Homophobia: Don't Ban the Word -- Put It in the Index of Mental Disorders

As the therapist who coined the word "homophobia" in the late 1960s, I still see a great deal of homophobia in the world. As long as homophobia exists, as long as gay people suffer from homophobic acts, the word will remain crucial to our humanity.
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Homophobia is still highly prevalent, though an increasing number of people wish it weren't. The movement for LGBT justice has made immense strides. But as the therapist who coined the word "homophobia" in the late 1960s, I still see a great deal of homophobia in the world. This irrational fear of gay people still translates into violence in many cases. Even in the U.S., it still motivates people to punish gay men and women, to deprive gay people of rights, and sometimes even to kill them.

Nevertheless, the Associated Press, in the latest update of its stylebook for reporters, banned the use of the word "homophobia" on the grounds that it suggests emotional disturbance in people when we allegedly have no proof of such disturbance.

Consider some of these recent news stories and you tell me if homophobia is in play or if you can come up with a better word to describe what's going on:

  • A teenage boy in Mobile, Ala., at Thanksgiving dinner beats a young woman nearly to death for being his sister's lesbian lover. Would it be wrong to infer that the boy was emotionally unhinged?

  • James Finley, the successful women's volleyball coach at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been out as gay on the job for eight years. A new athletic director came along who refused to go to games where Finley was coaching -- despite attending all other team games -- or even to speak with him. After Finley's 25-6 season, the director fired him, telling the women on the team that he wants "a better representative for the school" as a coach. Wasn't that a homophobic act?
  • A high school principal in Arizona "punishes" two boys caught fighting by making them sit and hold hands in front of their classmates for an extended period of time while they are bombarded with anti-gay slurs by the other kids.
  • The AP says that the word "homophobia" doesn't apply even here. It argues that we can't be sure that those who taunt people for being gay or who torture or kill them for it are homophobic. Officially, according to the news service, we don't know enough to call them that.

    AP Deputy Standards editor Dave Minthorn notes that terms like "homophobia" have been "used quite a bit in the past and we don't feel they're quite accurate."

    "Homophobia" is most certainly an emotionally charged word. But aren't we allowed to feel a little emotional about the death penalty for gay people in certain developing countries? Or about proposals for long prison sentences just for supporting gay rights in Nigeria, or for counseling a gay person in Uganda?

    Gay people were denied virtually every kind of right in the U.S. until a half-century ago. These included the right to hold jobs, the right to keep their pensions, and the right to stay out of prison if they were found out. Can we say that our nation was homophobic then? As Minthorn said, that that would be "ascribing a mental disability to someone and suggest a knowledge we don't have."

    As it turned out, the word "homophobia" was exactly the concept that gay men and lesbians needed to achieve liberation. The word conveyed that gay people were not the ones suffering from an emotional problem; their oppressors were. Gay individuals saw that there was no longer any reason to condemn themselves or other people like themselves.

    For gay people everywhere, the term "homophobia" became a reminder of their personal worth. Understanding that homophobia is at work in their tormentors gave gay people a new sense of dignity and humanity. Indeed, it has helped many non-gay people understand that when they have homophobic feelings, they themselves have a problem.

    Even today, when a parent comes to me for help and cries about a son or daughter who is gay, I ask the person, "What are you afraid of? What is the worst thing that can happen?" There are always, in every case, irrational fears, and a sense of having failed as a parent in some way. The discovery that there is no real threat, that no mistake was made, that nothing bad will happen between them and their child unless they want it to, makes a huge difference to these parents.

    What needs to be banned is not the word "homophobia" but "conversion therapy" for gay minors. We must put a stop to a practice that should have ended once homosexuality was removed from the index of mental disorders in 1973. California has done just that, and other states are seeking to follow suit.

    By the AP's logic -- that we cannot attribute motive where we haven't proved it -- we would have to get rid of terms like "hate crime," but no one suggests that. Unlike other persecuted groups, gay people have been characterized as "emotionally disturbed," so a word that assigns the disturbance where it belongs -- to the oppressors -- is needed.

    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.

    George Weinberg is a psychotherapist in New York City. He coined the term "homophobia" in the late 1960s and crusaded for its acceptance. He has written 12 books, including Society and the Healthy Homosexual, published in 1972.

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