The Associated Press Stylebook sets a newspaper industry standard for grammar, language, and reporting principles. So when the AP makes changes, they can have a significant impact on the media we consume. That’s why a lot of LGBT writers and activists are upset at the recent move by the AP to ban the use of the word “homophobia”. The AP has chosen to read a very literal definition into the word “homophobia”, arguing any word ending in “-phobia” represents “an irrational, uncontrollable fear, often a form of mental illness” and that such words should not be used “in political or social contexts” (this also nixes “Islamophobia” and presumably “Transphobia”).
AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Milthorn was quoted in POLITICO as saying:
“Homophobia especially — it’s just off the mark. It’s ascribing a mental disability to someone, and suggests a knowledge that we don’t have. It seems inaccurate. Instead, we would use something more neutral: anti-gay, or some such, if we had reason to believe that was the case.”
Even though when you take “homophobia” that literally it doesn’t seem like the most precise term, there are a couple of big problems with the AP’s move.
The first is that their definition doesn’t reflect common usage. Occasionally I’ll use the term “heterosexism” because I think it’s a better word to show that the privileging of heterosexual people and the subordination of LGBT people is systemic (e.g. it makes more sense to say a policy or institution is “heterosexist” than “homophobic”). But I still use “homophobic” more frequently and one reason for that is that people generally get it. People understand when you say someone’s homophobic that you’re not literally saying they need mental health care. They understand you’re not implying they aren’t responsible for their actions or attitudes.
Iowa State U Professor Warren J. Blumenfeld makes some valid suggestions for replacement terms, but none of them are widely used, and until a more precise term has that kind of understanding from the general public (and while it shouldn’t wholly replace “homophobia” in news media coverage.
And if you’re looking for a more precise term, “anti-gay” doesn’t really cut it. Floyd Elliot puts it well in his Huffington Post response:
And “anti-gay bigotry” simply does not pack the punch, the emotion that “homophobia” has come to be imbued with over the years. Over time, the meaning of “homophobia” has migrated from its original sense, and the meaning it conveys today, pace AP Style Book, is clear, precise and diamond-sharp. It encompasses “anti-gay bigotry,” but goes far beyond that beige phrase.
The second big problem with the AP’s decision is that there’s a compelling case to be made for continuing to have the word speak to fear and how hate arises from that fear. Dr. George Weinberg is the psychotherapist who first coined the term “homophobia” in the 1970s, at a time when the idea that it was gay people who were suffering from a mental illness. In response to the AP situation he released an essay where he argues that the term “homophobia” serves gay people by letting them know they aren’t to blame if someone doesn’t accept them:
“Gay people must never forget that those who condemn them — and not they themselves — have an emotional problem. If you are condemned for being inferior, depraved, or dangerous and you aren’t, it is invaluable to know that the psychological problem is theirs, not yours.”
Weinberg says that through his work trying to change the perspective of mental health professionals, he found: “Over time, the label seemed increasingly apt. If you feel unhinged by people who can do you no intrinsic harm and don’t want to, you have a problem.”
Caperton at Feministe echoes Weinberg’s feelings, asking readers:
Consider how much anti-LGBTQ sentiment is rooted in fear: Fear that The Gays are going to attack our children. Fear that The Gays are going to attack us. Fear that The Gays are going to spread weird gay diseases. Fear that letting The Gays marry will devalue straight marriages. Fear that somehow The Gays will end human reproduction as we know it. Fear that The Gays will bring down God’s wrath upon anyone who doesn’t oppose them. Fear that letting The Gays go about being Gay unharassed will make other people think being gay is okay, and then gayness will spread, which is a bad thing because obviously it is, right?
The need for precision isn’t good enough for the AP to scrap a word that is the most accepted, most meaningful term for something that really exists and still has an enormous impact on people’s lives.
Caperton predicted when the AP made the announcement last week that support for the change would come from religious, conservative “pro-marriage” and “pro-family” groups who just don’t like being called out on their homophobia, and we’re already seeing that coming true. Here are some quotes I found from a quick internet search. I did include links but please don’t click through to give them the traffic unless you absolutely have to. And if you do, my advice is to avoid reading the comments sections.
Americans for Truth About Homosexuality: “Needless to say, we at AFTAH are pleased that the Associated Press has dispensed with the use of the pejorative term “homophobia” in its official and influential Style Book. “Homophobia” is usually employed by pro-”gay” advocates to denigrate sincere and well-meaning opponents of homosexuality as irrational bigots.”
Rod Dreher of American Conservative at the Catholic Education Resource Center: “To label these things as phobias is to psychologize what may be a rational moral stance, given the premises. Is an Orthodox Jew or Muslim “porkophobic” because their religion forbids consuming pork? Similarly, is an Orthodox Jew, Muslim, or traditional Christian necessarily afraid of homosexuals, or otherwise suffering from a mental disorder, because their religion forbids gay sex?”
Kathy Shaidle: So “homophobia,” while not quite dead yet, is certainly in the hospice, wrapped in a red ribbon quilt. Let’s call it a priapic victory. “Islamophobia” will prove a tougher demon to exorcise. After all, as annoying as they are, angry gays (unless they’re serial killers) typically limit themselves to direct or indirect suicide [removed link to page on HIV]. Pissed-off Muslims vastly outnumber homosexuals (not incidentally because they keep killing them) and aren’t averse to murdering others to get their own way.
Christian Medical Comment: “But more recently the term has been almost exclusively used to describe anyone who publicly opposes the demands of the gay rights lobby. The aim has generally been to silence and marginalise opposition and to close down rational debate. By labelling opponents as ‘homophobic’ campaigners are able to demonise opponents by implying their views are purely the product of prejudice, thereby avoiding having to engage seriously with their arguments. For people who don’t hate, dislike or fear gay people, but simply believe that sex between people who are not married (including all sex between those of the same sex) is morally wrong, journalists clearly now need a new term.”