In recent posts, we’ve explained “homophobia,” “biphobia,” and “transphobia.” The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, also known as the NLGJA, has explained those terms as forms of “fear, hatred or dislike” as well as “prejudice and discrimination… by individuals or institutions.” Specifically, according to the NLGJA terminology guide, homophobia targets homosexuality, gay men and/or lesbians, biphobia targets bisexuality or bisexuals, and transphobia targets transgender people.
But I thought that in the posts, you said that not everyone likes the terms “homophobia,” “biphobia,” and “transphobia.”
Right. Some find the terms inaccurate and too vague. Others find the terms offensive or disrespectful.
The LGBTQIA+ Resource Center at UC Davis has a robust glossary of terms. On that page, there’s a note explaining why they have been “moving away” from those words:
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 LGBTQIA+ Resource Center at UC Davis defines it as “the pervasive system of discrimination and exclusion that oppresses people who have mental, emotional and physical disabilities.”
So in the context of “homophobia,” “biphobia,” and “transphobia,” people find those terms oppressive and offensive?
There’s no one-size-fits-all agreement on this, but there are indeed people who find the terms as dismissive of what it’s like to live with a diagnosable phobia. In a 2016 article for Everyday Feminism, Denarii Monroe invited readers to rethink using “-phobia” as a way to describe oppression, intolerance, antagonism, and/or bigotry.
Why did Monroe find using “-phobia” offensive?
The article was structured around three points. First, that phobias are real mental disabilities:
…our lived experiences and truths deserve dignity and respect, not the further erasure and trivialization that phrases like “-phobia” actively perpetuate. The use of “-phobia” as a suffix erodes the dictionary meaning of the word, but more importantly, it is one tool that helps society forget that phobias are real phenomena that affect real people every day, some of whom, like myself and my friends, are queer and trans.
Second, that language plays a big part in how ableism perpetuates:
Further, the appalling history of disabled people – our forebears subject to eugenics, institutionalization, and denial of our rights and bodily autonomy – shows just how deep the roots of oppression are. All of that ugliness is connected to language as a tool of oppression. You may not think that you’re calling up social memories of sterilization when you say “dumb” or “ret*rded,” but you are. And continuing to use “-phobia” language contributes to this well-oiled machine, too.
And finally, it does a disservice to people’s struggles:
…while fear is behind much of the oppression we face, it’s not the whole story. It’s not even the primary story. The language we use should reflect that. When we say what we’re actually talking about, it paints a more accurate picture for our movements and our allies of our needs. It makes our goal clearer, which makes it that much easier to accomplish. Further, “-phobia” as a suffix ultimately centers the oppressor instead of the oppressed. The language becomes about their fear instead of our struggle.
So aren’t homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia aren’t fears?
Not in the sense of actual phobias. Pointing this out is not new. From the 2017 New York Times obit of psychotherapist George Weinberg, who coined “homophobia”:
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.
In a 2015 post on the blog “Tell Me Why The World Is Weird,” the author explains that homophobia might be a “fear” but does not meet what it means to be a phobia:
A phobia is a very specific type of fear. It happens when the mind takes negative emotions, past trauma, abstract fears, etc, and irrationally attaches them to a very specific object or situation. Then, when the person comes into contact with that object or situation, all of that negativity and distress comes out…
…a phobia manifests itself as an irrational fear of a specific object, but if you dig deeper you find there are reasons behind it. “Homophobia” and other such “phobias” are the exact opposite: they present as well-thought-out arguments about why we should not extend these rights to this specific group, but if you dig deeper, you find the fear behind them.
So do all LGBTQ+ people agree on this?
As we say in other posts on other topics, there is no one uniform LGBTQ+ opinion. You’ll still see people using “homophobia,” “biphobia,” and “transphobia.”
OK, so what are people saying instead of “homophobia,” “biphobia,” and “transphobia”?
Some have suggested moving from language of phobias to language of antagonism. Monroe said:
Many people, including yours truly, now use “-antagonistic.” The verb to antagonize means “to cause (someone) to be hostile” and comes from the Greek word for “struggle against.”
The Anti-Violence Project has adopted “homoantagonism” in its glossary…
Active hostility or opposition towards people whose sexuality is not heteronormative. This is often based on the assumption that monogamous relationships between one man and one woman is the traditional, superior, and only legitimate form of sexuality.
…as well as “transantagonism”:
Active hostility, opposition, aggression and/or violence towards trans people. Transantagonism reflects a hatred of those who do not fit easily into the gender binary.
The LGBTQIA+ Resource Center at UC Davis uses “heterosexism” instead of “homophobia”:
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.
Similarly, the Resource Center uses “cissexism” in place of “transphobia”:
The pervasive system of discrimination and exclusion that oppresses people whose gender and/or gender expression falls outside of cis-normative constructs. This system is founded on the belief that there are, and should be, only two genders & that one’s gender or most aspects of it, are inevitably tied to assigned sex. Within cissexism cisgender people are the dominant/agent group and trans*/ gender non-conforming people are the oppressed/target group.
The one that could throw you is the alternative for “biphobia.”
OK, so what is the alternative for “biphobia”?
It’s “monosexism,” which is a take on “monosexuality.” Here’s how The LGBTQIA+ Resource Center at UC Davis defines “monosexual”:
People who have romantic, sexual, or affectional desire for one gender only. Heterosexuality and homosexuality are the most well-known forms of monosexuality.
By extension, the Resource Center describes “monosexism” as:
The belief in and systematic privileging of monosexuality as superior, and the systematic oppression of non-monosexuality.
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.