February 1, 2024

What is Gay in German?

Embracing the German translation of “gay” and understanding the cultural nuances that surround it promotes inclusivity and respect in cross-cultural interactions. Germany is renowned for its progressive stance on LGBTQ+ issues, with robust legal protections and same-sex partnerships recognized as valid by the state. However, the language used to describe sexual orientation is still a sensitive subject. This article explores the German word for gay, which is schwul, and how it can be used both positively and negatively.

Schwul is closely related to the slang word warm, which in turn is derived from the Middle Low German swol (literally'sultry' or 'hot and humid'). The original form without umlaut appears in Berlin dialect in the 18th century, where it has the same meaning as schwul today. This may be connected to the secular dichotomy of man as rough and cold and woman as soft and hot, with homosexual men being tepid.

In some sectors of gay sub-culture, schwul can be used to refer to a particular sexual activity, such as pederasty, a type of homosexual relationship between men where the male partner is attracted to adolescent boys. This can also be seen in the use of slang such as auf die warme Fahrt gehen (go for a warm walk), or jemanden die warme Schulter zeigen (show someone on the warm shoulder) to suggest an interest in a homosexual relationship.

In this context, schwul is often used in a neutral and positive way, and many gay people use it to refer to themselves. It is often preferred to the derogatory term homosexual, which is considered clinical, distancing and archaic.

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