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My japanese speaking but not native friend talked about a foreign friend whose name translates to "ばら" (bara - 薔薇) with some native japanese. They quickly objected that she shouldn't call that friend ばら as this means "gay" (homosexual) in japanese. I couldn't find any evidence for this and am curious now. The only thing I found is that the first gay magazine is called "barazoku" which could be shortened to "bara". Maybe becoming a synonym for gay. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barazoku

Is "ばら" an actual word with the meaning "gay"? Or is it just a common term? Or is it just common in the LGBT community and most japanese would be clueless?

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Yes 薔薇 implied gay several decades ago, and I believe most Japanese adults were more or less aware of this in those days. It's no longer a common metaphor.

Note that 薔薇 was argot for real gay relationship, if I understand correctly. Fictional male-male romance enjoyed by female audience (still known as yaoi outside of Japan) has not been referred to as 薔薇. See this article for details.

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