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Such usage, documented as early as the 1920s, was likely present before the 20th century, or in the title of the book and film The Gay Falcon (1941), which concerns a womanizing detective whose first name is "Gay". " – referred to Sir Charles Dilke's alleged heterosexual impropriety.Well into the mid 20th century a middle-aged bachelor could be described as "gay", indicating that he was unattached and therefore free, without any implication of homosexuality. The British comic strip Jane, first published in the 1930s, described the adventures of Jane Gay.

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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.

For example, the optimistic 1890s are still often referred to as the Gay Nineties.

In a scene in which the Cary Grant character's clothes have been sent to the cleaners, he is forced to wear a woman’s feather-trimmed robe.

When another character asks about his robe, he responds, "Because I just went gay all of a sudden!

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.

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