The Associate Press has removed “homophobia” from its style guide, which many print journalists follow. According to the guide’s new usage for words that end in “-phobia,” reporters should avoid any “political or social contexts,” such as homophobia or Islamophobia. Dr. George Weinberg, who coined the term “homophobia” in his 1972 book, Society and the Healthy Homosexual, disagreed with the decision:
WEINBERG: It made all the difference to City Councils and other people I spoke to. It encapsulates a whole point of view and of feeling. It was a hard-won word, as you can imagine. It even brought me some death threats. Is homophobia always based on fear? I thought so and still think so. Maybe envy in some cases. But that’s a psychological question. Is every snarling dog afraid? Probably yes. But here it shouldn’t matter. We have no other word for what we’re talking about, and this one is well established. We use ‘freelance’ for writers who don’t throw lances anymore and who want to get paid for their work. Fowler even allows us to mix what he called dead metaphors. It seems curious that this word is getting such scrutiny while words like triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13) hangs around.
Weinberg’s points are valid, and yet the word’s rhetorical power has seemingly diminished — or at least shifted — since its introduction 40 years ago. Perhaps because of its impact then, conservative groups have now created public profiles for themselves built specifically around not being “homophobic.” As an example, the National Organization for Marriage regularly takes umbrage to being called “bigots” for opposing LGBT equality, arguing instead that they “support traditional marriage.” It’s become quite common — and unfortunately easy — for anti-gay activists to draw a distinction between their positions and any “fear” of gay people, though of course the term never had clinical diagnostic purposes anyway.
Use of the “gay panic” (or “trans panic”) defense to excuse violence against the LGBT community suggests that fear is still involved for some people, but for many, the repulsion is more likely attributable to what Mike Huckabee calls the “ick factor.” Homosexuality is increasingly described by detractors as “unnatural” rather than “perverted.” Conservatives still claim that gay equality is a threat to children, but the threat has devolved from blatant sexual abuse to “kids will learn about gay marriage” — the latter often still serving as a dog whistle for the former. The most prominent forces that oppose LGBT equality reinforce homophobia and even rely upon homophobic intentions, but the intensity of the word may have brought about its own undoing. If news readers perceive the label of “homophobia” as an overreach, they may not appreciate the severity of the anti-gay tactics at work. Framing such efforts around “discrimination” or even “heterosexism” and “heterosexual supremacy” provides workable alternatives.
In contrast, the journey of the word “homophobia” emphasizes the current need for the word “Islamophobia.” As a different concept, it might very well be true that people “fear” Islam, Muslim people, and Muslim culture as a threat to physical safety. Muslim people are unfairly cast as terrorists just as gay men have been cast as pedophiles. While education has opened up new language to describe anti-gay attitudes, rhetorical options for the wide-spread efforts to demonize the Islamic faith remain limited. And like “homophobia” did four decades ago, “Islamophobia” effectively captures the intensity of these vitriolic campaigns.
The AP may have made a sensible decision to encourage more accurate language than “homophobia,” but its outright limitations on all -phobia words may deprive media consumers from an important understanding of cultural attitudes.