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Historical Essay

"Better Gay Than Grumpy" pinback button

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Better Gay Than Grumpy Button | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeBetter Gay Than Grumpy Button

Button, Better Gay Than Grumpy, c. 1980

 Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum objectWisconsin Historical Museum objectWisconsin Historical Museum Object 1984.242.62  

"Better Gay Than Grumpy" pinback button, c. 1980
(Museum object 1984.242.62)

“Gay” became an adjective of pride for homosexual men starting in the 1960s. In fact, according to the media advocacy group GLAAD, the terms gay and lesbian are now the appropriate descriptors for sexual orientation, while the noun “homosexual,” with its connotations of medicalized deviancy, is considered derogatory and offensive.

 In the 13th century, the word “gay” meant "carefree," "cheerful," or "bright and showy.” Other meanings, like “frivolous” and “hedonistic” accrued through time, and by the 1700s the word had acquired sexual connotations. Brothels were called “gayhouses,” and female prostitutes were sometimes described as “gay.” Historically, words first applied to female prostitutes, like “faggot” and “fruit,” were later applied to gay men.

This button, with its sly reference to the original meaning of “gay” and its gentle but definitive dismissal of homophobes as “grumpy,” is also an example of queer culture’s use of humor and double meanings. LGBT people have long used coded language, either to shield their activities from potentially hostile outsiders or to affirm their identities among friends, or perhaps both.

Changing the word “gay” from an insult into a neutral description of same-sex attraction has been a decades-long work of reclaiming identity, aided along the way with generous doses of humor.