The AP Ends 'Homophobia,' Though Not Homophobia

The Associated Press Style Book editors' recent decision to ban use of the word "homophobia" and its variations as imprecise has certainly not ended homophobia, though it has robbed the AP's reporters of an important and accurate word used to describe a phenomenon that, sadly, they have written about frequently in the past and will continue to write about in the future. May I suggest that the Style Book next tackle "cancer"? It's not, as its linguistic origin would indicate, literally a crab, so they can perhaps in future refer to it solely with the term "metastatic tumor disease."

I am not unsympathetic to the AP's linguistic concerns. I too am perhaps a bit OCD about language. It does bother me -- slightly -- that the word "homophobia" is, as the AP's editors suggest, remarkably imprecise, even incorrect. Its suffix, "-phobia", betrays its origins as a technical psychological term deployed during the debates of the '60s and '70s in the psychological community about whether or not homosexuality was to be regarded as a disorder, and it was used at the time to characterize the reflexively hostile response to homosexuality by the anti-gay participants in the debate; that response seemed -- to the psychologists on the other side -- like a phobia, an unthinking fear. Anti-gay bigotry (two terms the AP Style Book editors suggest writers use in place of "homophobia") more closely resembles racism or misogyny than phobias: an unreasoning hatred rather than fear. Certainly, an element of fear winds its way through hatred of gay and trans men and women, but as with racism and misogyny, it's subordinate to unreasoning, gut-level, thought-paralyzing hostility.

But so what? Are we at this late stage of a debate that should have been over decades ago to coin neologisms to replace a word that has served admirably to characterize this bigotry and these bigots? With what? Mishomosexuality? Gaycism? I... would prefer not to. 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.

Furthermore, in banning "homophobia," the AP Style Book's editors give aid and comfort to bigots. Consider for example the headline on a site belonging to a group called Americans For Truth About Homosexuality: "AP Style Book Ends Use of Smear Term 'Homophobia' in Political and Social Contexts." (No, I will not link to the page; you may find it yourself if your tastes run to homophobic nonsense.) I'm sure the segregationists of the '50s must have railed similarly against the use of the word "racism" and would have been equally cheered had the AP banned it, as indeed would many modern-day members of the Tea Party and watchers of Fox News. In fact, "racist" and "sexist" are terms as imprecise as "homophobe"; based on analogies with "biologist" or "physicist," a racist should be a person who studies race, a sexist one who studies sex. Over time we -- well, not the racists -- agreed to the current meaning of "racism," and over time we -- again, not the homophobes -- have agreed to the current meaning of "homophobia." To unceremoniously strip the word from usage shows a lack of respect for history, for the struggle of the LGBT community and -- worst of all for journalists -- for our current reality.

As Michelangelo Signorile points out, the AP's action does not represent a neutral linguistic gesture. Both philosophical speculation and neurolinguistic research suggest that our thoughts conform to our words. We cannot comprehend homophobia without the word "homophobia"; "anti-gay bigotry" does not, as the homophobes know, convey the same horrifying and horrifyingly accurate meaning. Homophobes tortured Matthew Shepard, tied him to a fence and left him to die, not "anti-gay bigots." Homophobes chant "God Hates Fags" outside of funerals, not "anti-gay bigots." And homophobes continue to deny equal rights to LGBT people, not "anti-gay bigots." In its quest for linguistic precision, the AP Style Book has thrown away accuracy.