If you looked up the word “gay" in a dictionary of the 1920s, you would find it defined thus: “excited with merriment, lively". The entry for gay in a modern dictionary shows how the meaning has changed. Its primary meaning today is “homosexual", and dictionaries label the older meaning as “dated". Gay is the preferred name by which male homosexuals want to be known; it is neutral and not accusatory.

The corresponding name for a woman is “lesbian". The word has an interesting history. In the seventh century BC, there lived in Greece a poet named Sappho. She wrote lyrics expressing her passionate love for other women. She wrote lines like, “Come back to me, Gongyla, here tonight, You my rose with your Lydian lyre" (translated by Paul Roche). As a result, the word Sapphic came to refer to a woman who is sexually and emotionally interested in other women. Sappho lived in an island called Lesbos, and “lesbian" is derived from this name.

More than two thousand years later, William Shakespeare wrote a sequence of over 150 sonnets. Of these, 126 are love poems addressed to a “fair lord" or “fair youth". Some scholars see here evidence of the Bard’s inclination to homosexuality. In sonnet 18, the poet calls the young man “master-mistress of my passion".

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Indian legend, too, has characters with different kinds of sexual orientation. In the Mahabharata, Arjuna becomes Brihannala, a transgender dancer. Sikhandi was born as a girl; she grew up as a man and married a woman. Moving from literature and legend to real life, we have Oscar Wilde, who was sentenced to two years’ hard labour for “gross indecency", a synonym for homosexuality. In the 1895 trial, the prosecution produced a parade of young male witnesses with whom Wilde had allegedly been carnally associated. The word sodomy was used in court, but was considered unprintable. The newspapers, therefore, came up with negative words such as improper, indecent, immoral and unnatural. These helped to brand Wilde a criminal, and to link art with immorality in the public mind. Then there is the novelist E.M. Forster, whose sexual orientation was widely commented on, especially after the posthumous publication of Maurice, a novel with homosexuality as the central theme.

Attitudes had to change, and since the middle of the 20th century, there have been movements in different parts of the world for the recognition of the rights of gay and lesbian people. The abbreviation LGBT, for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, is widely used today to refer to people with a non-heterosexual orientation.

Language adapted itself to the changes. Instead of speaking about perversion or deviance or crime against nature, people used the term “sexual orientation". Till the 1960s, gay and lesbian couples were secretive about their sexual preferences because society regarded their behaviour as sick or sinful. By articulating their demand for social equality, they tried to come “out of the closet". By 1974, the movement had succeeded in persuading the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its category of mental disorders.

In his US presidential campaign in 1992, Bill Clinton pledged to remove the military ban on gays. After assuming office, he faced opposition from Congress and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and had to resort to a milder measure known as “Don’t ask, don’t tell". This meant that the military should not pursue recruits with probing questions; the recruits should not reveal that they are gay. This did not stop discrimination. In October this year, President Barack Obama pledged at a Human Rights Campaign dinner, “I will end ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’. That is my commitment to you."

On July 2, a New Delhi court ruled that homosexual intercourse between two consenting adults is not a criminal act. This was the culmination of a campaign to strike down section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. The move had the support of eminent citizens such as Amartya Sen, Vikram Seth and Soli Sorabjee. Rajya Sabha member Karan Singh welcomed the verdict “which rescues millions of citizens from an outmoded colonial legacy".

The next step takes us to a most controversial issue: same-sex marriage. It raises a plethora of questions relating to the sacrament of marriage and the institution of family. Even when courts were inclined to protect gay rights to same-sex marriage, there was opposition from the public. A Hawaiian court ruled that same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry. The voters of Hawaii thwarted this by a referendum that restricted the definition of marriage to a legal union between a man and a woman. This was repeated in Alaska, where the voters amended the constitution to make marriage heterosexual.

Couples who lived together were called “domestic partners" or “civil partners". The words husband and wife were irrelevant in the context of same-sex relationships.

Several legal issues arise here. Who has custody of a child when the mother is engaged in a lesbian relationship? In one case, the court awarded the custody of the son of a lesbian to his grandmother. A higher court reversed the ruling and allowed the mother to have the child’s custody. Many courts, however, have passed judgements that preclude homosexuals from parenthood. By present-day law, in most countries, a gay or lesbian has no right to the property of a partner who has died. The Civil Partnership Act (2004) of the UK resolves some of these problems, granting the “partners" the same rights as in a regular heterosexual marriage. Other countries are falling in line with similar legislation.

V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.

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