The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, also called The NLGJA, has defined “homophobia” as “fear, hatred or dislike of homosexuality, gay men and/or lesbians.”
The term was coined in 1965 by psychotherapist George Weinberg. According to a New York Times obituary for Weinberg, he came up with the term after he was told to not bring a lesbian friend as a guest to a party. Weinberg was quoted as having told Gregory M. Herek, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis:
I coined the word homophobia to mean it was a phobia about homosexuals… It was a fear of homosexuals which seemed to be associated with a fear of contagion, a fear of reducing the things one fought for — home and family. It was a religious fear, and it had led to great brutality, as fear always does.
How did it become widespread?
The New York Times obit stated that “homophobia” first appeared in print on May 5, 1969, when gay activists Jack Nichols and Lige Clarke used the new term in a column they wrote for Screw magazine. Time Magazine used the term in a cover story a few months later. Weinberg himself used the word in a 1971 article, and again the following year when he published his book, “Society and the Healthy Homosexual.”
Is it treated like other phobias?
No, and that’s part of why some critics oppose it. From the obit:
Critics, both gay and heterosexual, argued that however useful the word might be as a political tool, or as a consciousness raiser, it did not withstand scrutiny. Homophobia, they pointed out, was not precisely equivalent to an irrational fear of snakes or heights, and the emotions associated with it were more likely to be anger or disgust than fear. Its meaning had become too diffuse, they argued, covering everything from physical assault to private thoughts to government policies.
The LGBTQIA+ Resource Center at UC Davis has aimed to reframe the way the concept is framed. In the resource center’s robust glossary on LGBTQ+ issues, there’s a note explaining that…
…as a staff, we’ve been intentionally moving away from using words like ‘transphobic,’ ‘homophobic,’ and ‘biphobic’ because (1) they inaccurately describe systems of oppression as irrational fears, and (2) for some people, phobias are a very distressing part of their lived experience and co-opting this language is disrespectful to their experiences and perpetuates ableism.
The Associated Press has discouraged the term since 2012.
What word or words should we use instead?
In a 2015 article for Slate, John Sherman lamented that the term “gaycist” or “gaycism” should replace “homophobia.” The term had appeared on the TV show “Happy Endings,” referring to a character who thought his two gay friends should get along simply because they were both gay. To Sherman, the term was more precise than “homophobia”:
As goofy as the word appears in this context, it’s in many ways an improvement on the language we now use to describe anti-gay bigotry: homophobia, homophobe, homophobic. Gaycism is an obvious play on racism, one of the most pernicious and deeply rooted issues in American life. Both words share the -ism suffix with sexism, classism, and ageism, forming a foul linguistic family of social ills that contrasts sharply with personal foibles like a fear of spiders (arachnophobia) or heights (acrophobia). When you think about it, homophobia feels insufficiently damning, at best…
…Compared to a phobia—something that can’t be helped—an -ism is a doctrine, a system of belief. Isms may be institutionalized, systematized, or proselytized, passed down to subsequent generations. The -isms capitalism and communism have shaped nations, as have the -isms racism and colonialism. Phobias can be debilitating, to be sure, but they exert nowhere near the force of -isms, socially or linguistically.
Is that a real word? “Gaycism”?
It certainly hasn’t caught on, though Sherman makes a compelling case.
OK, so if that’s not a real word that’s used by real people, then what should we actually use?
There are a few options out there. The GLAAD Media Reference Guide states “intolerance, bias, or prejudice is usually a more accurate description of antipathy toward LGBTQ people.”
The LGBTQIA+ Resource Center at UC Davis has suggested “heterosexism”:
The assumption that all people are or should be heterosexual. Heterosexism excludes the needs, concerns, and life experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer people while it gives advantages to heterosexual people. It is often a subtle form of oppression, which reinforces realities of silence and erasure.
Gregory Herek, the professor I mentioned at the beginning, has also suggested the word be retired, saying in 2015 that “it’s a lot of work for one word to do… And it makes it hard for us to really analyze the concept, to break it down into the different pieces that are implicitly there.” He proposed “sexual stigma” to refer to society’s negative treatment of people who are not straight, and “sexual prejudice” to describe someone’s negative attitudes toward sexual orientation.
Which of those are preferred?
The answer will vary writer to writer, organization to organization, person to person. The term “heterosexism” might make sense to some folks, but others might not immediately grasp what it means. The GLAAD Media Reference Guide’s use of “intolerance, bias, or prejudice” might be easiest for some readers. But there could be other terms that are just as useful.
But regardless, “homophobia” is seen as an offensive word?
It’s not universally seen that way, as there are many who still use it. The offending part of the word is not that it’s seen as offensive in an LGBTQ+ context, but rather in the context of mental health and disability advocacy. The use of the word “phobia” is seen by some as a co-opting of language that is meant to describe actual, legitimate phobias.
And “homophobia” is not an actual phobia like other phobias, right?
Right, though before he died, Weinberg himself suggested in a piece for Huffington Post that it should be treated like other phobias:
It is a curious decision to shun the word “homophobia” when there is no other word that does the same job. No other word suggests that the problem is in those who persecute gay people. As long as homophobia exists, as long as gay people suffer from homophobic acts, the word will remain crucial to our humanity. Indeed, the next big step should be to add “homophobia” to the official list of mental disorders — not to cleanse the language of it.
I take it that hasn’t happened yet?
No, not yet. And likely, not ever.
Learn more about The LGBTQ+ Experiment here.
Follow us on Twitter here.
Follow us on Facebook here.
Check out the LGBTQ+ Experiment Discussion group here.
Sign up for the LGBTQ+ Experiment newsletter here.