The Associated Press just changed its famous Stylebook for its reporters to ban future use of the word “homophobia.” Writers have been told to replace the word with more “neutral language” — with words that don’t ascribe any motive or state of mind, even to those who persecute gays. This is a major mistake and an injustice to gay people everywhere.
Gay people must never forget that those who condemn them — and not they themselves — have an emotional problem. If you are condemned for being inferior, depraved, or dangerous and you aren’t, it is invaluable to know that the psychological problem is theirs, not yours.
In the case of homophobia, this was a hard-earned discovery and truth. It must never be forgotten. When it was made, the overwhelming majority of those in the mental health profession still taught that gay people were inherently sick. Homophobia — the word and the concept — trumpeted to all the fact that this view was biased and distorted. No other word makes this as clear or describes the situation more accurately.
Back in the ‘60s when I coined the word, 30 states could put two adults in jail for many years for consenting homosexual acts. You could be denied a job, thrown out of your apartment, fired and denied your pension for being gay. The picture was only somewhat better than it is in many backward countries today. My closest gay friends, understandably, kept their secret from me. Many people disowned their own children for life for being gay. Others, who didn’t go that far, wept for them.
You couldn’t reason even with professionals, who were supposedly trained to be open-minded. The frequent suicides by gay people didn’t especially bother them. One said to me about his own patient, who had killed himself after five years of “conversion therapy’ had failed, “That’s the course that this illness often takes.” The irrationality and phobic nature of their attitude were unmistakable.
In l965, there were about 50 activists for homosexual rights in the US and many of them wouldn’t talk about their own sexuality. They called themselves ‘homophiles,’ and most talked about the problem as if it didn’t pertain to them personally. That year, I made a speech at the East Coast Homophile Organization in New York City. The other professionals talked about homosexuality as if it were a disease. An avid debate followed. A few weeks afterwards, I realized that we were up against a phobic reaction, which I called “homophobia.” Over time, the label seemed increasingly apt. If you feel unhinged by people who can do you no intrinsic harm and don’t want to, you have a problem.
It took time for both gay people and heterosexual people to appreciate this fact. By Stonewall in 1969, gay people were starting to see that they weren’t as alone as they had thought. The word “homophobia” encapsulated a truth that they’d suspected and needed to be affirmed. The real psychological problem wasn’t theirs, but belonged to those who persecuted gays. The difficulties that gay people were saddled with derived from the psychological disturbance of their oppressors.
By the early ‘70s, gay activists were coming out all over the country; they cherished the word and what it did for them. Knowing that their persecutors were unhinged and delusional, even sometimes dangerously delusional, gave them much more chance to stand up straight, to feel dignity and be proud of themselves. They rejoiced in the word and saw its applicability everywhere. A father who disowned his son or daughter suddenly looked unhinged, instead of justified.
The rage against gay people, their oppressors’ mockery of them, and the refusal to hire them, all began to look manifestly phobic. You couldn’t miss it, and it was invaluable to see. The rewards of this truth were huge. It gave gay people new hope to see that their oppressors were dealing from psychological weakness, not strength. The word went on placards and I saw it wherever I went to speak.
The gist of many letters I received was the same: “Now that I see that people’s contempt for me springs from a problem of theirs, I feel whole. I can finally enjoy being who I am.” More than one letter said, “Now that I know this, I am no longer suicidal.”
It didn’t solve the problem, but it clarified it. By analogy, if disturbed people all wear red hats and healthy people don’t, the new concept took the red hats off those who shouldn’t have been wearing them and put them on the people who should. It was easier to combat the problem when you saw who had the red hats.
The AP’s recent dislike of the word because it is “political” makes no sense. It is political because a large number of people have brought it to light and are opposing abuse. If one man beats up his wife nightly because he’s a drunk, it isn’t political. It is personal. If a million do and women organize in protest, it’s political. But it is still personal and psychological. “Political” just means that many people are trying to do something about it. Homophobia doesn’t lose its status as a phobia just because many people are now on to it and are trying to cure it or to live in spite of it. A phobia is an irrational dread of something harmless, motivating the desire to avoid it or expunge it.
The world needs the word “homophobia” and what it says. People need to understand what it teaches. We have no other word that places the red hats where they belong and this one is well established. As for the argument that it is imprecise, so is a word like “freelance” writer; people don’t go around throwing lances any more. And, by the AP’s logic, why not get rid of the word “gay” since not all gay people are joyous. It’s a big mistake to pretend precision here.
It was a great advance to have the term “hate crimes” brought into the language and into the law. The term underscores the psychological motive of the person who commits such crimes — for instance, violent acts accompanied by anti-semetic language or the defacing of temples. By the AP’s logic, that term should be the first to go. It clearly refers to the mental and emotional state of those who commit hate crimes. Victims of hate crimes wouldn’t tolerate the erasure of the word. I can guess why the term “hate crimes” isn’t being eliminated along with “homophobia.” AP wants its language to go over well everywhere its stories might be picked up. The term “hate crimes” wouldn’t stop the media from picking up AP stories, while the word “homophobia” might draw objection in some places. In short, AP’s decision, far from depoliticizing its reporting, is itself likely based on a political judgment.
It would be terrible for gay people to eliminate the word or even to subdue it. It would not promote accuracy. It would rather be a step backwards toward 1970, when publishers wouldn’t even read my book until St. Martin’s Press welcomed it. One editor had written to me, “There are eleven books on homosexuals already and that’s more than we need.” Whatever the intention of erasing the word “homophobia,” doing so is very much a consciousness-lowering and injurious decision. We still need the word. Badly!
Dr. George Weinberg, a practicing psychotherapist, has written 12 books. He has also written for popular magazines and for television. His 1972 book “Society and the Healthy Homosexual” introduced his little known concept of homophobia to a worldwide audience.