Last week the Associated Press declared war on the word "homophobia," deciding its new stylebook would ban it (and "Islamophobia") because a "phobia" is an "illness" and connotes a "mental disability." Therefore, says the AP, it is not accurate and should not be used in a "political or social" context.
Many journalists and commentators have taken issue with the AP's decision, while others believe the AP's reasoning is sound. In a discussion on my radio program, callers seemed evenly divided, and those who agreed with the AP made some compelling arguments for the why the word should be used sparingly or not at all. But I disagree and find that the AP's actions, taken at this time, serve one side in a political battle.
The problem with the AP axing the word "homophobia" is not necessarily the logic of the argument as much as it is how long it took the AP to get to it. This word came into usage 40 years ago, coined by Dr. George Weinberg, and for 40 years the AP was fine with it it all cases in which animosity toward gays and opposition to LGBT rights was being described -- or at least didn't say anything about it. For years many of us have probably intuitively used the word in specific contexts while not using it in others. Looking back at my own usage, I seem to have saved it mostly for describing a known psychological motive (i.e., "internalized homophobia") rather than a political crusade, for which I've mostly used "anti-gay," which the AP now advises, or "bigoted" or some other term. But there have been many exceptions, and other people have used it in their own way. And I think there's got to be a statute of limitations on the usage of new terms before AP can come in and say, "Sorry, we're canning this one."
At the outset of this post, I wrote that the AP had "declared war" on the word. Of course, the AP is not a sovereign nation and doesn't have an army. It's a metaphor, and the AP is fine with terms like that because we all know what they mean. I'd say it's the same with the word "homophobia" now. We all know that those opposed to gay rights don't necessarily have a "mental disability," nor are we describing them that way. And whether or not they all have an actual "fear" of gays, the word "homophobe" has come to mean a person opposed to gay rights in a general sense. Furthermore, many such people do have a fear of gays, obsessed with homosexuality in ways that are certainly irrational.
The problem with banning "homophobia" after 40 years is how it plays out in the debate on the issue of gay rights. Those who are anti-gay have been railing against the use of the word by journalists and others for years and are cheering the AP for banning it. This comes at a critical juncture in the gay rights movement, when anti-gay forces appear to be losing ground and are grasping for ways to gain it back. In that way the AP is in fact playing into a political agenda, erasing a word that came into usage decades ago and has a meaning that is broadly understood. By banning the word the AP does exactly what it seemed to be trying to avoid: backing an agenda and taking a side.