The Gaelic for “Gay”

by | Feb 15, 2017

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February is LGBT History Month in the UK. As an ally, I am celebrating with this post focused on the intersections between LGBT and Gaelic history, arts, and language. I start with a bit of background on the history and situation of LGBT Gaelic speakers in Scotland, then discuss the contributions that the arts, including writing, make to the normalization of LGBT Gaelic speakers. In the final section, I offer a free resource with Gaelic vocabulary for LGBT concepts. This post is not meant to be the last word; rather I hope it will stimulate people to think and talk about the topic more openly in the interest of breaking down assumptions and prejudice.

Homosexual acts were formally punishable by death in Scotland and England from the 1500s and remained capital offences until 1861. After that they still remained crimes punishable with jail time for over a century.

The 2015 BBC documentary “Coming Oot” described historical attitudes to homosexuality in Scotland: “For many years Scotland just did not do gay.”

According to Dr Jeff Meek, right up through the 1950s “There was almost a bar on talking about same-sex desire.” Meek, author of Queer Voices in Post-War Scotland, says homosexuality was something families, religious institutions, the medical profession and society at large all chose to ignore: “Growing up queer in post-war Scotland [was] essentially occupying a social and sexual wilderness.”

Same-sex sexual activity was decriminalized in 1967 in England and Wales. In the 1970s Scottish activists campaigned for decriminalization, normalization, and civil rights despite the danger to themselves. Decriminalization did not take place until 1980 in Scotland and 1982 in Northern Ireland.

Just like the rest of Scotland, from at least the 1500s until 1980 the Gàidhealtachd was constructed as a community that admitted no cultural or ideological room for gay identities. Most likely, practices now called homosexual were occurring all along, however, in closeted silence at the risk of arrest, imprisonment, violence, familial and social exclusion, or sincerely anticipated damnation. During this stretch of history, the only historically documented gay Gaelic speaker who has been identified is the complicated figure of Major General Sir Hector Archibald MacDonald (1853-1903), reputed to be the Highlander on the Camp Coffee label.

Camp Coffee labels through the decades, probably featuring the image of Hector MacDonald

Camp Coffee labels through the decades, probably featuring the image of Hector MacDonald

The anti-gay positions of the largest Christian denominations in Scotland have historically shaped the treatment and experiences of LGBT+ people in Scottish communities, although the Church of Scotland has been gradually changing its stance. Despite the concerted efforts of Stonewall Scotland and other groups, homophobic abuse is still a fact of life for many LGBT people in Scotland according to The Scottish LGBT Equality Report of 2015.

Following Scottish devolution and further activist struggles, same-sex civil partnerships were approved in 2005. In 2014, the Scottish Parliament approved same-sex marriage. Due in large part to these developments, in both 2015 and 2016 Scotland was named the best country for LGBTI legal equality in Europe.

Two recent newspaper articles convey further encouraging news about the situation for LGBT+ people in Scotland. First, the New York Times published a long article about the increased number of openly gay politicians in Scotland:

Scotland Embraces Gay Politicians in a Profound Cultural Shift

22 October 2016
“Today, in addition to the leaders of three of the five major political parties in Scotland, four ministers in the Scottish government are openly gay, as is the secretary of state for Scotland in Britain’s Conservative government. The one elected representative of the right-wing U.K. Independence Party in Scotland is gay, too.”

Related to the situation prior to the 1980 decriminalization of homosexual activity in Scotland, The Scotsman newspaper reports:

Gay Scots to be “Automatically” Pardoned for Historic Offences

25 October 2016
“All Scots men convicted of crimes relating to homosexual activity are to receive an ‘automatic’ pardon and have their records wiped, justice secretary Michael Matheson announced today.
The move was hailed as a ‘historic’ at Holyrood and goes further than a similar measure unveiled by UK ministers last week.
Mr Matheson told MSPs today that there are men in Scotland who still have convictions for same-sex sexual activity which only became lawful north of the border in 1980.
‘We must right this wrong,’ he said.
”We will introduce an automatic pardon for people convicted so that they know they are absolved fully of that conviction.”

The Rainbow Saltire Flag

The rainbow saltire, an unofficial Scottish version of the Pride flag

Normalizing LGBT Gaelic Lives through Gaelic Arts

Nationally, the Stonewall Scotland charity and other groups are pushing back against homophobia with public presence, connection, and education. Regionally, the Highland LGBT Forum has said “We look to the day when our LGBT community is fully integrated within our society.”

In Gaelic communities and on the national level, gay and lesbian Gaelic speakers have made important contributions to many areas of Gaelic revitalization in recent decades, including Gaelic media, computing, literature, and all levels and sectors of education.

The work of LGBT normalization is in progress, and I believe that Gaelic arts can contribute positively to it. My company, Bradan Press, is proud to have published Lus na Tùise / Lavender, a poetry collection by Marcas Mac an Tuairneir. The poems express a gay poet’s reciprocal acknowledgment of and integration into Gaelic community and culture.

Struggles for acknowledgement of same-sex love, and recognition of the prejudice against it, are reflected and given voice in a number of poems in Lus na Tùise / Lavender. For example, the eight-poem “Gun Ainm” cycle imagines letters written by a Hebridean man to his lover, a Highland soldier at the front in the Great War (World War I). The cycle was prompted by the way that the centennial of the Great War was commemorated in 2014, with English-language gay narratives of the time still largely bypassed.

Gay Gaelic narratives are not in evidence at all for this time period, nor for any other until the 1990s, meaning the poem cycle in this volume is significant as the only Gaelic text to discuss the phenomenon within this time-period. This poem cycle grew out of a commission by BBC Radio nan Gàidheal for the Great War centennial radio project “Litir chun an t-Saighdeir Gun Ainm” [Letter to the Unknown Soldier]. The “Gun Ainm” cycle was published in its entirety in the Gaelic anthology Litir chun an t-Saighdeir gun Ainm (Clàr) in 2016.

Excerpt from "Gun Ainm VIII" (Unnamed VIII) by Marcas Mac an Tuairneir

Excerpt from “Gun Ainm VIII” (Unnamed VIII) by Marcas Mac an Tuairneir

Engaging with a present-day event, the poem “Speactram” was written in response to the mass shooting on June 12, 2016 at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The poem has also been set to music by singer Gillie MacKenzie.

In the North American context, the harper and singer Seumas Gagne offers insights into the journey of belonging in gay and Gaelic communities in a 2013 interview.

Some People Are Gaelic - Get Over It!

Someone photoshopped the original Stonewall “Some People Are Gay” campaign poster and it’s still true

Normalization through Language: An LGBT Gaelic Lexicon

Another area in which writing can further the acceptance and normalization of LGBT+ people in Gaelic communities, both in Scotland and internationally, is through developing and disseminating words for concepts, people, and practices. As the Human Rights Campaign organization in the USA says for their glossary of terms about sexual orientation and gender expression identity, many people

“refrain from talking about sexual orientation and gender expression identity because it feels taboo, or because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. This glossary was written to help give people the words and meanings to help make conversations easier and more comfortable.”

English terminology for LGBT identities and practices developed over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries and continues to change as people become more open and fluid about gender identities and different ways of naming desires and orientations.

Prior to the decriminalization of homosexuality in Scotland, modern Gaelic terms for gay men and gay sex were mostly derogatory. Neutral to positive LGBT terminology in Gaelic did not start to develop until much later, in the process of reporting on the legalization and normalization of same-sex civil partnerships and then same-sex marriage in Scotland as a whole. An article in The Scotsman newspaper noted in 2005:

“The Gaelic language has at least half a dozen words to describe homosexuals, varying from merely impolite to obscene. Such is the lack of a non-judgmental term for gay people that the BBC’s Gaelic radio service was recently forced to invent a word: ‘Geidh’ [sic].

Gèidh (gay) was coined by BBC Radio nan Gàidheal as a borrowing from English, and a number of the other neutral-to-positive terms are likewise dependent on pre-existing English words and cultural categories.

Scottish Gaelic "Some People Are Gay" Stonewall Scotland poster using "gay" instead of "gèidh"

Scottish Gaelic “Some People Are Gay” Stonewall Scotland poster using “gay” instead of “gèidh”, possibly before the latter was widespread in use

Gaelic-English dictionaries published prior to the decriminalization of homosexuality in Scotland such as Dwelly (1901-1911), MacLennan (1925) and Renton and MacDonald (1979) do not contain any LGBT-related terminology. Dictionaries published since 1980 are uneven in their inclusion of the most basic terms. Thomson’s English-to-Gaelic (1986) includes homosexual and lesbian, but gay is defined only in its non-LGBT sense, which has become outdated in English but is still current in Gaelic. Owen’s (1993) Gaelic-to-English contains co-sheòrsach (homosexual) but not gèidh or leasbach or any other words from the lexicon below. Mark (2004) contains co-sheòrsach (homosexual) but not gèidh or leasbach. Robertson and MacDonald (2004) contains English-to-Gaelic entries for homosexual, gay, and lesbian, but Gaelic equivalents are not included on the Gaelic-to-English side. Watson’s (2005) English-to-Gaelic has entries for homosexual and lesbian but not gay, while Watson (2001) Gaelic-to-English does not contain entries for any LGBT Gaelic words.

As a Gaelic Revitalization blog contribution, I have compiled a mini-lexicon of Gaelic equivalents for the most common sexual orientation and gender identity terms in English. I compiled the list in the following way. First, I consulted several online glossaries of English terminology to see how LGBT organizations and individuals were defining the main terms (the Human Rights Campaign glossary, this one, and this one).

I selected ten terms from these lists that seemed to be the most basic and commonly used in English. I compiled these English terms in alphabetical order into a SurveyMonkey survey. The survey asked for a Gaelic equivalent for each term, and also asked for opinions or suggestions about each item, since some speakers have opinions about the correctness or suitability of these terms. I sent the survey to a group of fluent Gaelic speakers, some gay and some straight, and seven responded. Their answers suggested adding a few additional terms to take account of the particularities of Gaelic.

I should note that this survey was informal, not scientific. Neither this post nor the lexicon are the last word on the topic – instead I hope they will stimulate discussion and debate.

Comedy with the “new Gaelic” word leasbach:

Several issues stood out in the survey results. First, no clear majority of survey respondents agreed on a single desirable Gaelic equivalent for the English terms “straight” and “queer”, owing to the fact that these terms are fundamentally tied to English culture and history. “Straight” is a problem because the literal translation, “dìreach”, brings up even stronger connotations than English of being in opposition to “cam” (“bent” or “crooked”), a term pejorative to gay people. In British English, “queer” is still seen by some as a reclaimed pejorative term that is perhaps only appropriate for the in-group itself to use.

Below I present the lexicon as a jpeg file. If you would like to have a free PDF download to print out, please sign up for the Gaelic Revitalization blog e-mail newsletter. Current subscribers can revisit the subscriber thank-you page to access the download (e-mail me if you don’t have the link!).

An LGBT Gaelic Lexicon 2017-02-15

An LGBT Gaelic Lexicon 2017-02-15

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