My native language is German but I’ve been watching a lot of TV in English. During a conversation about the English language, a question about the term gay came up. Is calling a homosexual person gay offensive?

Meaning, using "gay" - not in a general contents (as asked in other questions) but to describe the sexual orientation when using it in a sentence like:

  1. Talking about someone: He/she is "gay" [...]

  2. Talking to someone: I didn't know that you're "gay" [...]

  • 2
    @RegDwighт: This is not a dupe of that. (This question is about "gay" referring to gay people; the linked question is about "gay" as a pejorative. Related, but very much distinct.)
    – ruakh
    Jul 21, 2013 at 18:30
  • Altho' the question may be different, the answers to that question do appear to address this issue.
    – TrevorD
    Jul 22, 2013 at 0:29
  • I'm offended that pop culture has hijacked a great word that originally meant "happy" to now mean something controversial and seemingly "taboo" to the oversensitive minority. Jul 22, 2013 at 6:12
  • US TV shows try to gloss over the fact that there remain a large number of people prejudiced against gays. The scripted dialogues will use the term freely, since it is perfectly acceptable in the mouths of people known a priori to be pure and prejudice-free. In actual US society, you will be discreet about using it in any situation where someone might suspect (wrongly or not) that you are prejudiced.
    – user31341
    Jul 24, 2013 at 19:14

4 Answers 4


The adjective gay is the most common term, at least in the U.S., and is not offensive on its own. (It can be used offensively, of course, by using it as an insult, or even as a generic pejorative — "my English class is so gay!" — but then the offensiveness is in the implication that gayness is an insult, rather than in the choice of gay as the word for gayness. It can also be used offensively in more subtle ways, such as consistently describing someone as "my gay friend", but again, that's not tied to the specific word gay at all.)

The noun "gay", however, is generally used only in the plural (e.g., "allowing gays to serve in the military"); use in the singular is very rare, and it's hard to guess whether someone would take ?"he's a gay" to be offensive. (The same is true of many other adjectives, such as "white" and "black"; "American blacks" is fine, ?"she's a black" is not.)

Incidentally, although homosexual is a more formal term, it may actually be more likely to be offensive; for example, if you compare the Google-search results for "gay rights groups" to those for "homosexual rights groups", you'll see that the latter has a much higher proportion of disparaging uses from the right wing (though this is far from categorical). I think this may have something to do with the history of homosexual as a clinical term for a putative mental illness.

  • I wonder why someone downvoted this answer? It answers the question accurately, I would say. Jul 21, 2013 at 16:36
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    Perhaps some female homosexuals may object to "gay" and prefer "lesbian".
    – GEdgar
    Jul 24, 2013 at 20:59

"Gay", on its face, is not a derogatory term. It's typically preferred by those to whom it applies over the term "homosexual", the technical nature of which makes this state of being sound like a communicable disease or mental illness (which, as recently as the DSM-II, seventh edition, it was, categorized as a pathological phobia of the opposite sex). In common parlance it is used more to refer to men (the term "lesbian" being gender-specific to women) but can be applied to either gender. Many advocacy groups, such as GLAAD (Gay/Lesbian Association Against Defamation) and terms they promote for use in the media (such as LGBT) incorporate this term, though this isn't to say the terms will always be acceptable for this reason; the group name often persists long after the words behind them have fallen from favor, to avoid the confusion of a rebranding of the group.

Now, any identifying term for a subset of the human population, especially those identifying a trait of the subset not shared by the majority, can be derogatory. It can be said in a condescending way, or in printed form it can be used in an unflattering context. The same words, on the other hand, can also come to be "owned" by the group of people to which the term refers, and when said by a member of that group to refer to themselves, it's acceptable to some degree even if the term is extremely offensive if said by anyone outside that subset.

These can be known as "inside" terms, whose use is only acceptable when used by a member of the group to refer to themselves or another. Many people will know the one I'm pointedly avoiding, referring to African-Americans, but this term is not unique in that category. "Queer", an old slang term for gay men, and "fag"/"faggot", originally AE slang for a wimp or unmanly person, but which came to be associated with the stereotypical "swishy" gay man, have become inside terms; still inappropriate when used by a neutral party or a "straight" person, but acceptable in context between gay men.


Gay was originally a term used by homosexuals until the straight community adopted it as a derogatory term. It was reclaimed by gays in the 70s and is now Standard Australian English. Another meaning is "daggy" or socially unacceptable, with no reference to sexuality. "That band is so gay." "What a gay haircut"

  • Did you mean dodgy?
    – tchrist
    May 25, 2014 at 12:52

As an American English speaker, I'd think that since 'gay' is primarily American English, referring to someone else in an English culture different from American as 'gay' might likely be considered offensive.

  • 4
    -1. ‘Gay’ is not primarily American English, it is the default term in most, if not all, parts of the Anglosphere. Jul 22, 2013 at 11:39
  • 5
    What makes you think that "'gay' is primarily American English"?
    – TrevorD
    Jul 22, 2013 at 11:43

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