things that are things in being gay, they were gay…” Etc. Ad nauseam
I admit to skimming Ms. Stein’s prose, but even in skimming what academics used to call “stream of consciousness” and now refer to as “grammar fields” or “grammarscapes”, I was aware that repeating the word gay so many times in succession did, indeed, change the word from an adjective to a quasi-noun.
I know I was not the first to hypothesize that Miss Furr & Miss Skeene was the grammatical edifice that established a new meaning for the word gay, but for several years my “discovery” caused minor sensations at Berkeley soirees where I was apparently miles ahead in that particular trivial pursuit. Today the interweb is rife with celebratory stories about Stein’s story being the first to use gay to mean what gay means today.
“You think I’m going to leave you alone with a strange Italian? He might be a tenor!” spoken by Fred Astaire in The Gay Divorcee
I confess that before gay meant homosexual, I loved that gay meant carefree. I loved gay in poems by William Carlos Williams about birds singing. I loved gay in front of the word divorcee, meaning a happy person freed from an oppressive union, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I loved gay when it meant the opposite of blue when blue meant sad. “I was feeling so blue until my baby came back and now I’m gay.”
But what are you going to do? Language morphs. Were Gertrude Stein to come back today, I presume she would be pleasantly surprised by the expression “gays and lesbians,” because aren’t lesbians gay? Well, yes and no. According to my up-to-date politically correct gay and lesbian sources, gays are male homosexuals, and lesbians are female homosexuals. However, a lesbian can be gay, but she cannot be a gay. That is, gay now means two different but related things. Gay can be an adjective meaning homosexual, or if someone is a gay, he is a male homosexual. Thus the expression gays and lesbians is not a contradiction or a redundancy, though it might be a paradox.
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Carl Rogers
The latest news swirling around the definition of gay is that many gays and lesbians are deeply concerned about the widespread and growing and indiscriminate use of the expression, That is so gay, in which gay no longer overtly means homosexual, but rather means wimpy or weak or silly or stupid or lame, which, according to gay rights advocates, makes the word gay in the expression that is so gay a barely veiled attack on gays and lesbians and everything gay.
Man oh man. I mean woman oh woman. I mean person oh person. The definition of gay just gets curiouser and curiouser. Words, words, words. Who can explain them, who can tell you why? Fools give you answers, wise men never try.
“Hello lamp post, what ya knowin’? I come to watch your flowers growin’. Ain’t you got no rhymes for me? Do do do do…feelin’ groovy.” Paul Simon
Despite that song, I’ve been trying to bring back the word groovy for the last twenty years. But no matter how often and appropriately I use groovy, people invariably smirk or snort. Now why is that? Groovy is not only a groovy sounding word, groovy conveys a right-on-ness and musicality and, well, grooviness that no other word can convey. I know, I know, you associate groovy with other words from a time you’d rather forget or misremember, but compare groovy to the expression that is so gay and groovy is Shakespeare whereas that is so gay is barely Stephen King.
Speaking of short stories, here are the names of several fantastic short story writers (most of them dead) I’ve been gorging on of late. Some of these writers were openly gay, some closeted, some carefree, some burdened with guilt and sorrow and confusion. Some were flaming heterosexuals, some less flaming. Some were probably bisexual. Three are women, though only Edith is obviously so.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Guy de Maupassant, Edith Wharton, Somerset Maugham, Isak Dinesen, Paul Bowles, John Steinbeck, Frank O’Connor, A.S. Byatt, V.S. Pritchett, William Trevor, D.H. Lawrence, Anton Chekov.
(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2010)