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In an email to Poynter, National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association president Michael Triplett says the Associated Press’ decision to discourage the use of the term “homophobia” has “set off some interesting conversations among NLGJA members.”
The general sense is that the AP is probably correct in terms of the literalism of the word “homophobia” and that it really is not the best way to describe anti-gay actions or motives. On the other hand, it leaves writers without a term — like racism or sexism — that describes anti-gay sentiment.
“At this point, I am not sure whether NLGJA will change its stylebook or not given the AP’s recent pronouncement,” Triplett writes. The group’s current guidance on the word advises writers to “Restrict to germane usage, such as in quotations or opinions. Use ‘LGBT right opponents’ or a similar phrase instead of ‘homophobes’ when describing people who disagree with LGBT rights activism.”
In an email via Media Relations Director Paul Colford, AP Deputy Standards Editor David Minthorn elaborates on the logic behind the change:
We feel that ‘homophobia’ and ‘Islamophobia’ have two shortcomings: they are not specific, and can also imply a psychiatric condition. We always owe it to readers to say exactly what we mean. Instead of terms that try to describe some general state of mind, we always prefer to say what a person’s position is or how he acts. Does a given person or group assert that gays are immoral? Do they oppose gay marriage? Do they oppose gays in the military? Do they commonly make anti-gay slurs? Does Jones question whether Islam is a religion? Does he say Islam should not be the basis of a country’s law? Does he engage in anti-Muslim violence? Such specifics tell a reader the points that are at issue and allow for a response to those points. As a result, the reader obtains more accurate information.
That’s “reasoned, principled, and wrong-headed,” Baltimore Sun language maven John E. McIntyre writes of an earlier, similar explanation from Minthorn. “Homophobia,” McIntyre says, “gets used because it is useful in describing an identifiable phenomenon.”
If the editors of the AP Stylebook wish to discourage the use of certain words simply because they can be misused or misunderstood, there ought to be a great many in line ahead of homophobia.
“Words ending in ‘phobia’ are commonly used outside of clinical contexts,” Boston Globe language columnist Ben Zimmer tells Voice Of America’s Kate Woodsome. “Xenophobia,” he notes, “has been around for more than a century to refer to hatred of foreigners. That’s not a clinical condition in the same way that ‘homophobia’ isn’t a clinical diagnosis.”
In Slate, Nathaniel Frank writes that fear of gays may not be a disease, but it’s close. “Passive anti-gay sentiment — which people hold when they have not devoted energy to learning about the issues or when they unthinkingly accept selective religious teachings — may be more of a position than a fear,” he writes.
But anti-gay activists aren’t passive. They make specific claims that gay people are a threat to their way of life and should indeed be feared. …
With the more recent rhetoric, anti-gay advocates are making testable claims about specific threats — and all have turned out not to be true.
In the Guardian, Patrick Strudwick says “homophobia” accurately describes the condition of being anti-gay, a condition he says is “without exception, at least partly fuelled by fear.”
Fear of the unknown, fear of unwanted sexual attention, fear of gender roles being flouted, fear of humanity being wiped out by widespread bumming, fear of a plague of homosexuals dismantling marriage, the family, the church and any other institution held vaguely dear. And, of course, never forget: fear of what lurks repressed and unacknowledged in the homophobe. Irrational fear. It’s a phobia, people.
“To shy away from describing this paranoia is to collude with it, to whitewash hate and prejudice,” Strudwick writes.
Related: Michelangelo Signorile’s 1992 article about gays and The New York Times