When ‘Gay’ Was Verboten at the New York Times

There was a time when the word “gay” only appeared in the New York Times when it was in a quote or title. While we take it for granted that most journalists will use the term “gay” in compliance with the AP Stylebook, it hasn’t always been the case.  In a nice post in the New York TImes‘ City Room blog, Richard Blumenthal recounts covering the first post-Stonewall gay pride marches in New York and how he wasn’t able to use the term “gay.”

The homosexual march?

I dreaded to write that. Even then it marked me as woefully out of step with the zeitgeist. There was a leaden quality to the phrase, a sniffy retrograde disapproval.

No, I objected, they call themselves gays.

Gays? Now it was an editor’s turn at consternation. Gay meant happy. Were they happy? No, they were homosexuals.

We went on like that for awhile. It was an argument I was destined to lose. Times usage was dictated by the paper’s stylebook. The stylebook was not on my side.

Still, I could use gays under one condition, the editor decreed. When it was part of a name or a direct quote. Even The Times wouldn’t presume to turn the Gay Activists Alliance into the Homosexual Activists Alliance.

And so it was. The article, to my mortification, intermingled the terms homosexual and gay. To the gays, they were gays. But to the newspaper and me, they had to be homosexuals (although gay, because it was a nice short word, crept into a subhead).

While the paper is now considered by many–both supporters and critics–as a paper that consistently focuses on LGBT lives, it hasn’t always been the case. It would be 1987, after the departure of Abe Rosenthal, before the paper replaced the term “homosexual” with “gay.” It is at the same time that “gay” was considered permissible by the Associated Press.

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