2012 ended with the Associated Press publishing a new stylebook for journalists that bans the use of the words “homophobia” and “Islamophobia.” The AP argues that “phobia” describes an illness or mental disability and, thus, isn’t accurate in “political or social” reporting.
As Michelangelo Signorile argued, the problem with their decision “is not necessarily the logic of the argument as much as it is how long it took the AP to get to it.” He himself restricts use of the term to discussions of psychological motives and so prefers “anti-gay” where others use “homophobia.”
The word, however, has been used for 40 years. This change comes at a time when anti-gay forces, feeling they’re on the run culturally, are hunting for any support for their retrograde prejudices.
So by banning “homophobia,” Signorile argues, “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.”
Signorile’s distinctions are relevant as writers debate this change. Timing is important, and one wonders what the underlying motives are for the Associated Press to end use of “homophobia” now.
It’s not that homophobia has left the news. Another end-of-the year story lays bare not only what homophobia is, but also why LGBT people are lightening rods for mental and emotional issues that homophobia describes.
News sources out of Mesa, Arizona, reported that two high school boys who were caught fighting were given the choice of suspension or sitting in the school courtyard holding hands while other students shouted and spewed homophobic slurs. One student described students “laughing at them and calling them names, asking ‘Are you gay?'”
The principal who oversaw the punishment had been brought in as a savior to reinvigorate the school’s reputation. But now the school district wasn’t amused, saying it “does not condone the choice of in-school discipline given these students, regardless of their acceptance or willingness to participate.”
Everyone who knows anything about the subject would argue that this punishment reeked of homophobia. It sent a message of non-acceptance to LGBT people, but it did more.
We have no idea what the sexual orientation of these two high school boys was. The odds are they were not gay.
But they, the students who taunted, and others who witnessed both the use of holding hands as a punishment by authorities and the resulting student taunts, and the adults who thought up and condoned the “punishment,” were all victims and enforcers of our culture’s predominant homophobia. For homophobia stifles the humanity of everyone.
I agree emphatically with Michelangelo Signorile: homophobia denotes something deeper, something behind the anti-gay rhetoric and abuse LGBT people experience. I also agree that it’s better to call the rhetoric and abuse exactly what it is – anti-gay actions that should never be condoned but clearly punished.
The profounder reality is that much of our culture remains invested in this deeper homophobia that’s behind anti-gay words and actions. And often, therefore, it acts its homophobia out on LGBT people.
The basic, underlying cultural meaning of homophobia denotes something that is not necessarily about sexual orientation. And if LGBT people can realize this, they can free themselves from believing the culture’s problem is their problem or their existence, or has anything to do with them.
At its root in America, homophobia is actually the fear of getting close to one’s own gender. It is this fear that stands behind all of the other uses of the word such as fear of gay people, fear of homosexuality, fear of being gay, fear of same-sex feelings, anti-LGBT actions and slurs, etc.
Homophobia is systemic. Americans are supposed to be so conditioned that they internalize this fear and self-monitor it.
Homophobia fuels American consumerism. If one believes that half of the world cannot meet one’s closeness needs and that only one person from the other half – defined culturally as Mr. or Ms. Right – can do so, it’s easier to convince people that when this one savior fails to be fulfilling there are products to be bought to make it more likely that natural human closeness needs can be met.
Since no single relationship can fulfill all one’s needs for human closeness, especially the patterned straight or straight-acting forms of relationships defined by a consumer-oriented culture, there will always be a market for cosmetics, gym memberships, fad diets, nicer cars, anti-aging treatments, and you name it, to promise fulfillment. The American way of advertising and marketing counts on it.
But what happens when someone openly challenges the root idea of homophobia and acts as if you can get close to your own gender without being afraid? Well, that’s the rub.
It’s the fact that anyone demonstrates for all to see that no one has to be afraid, but can actually like, same-sex closeness that causes trouble. So, we don’t mind gay men, bisexual people and lesbians who are “that way.” We can tolerate that in a homophobic culture.
But do they have to “shove it in our face?” Do they have to “flaunt it?” “Why do we have to see it?” And: “Why do they have to have Gay Pride?” “Why I even think they’re in my church, but they’re not bragging about it.”
LGBT people who display the same openness about their relationships that any heterosexual couple can without much notice, openly threaten the system’s homophobia. They are openly saying that the system is wrong.
And the system hates that. So expect the same reaction to two guys holding hands no matter what their sexual orientation.
The larger question is: shouldn’t we all be able to hold each other’s hands? Or does that make it just too hard to shoot or hit the person whose hand we’re holding?
And we wouldn’t want that. We’re a warrior culture after all.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.