The term “gay set” originally meant people who like the nightlife scene. “Gay set in Paris” was cited in an 1893 newspaper article titled “French Society; American Women Shine at the Gay Capital.”
“Gay set” came to refer to homosexuals by at least the 1950s. “Gay Set—as they call themselves” was printed in a 1954 Daily News (New York, NY) article about Greenwich Village.
Similar names to “gay set” include “homo set,” “lavender set” and “swish set.” “Gay boy” is a related term.
22 January 1893, St. Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch, “French Society; American Women Shine at the Gay Capital,” pg. 31, col. 4:
More and more does the gay set in Paris tend to imitate their English contemporaries, and to make of May and June the most brilliant months, socially speaking, of the year.
6 November 1921, New York (NY) Times, “News and Gossip of the Street Called Broadway,” sec. 6, pg. 1, col. 8:
Leo Ditrichstein has opened out of town in “Toto”—“a nickname for Antoine de Tillois, a carefree sort of individual, mingling with the gay set of Paris.” It is understood that the play will come to New York this Spring.
19 April 1928, Life (New York, NY), “Along the Main Stem” by Walter Winchell, pg. 17, col. 1:
The band over at the Ambassadeurs’ on 57th Street, where Otto Kahn’s little boy, Roger, dropped all that dough, is enticing the gay set and Dan Healey is doing well at the 54th Street museum. Barney’s (Barney Gallant’s—ed.) in Greenwich Village still is the ace of the sin-dens down there.
4 February 1935, Daily News (New York, NY), pg. 22, col. 2 photo caption:
GAY SET gave night club owners plenty of business over the week-end. Broadway and Village hot spots all reported good-sized crowds.
2 August 1947, Minneapolis (MN) Morning Tribune, Dorothy Kilgallen column, pg. 6, cols. 3-4:
The very gay set at Fire Island reports that Greta Garbo is losing her inhibitions at that rendezvous. She’s a regular visitor there and frequents a bar called “Duffy’s.”
15 February 1951, Courier-Post (Camden, NJ), “It Happened Last Night” by Earl Wilson, pg. 8, col. 6:
Fire Island’s gay boy set’s moving to Nantucket; too many normal people at Fire Island.
27 June 1952, Columbus (GA) Enquirer, “Walter Winchell in New York,” pg. 6, col. 5:
The Gay Set on Fire Island will just go up in reefer smoke one day.
2 November 1952, Daily News (New York, NY), “Dream Street Beat” by Robert Sylvester, sec. 2, pg. 6, col. 2:
A member of last Summer’s Fire Island set reports lounging on the beach with a couple of gals when one of the gay set came running past dressed in shorts, plain black sweater and pearl necklace.
“Look at that man wearing a pearl necklace,” one of the gals gasped.
“What would you expect him to wear with a plain black sweater?” demanded the other.
30 May 1953, The Daily Argus-Leader (Sioux Falls, SD), Walter Winchell column, pg. 4, col. 4:
The Ocean Beach (Fire Island) Gay-Set is due for a large shock. The town hired a detective agency (with power of arrest) to rid the place of wild-lavenders.
16 June 1953, Courier-Post (Camden, NJ), “It Happened Last Night” by Earl Wilson, pg. 25, col. 7:
Detectives have infiltrated the Fire Island “gay set”—arrests soon.
17 June 1953, Daily News (New York, NY), “Dream Street” by Robert Sylvester, pg. 64, col. 4:
But the most fantastic change has been the growth of “The Bird Circuit.” This is a series of East Side saloons which cater only to the gay set. On the Bird Circuit it’s Old Homo Week all year long. There is never a gal in a Bird Circuit saloon. Only the birds. They stand at the bar three deep. They never wear hats, possibly because they have just come from the hairdresser. Their shiny blonde tresses are slicked down. The crewcut—“Very Butch,” the birds say—is highly popular. They twitter and they cruise. And they whisper nasty things about each other.
Furthermore, only birds are wanted along the Bird Circuit. Not long ago a reasonably normal guy fell into a bird trap for a glass of beer. A little toughie, obviously the owner, came up and told him bluntly that he wouldn’t like the place. He wouldn’t be served. Go somewhere else.
24 December 1953, Trenton (NJ) Evening Times, “Dorothy Kilgallen’s The Voice of Broadway,” pg. 12, col. 4:
The police department will wage a crackdown on bars frequented by “the gay set.” Heading the list of spots to receive the official once-over are the saloons in which Harlow Fraden and his buddies did their tippling.
14 February 1954, Sunday News (New York, NY), “Bulldozers in Bohemia” by Worth Gatewood, pg. 21C, col. 4:
The tolerant Village long ago acquired a reputation as a haven for homosexuals. Guides on the rubberneck buses acknowledged it by bawling as they passed Sheridan Square: “And now we’re in Greenwich Village. home of short-haired women and long-haired men.” The reputation has stuck to this day, although there probably are fewer members of the Gay Set—as they call themselves—in the Village now than there were a decade ago. Their principal hangouts are in uptown saloons on the “bird circuit.”
27 February 1956, Courier-Post (Camden, NJ), “Walter Winchell On Broadway,” pg. 12, col. 3:
Latest diversion for the Gay Set (whoopsies) is to phone pals and shriek: “Grace Kelly’s invited me to be one of her bridesmaids!”
21 December 1960, The Pharos-Tribune (Logansport, IN), “New York Confidential” by Lee Mortimer, pg. 4, col. 7:
END OF THE LINE: Hoodlums opening private clubs for the Greenwich Village gay set, usually in tenement and apartment houses. Plenty of protection required to keep them operating and to get away with selling booze without a license. It’s the same old mob with the same blackmail and junk background.
20 November 1964, Indianapolis (IN) Star, “Broadway and Elsewhere” by Walter Winchell, pg. 25, col. 1:
PHYLLIS DILLER has finally achieved fame. In the Greenwich Village “gay set” she is the celeb they “come to the party as.” Long ciggie-holder, all-fitting frock, blond hair-don’t, etc.
16 January 1973, Miami (FL) Herald, “Jack Kofoed Says: Sex News Slips Out From Under the Rug,” pg. 11-C, cols. 7-8:
DURING the raucous days when South Florida had wide-open, though illegal, gambling casinos, the Gay Set operated night clubs presenting shows in drag that were not in the least objectionable. After a long absence of that sort of thing, we have a new one, “Guys Will Be Dolls.” It presents female impersonators, with “the prettiest boys in show-business,” at the Marco Polo. There has been a changed approach to this subject, too. The Gay Liberationists no longer pretend to be square; they march in parades, proclaiming they are what they are, and they like it.
By Steve Dow
Altona, Victoria: Common Ground
The smart gay set has moved to adjacent Chelsea, and these types refer to Greenwich Village disparagingly as the ‘Old Country’.
Historical Essays in Femininity and Masculinity in Canada
Edited by Kathryn McPherson, Nancy M. Forestell and Cecilia Louise Morgan
Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press
‘The homo set’, ‘the swish set’, ‘the lavender set’, ‘the gay set’, ‘the wrist-slapping set’, and ‘the gay boys’ were but a few of the popular combinations used to denote local gay communities.
Ang Lee: Interviews
Edited by Karla Rae Fuller
University Press of Mississippi
In 1969 a pamphlet called the “Gay Scene Guide” bluntly warned visitors of a potential hazard of looking for love in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. “Do not confuse the ‘hippy set’ with the ‘gay set,’” it warned.