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By the mid-20th century, gay was well established in reference to hedonistic and uninhibited lifestyles In the case of gay, other connotations of frivolousness and showiness in dress ("gay apparel") led to association with camp and effeminacy.

This association no doubt helped the gradual narrowing in scope of the term towards its current dominant meaning, which was at first confined to subcultures.

The application to homosexuality was also an extension of the word's sexualized connotation of "carefree and uninhibited", which implied a willingness to disregard conventional or respectable sexual mores. Mac Dermott's music hall song of the 1880s, "Charlie Dilke Upset the Milk" – "Master Dilke upset the milk/When taking it home to Chelsea;/ The papers say that Charlie's gay/Rather a wilful wag!

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The extent to which these usages still retain connotations of homosexuality has been debated and harshly criticized.

In English, the word's primary meaning was "joyful", "carefree", "bright and showy", and the word was very commonly used with this meaning in speech and literature.

As late as 1970, the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show has the demonstrably straight Mary Richards' downstairs neighbor, Phyllis, breezily declaiming that Mary is, at age 30, still "young and gay." There is little doubt that the homosexual sense is a development of the word's traditional meaning, as described above.

It has nevertheless been claimed that gay stands for "Good As You", but there is no evidence for this: it is a backronym created as popular etymology.

The American Psychological Association defines sexual orientation as "an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes," ranging "along a continuum, from exclusive attraction to the other sex to exclusive attraction to the same sex." Sexual orientation can also be "discussed in terms of three categories: heterosexual (having emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions to members of the other sex), gay/lesbian (having emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions to members of one's own sex), and bisexual (having emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions to both men and women)." According to Rosario, Schrimshaw, Hunter, Braun (2006), "the development of a lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) sexual identity is a complex and often difficult process.

Unlike members of other minority groups (e.g., ethnic and racial minorities), most LGB individuals are not raised in a community of similar others from whom they learn about their identity and who reinforce and support that identity.A passage from Gertrude Stein's Miss Furr & Miss Skeene (1922) is possibly the first traceable published use of the word to refer to a homosexual relationship.According to Linda Wagner-Martin (Favored Strangers: Gertrude Stein and her Family (1995)) the portrait "featured the sly repetition of the word gay, used with sexual intent for one of the first times in linguistic history," and Edmund Wilson (1951, quoted by James Mellow in Charmed Circle (1974)) agreed.He then adds in mock doubt, "Oh, I don't know, you're rather gay on the quiet." By 1963, a new sense of the word gay was known well enough to be used by Albert Ellis in his book The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Man-Hunting. in his 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn, could write that a character "took pride in being a homosexual by feeling intellectually and esthetically superior to those (especially women) who weren't gay...." Later examples of the original meaning of the word being used in popular culture include the theme song to the 1960–1966 animated TV series The Flintstones, whereby viewers are assured that they will "have a gay old time." Similarly, the 1966 Herman's Hermits song "No Milk Today", which became a Top 10 hit in the UK and a Top 40 hit in the U.S., included the lyric "No milk today, it was not always so / The company was gay, we'd turn night into day." In June 1967, the headline of the review of the Beatles' Sgt.The sixties marked the transition in the predominant meaning of the word gay from that of "carefree" to the current "homosexual". (1960), directed by Lewis Gilbert, about the antics of a British Army searchlight squad during World War II, there is a scene in the mess hut where the character played by Benny Hill proposes an after-dinner toast.