I was interested in the line “...most Americans use the word 'gay' now instead of 'homosexual'” in Maureen Dowd’s article titled “Happily Never After?” in today’s (April 2) New York Times:

I’m worried about how the justices can properly debate same-sex marriage when some don’t even seem to realize that most Americans use the word "gay" now instead of "homosexual"; when Chief Justice John Roberts thinks gays are merely concerned with marriage as a desirable "label," and when Justice Samuel Alito compares gay marriage to cellphones.

When you say “instead of,” it gives me an impression that they are different things, for examples, “I use margarine instead of butter,” “They use acrylic panels instead of plate glass for windows” and "The new car uses aluminum instead of steel plate for the body."

However, when I checked Oxford English Dictionary, it renders “gay” as:

a.1 (of a person, especially a man) homosexual.

  1. relating to or used by homosexuals:

n. a homosexual, especially a man.

Also OALD defines Gay as:

a. (of people, especially men) sexually attracted to people of the same sex. [Syn.] HOMOSEXUAL

Aren’t “gay” and “homosexual” the same thing except “gay” being applied to men? What’s the difference between “gay” and “homosexual” other than gender attributes?

  • 1
    Many members of the non-heterosexual community deprecate gay as a generic term because they feel it renders those of their community who are not male homosexuals invisible. They prefer the term LBGT (lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgendered). Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 12:22
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    I believe that's supposed to be LGBT.
    – Joe Z.
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 12:30
  • @Joe Or LGBTQ. Or LGBTQA.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 14:31
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    Or LGBTQAQ? ("Queer and questioning" is the term, I believe.) Regardless, LGBT is the most commonly used form from what I've heard.
    – Joe Z.
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 14:40
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    Without getting into the politics of LGBT terminology, when the quote uses the word "instead" in "'gay' now instead of 'homosexual'", the author means "using the word 'gay' instead of the word 'homosexual'", because obviously the word "gay" and the word "homosexual" are in fact different things, even if they share a meaning.
    – nohat
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 21:41

6 Answers 6


Both gay and homosexual can be used for both sexes, and they mean mostly the same thing; the differences are subtle.

Probably because the word lesbian exists as well, one is slightly more likely to refer to men when using the word gay; but note that it is very often also used for women. When used as a noun, gay seems to refer to men a bit more often than as an adjective, although it is still very often used to refer to both men and women. It rather depends on context. The word homosexual seems to be completely gender-neutral.

Gay is more informal: homosexual is more formal, and so it is more likely to be used in e.g. medicine and biology. As a consequence, using homosexual can sometimes sound a little bit as if you were describing patients, as if it were some mental illness. This effect is not very strong or ubiquitous, but it is sometimes there. It is stronger when used as a noun (an homosexual, homosexuals). Note that gay is currently in the process of being used more in formal contexts too.

The word homosexual is older. Because homosexuality was long treated as a disease or at least as undesirable, some of this old negativity still clings to the word homosexual, especially as a noun. It is as if you were referring to the past, although this effect, too, is not that strong.

I think this is also the reason why the word gay came to be used (around the 1960s? earlier?) to refer to homosexuals: they wanted a more positive-sounding word. You will find that most gays will mainly use gay, except in a scientific context; and even there, homosexual as a noun has become almost impossible. If you were to say homosexuals, and you weren't over 50 or a bit reactionary in general, I would think you were joking.

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    Homo was also a common insult for a gay person when I was growing up, so I think using homosexual recalls that to some extent, as though homosexual is a thinly-veiled way to say faggot.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 12:12
  • In AmE, 'homosexual' as an adjective is non-gendered (no assumptions), 'gay' is mostly male, and 'lesbian' exclusively female. As a noun, 'a gay' is a recent usage (sounds new) and is exclusively male. And then, tangentially, if a non-person is described as 'gay', it means 'lame', 'ineffectual', or 'uncool'.
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 13:01
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    "Gay" in this sense was used as self-identifying slang as far back as the 1920s, but not in wider use until the 1950s. What's interesting is that gay as a noun is 40+ years old, but still sounds awkward.
    – Plutor
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 13:57
  • +1 for an excellent and nuanced answer. Also, see my comment in chat.
    – Robusto
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 14:09
  • And another point for the same reason given as Robusto.
    – Epiphany
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 5:46

Gay is perhaps applied more commonly to men (as both definitions state), but isn't exclusive.

As for

When you say “instead of,” it gives me an impression that they are different things

they are different things, but the "things" being discussed in your original quote are words. The statement,

"gay" and "homosexual" are different words

is evidently true. It doesn't imply they have completely different meanings, although they differ in their associations, connotations and tone.

  • One is a three-letter word starting with "g", the other is a 10-letter word starting with "h".
    – Max
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 11:56

This answer comes to you straight (hah!) from the mouth of a real live lesbian, who lived through the wars of Who Are We, Lesbians or Gay Women?

Women are lesbians. Men are gay men. So there. If you want to use the word "homosexual," then you are a doctor or scientist, or a parent who was raised in the 1930s. Or a member of Congress. Or perhaps a redneck. But then you would say "homo...sexxxxualll" and lick your lips like you were enjoying yourself.

"Homosexual" refers to men or women who bond with members of the same sex.

Anyway, gays took back the word "gay" because it was being used as a slur against them, much like the n-word, much like the word faggot (and if you are unfamiliar with the derivation of the word faggot, I suggest you run to your dictionary right now, since it is no where near as comfortable as the derivation of the word lesbian).

I will force myself to stop here, because I could ramble on forever about the use of these words. Suffice it to say that the word homosexual is an outdated term in all but the most detached scientific writing; that the word lesbian applies strictly to women; and that the word gay can refer to both men and women, but usually refers to men.



There are some who would argue that "homosexuals" are those who meet the clinical definition of being more attracted to members of the same sex than those of the opposite sex (given that most theories of sexual orientation today indicate that sexual orientation is a continuum, that heterosexuality and homosexuality are more than or less than differences rather than dichotomies).

"Gay" on the other hand designates a cultural distinction. Given the oppression that has led to the "closet," many people who are more homosexual than heterosexual do not and have never participated in the gay lifestyle or culture and may even be largely unaware of it. Those folks may be labeled homosexual but not gay, by some.

Many of my African-American/Black friends make a similar distinction with regard to their culture believing that there are folks of African origin who do not participate in the mainstream American Black culture.


It is suggested that the first use of the word "gay" in a sexual context was in a short fiction piece by Gertrude Stein:

They were ... gay, they learned little things that are things in being gay, ... they were quite regularly gay." A passage from Gertrude Stein's "Miss Furr & Miss Skeene" (1922) may be the first published use of the word to refer to a homosexual relationship. In 1951, literary critic Edmund Wilson suggested that Stein's use of "gay" referred to a homosexual relationship (quoted by James Mellow in Charmed Circle (1974). Discussed by Martha E. Stone, "Who were Miss Furr and Miss Skeene?" The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, Sept–Oct, 2002.

I came out in the mid 70s and always used the term Gay as political and social identity. I consider Homosexual a clinical or medical term. It was also used by our opposition to imply that same-sex attraction was more of a clinical issue - not a human condition.

I'm always amazed when I read an article and a person is described as an "avowed homosexual" - I never took a pledge!

During the 80 s and 90s I was more comfortable with Queer than Gay. Queer was more about taking back the language and redefining Queer as strong and proud and not willing to take shit from anyone.


Gay more commonly refers to homosexual males and lesbian more commonly refers to homosexual females, although gay may be used to describe both homosexual males and females.

Homosexual is a clinical term and used almost exclusively by right-wing and conservative politicians, judges, activists, commentators, etc. (aka bigots). It tends to imply salciousness because the word SEX sits right there in the middle--a sure attention-grabber and an implication that homoSEXuals are exclusively concerned with SEXual gratification and have no "family values" whatsoever. Never mind that SEX sits right in the middle of heteroSEXual, too.

Because it's a clinical term, though, homosexual also has a dehumanizing "lab rat" connotation to it. Those who use it hope others will perceive gays and lesbians not as real human beings but rather as mindless, unthinking machines that can't control their lustful desires. Those who always say "homosexual" are also being as disrespectful as they can without being vulgar, arguably, by not using the terms most gays and lesbian prefer. They're taking away the power of self-definiation, a sign of control and oppression, and precisely why I call them bigots.

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