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I was under the impression that gay always refers to a male homosexual, though sometimes I see this term used to describe female homosexuals (i.e. lesbians) as well. Is it correct usage? Does it depend on a dialect of English (American, Australian, etc.)?

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Well, no: if you go far enough back (and it's not that far, really — 50 years ought to do it), gay just means happy. – Marthaª Nov 10 '11 at 17:28
yes it was such a beautiful normal word, that you could use everyday. – t0ast3d Nov 10 '11 at 18:40
@t0ast3d I think it's still a "beautiful, normal word" you can use every day. – onomatomaniak Nov 10 '11 at 19:22
possible duplicate of What's a gay transsexual woman?. As the top answer there points out, this usage of gay isn't restricted to male homosexuals. – FumbleFingers Nov 10 '11 at 21:09
From The Meaning of Liff: "AINDERBY QUERNHOW (n.) One who continually bemoans the 'loss' of the word 'gay' to the English language, even though they had never used the word in any context at all until they started complaining that they couldn't use it any more." Also, Fry and Laurie: youtube.com/watch?v=HtaPaQwSQPA – ShreevatsaR Nov 11 '11 at 3:34
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Gay can refer to men and women who are sexually attracted to people of the same sex, though lesbian only refers to women who are so.

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+1. Absolutely right. I wonder if 'gaiety' will ever come to mean homosexualty? – Barrie England Nov 10 '11 at 17:21
That is true; but in many contexts it means males by default, as in Madonna is very popular in the gay scene, or a gay accent or just gays. As a pejorative adjective, it usually means effeminate, so male gay. It's complicated. – Cerberus Nov 11 '11 at 1:43

I agree with Jasper: In Salt Lake City, Utah, it is not uncommon to hear a woman describing herself as gay. So it can be non gender specific, just like the word dude.
It is OK to use it to exclaim to a woman, "dude, you rock," but if you were to say, "dude looks like a lady," that would be gender specific.

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I'm surprised there are that many gay women in Salt Lake willing to talk about their sexuality... – onomatomaniak Nov 10 '11 at 19:23
futurescopes.com/lesbian-dating/2993/… Salt Lake City is also listed as one of the more Bohemian cities in America. – Jack Arnott Nov 10 '11 at 20:03
Nice! I had no idea. – onomatomaniak Nov 10 '11 at 20:18

At least in North America the term seems to be "LGBT" which does imply that they are reserving Gay for men only.

Or it could just be the natural tendancy for any 'protest' group to split into smaller and smaller sub-groups to differentiate themselves from the other identical groups (especially the people's front of Judea!)

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I don't claim to be an expert on the subject but the fact that homosexuals routinely refer to themselves as "gays and lesbians" would imply that "gay" is considered to refer to just males. Or maybe this is one of those cases where the male term when used as a collective can include the female. Such usage is generally considered unacceptable today on the grounds that it's sexist, but I presume homosexuals are exempt from any such criticism. – Jay Nov 10 '11 at 17:46
@Jay - at least in BE I think 'gay' would still be the general term outside the sexual politics industry. I suspect the others came about as a result of some heated meetings, although the meeting of the lesbian women's collective denying gay men entry on the grounds of sexism must have been interesting! – mgb Nov 10 '11 at 17:57
If you want to be totally inclusive, the broader term is "LGBTQIA" (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, and asexual). The difficulty arises in that these initialisms aren't readily pronouncable. A common shorthand you do hear is "gay or straight," to mean homo- or heterosexual, implying that gay can include lesbian in standard discourse. If you are addressing a largely or significantly non-traditional audience, then LGBT, LBGQT, etc., may be preferred. – The Raven Nov 10 '11 at 20:25
I believe the People's Front of Judea has now splintered into two bitterly opposed factions - One Man's Front of Judea, and His Wife's Front of Judea. – FumbleFingers Nov 10 '11 at 21:16
@FumbleFingers Splitters ! – mgb Nov 10 '11 at 21:39

In my experience the term has increasingly been used only for men. It wouldn't be improper to use it to refer to women, but I've not heard the word used to refer to an individual woman in the last 10 years or so. (For a group of mixed gender it's probably more acceptable.)

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