This post is a mirror of one I just published over at www.GayWithoutGod.com. I’m publishing it here too because it’s worth reading, and so that I can get back to my new Jon Meacham biography of Thomas Jefferson!
A recent article in the LA Times reports that the Associated Press is distancing itself from use of the term “homophobia” in its hallowed Style Book. (For those outside of journalism, this is the Bible for press editors and writers.)
The wire service’s online style book recently recommended against the use of “phobia” in “political and social contexts.” That means terms like “homophobia” and “Islamophobia” will become rarer in the many publications that operate under AP style.
Watch Your Language…
To be fair, there are potentially valid reasons driving this move. Over the past year and a half it seems usage of “homophobia” has increased dramatically. It’s become the new “racism” – the proverbial gauntlet to the face, with anything perceived as anti-gay quickly labeled “homophobic.” Chick-fil-A. Tracy Morgan. Fox News anchor Tricia Macke. Even socialite Paris Hilton was recently accused of hatin’ on the gays.
As AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn told Politico:
. . . “homophobia” is often “off the mark” as a descriptor. . . . “It seems inaccurate. Instead, we would use something more neutral: anti-gay, or some such, if we had reason to believe that was the case.”
The website nohomophobes.com tracks usage of anti-gay language on Twitter: words like “faggot,” “dyke,” “no homo” and “so gay.” (Apparently no homo is “a term used by straight guys who are insecure with their masculinity” to clear up confusion over something a guy says or does that may be perceived by others as gay, according to tagdef.com. You learn something new every day.)
The above image is just a snapshot of the home page. By the time I’d finished editing the picture (which took about a minute), mentions of “faggot” had risen to 22,935. The reality of chronic homophobia in American culture is still very real, and not something to ignore.
However, is everything labeled “homophobic” actually homophobic? Are all of the above tweets indicative of gay bashing just waiting to explode? Is Dave Minthorn correct that it’s inaccurate? Or is the meaning of the term cheapened by its quick-trigger usage?
Name Calling v. Calling a Spade
The definition of homophobia is “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals” (Merriam-Webster).
During this past election season here in Minnesota, I had to limit myself from using “homophobia” or “bigot” too often. Even when it was really tempting, and even when the shoe clearly fit, as it did on many occasions. It was almost too easy to resort to it, like a fallback. And it does tend to shut down conversations and put everyone on the defense.
At the same time, I worried about caving to pressure to be conciliatory, to be too courteous to those who were trying to take away my rights. The LA Times article later quoted John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun: “Homophobia gets used because it is useful in describing an identifiable phenomenon.” There’s a difference between name calling and calling out people for hurtful behavior.
There’s a big difference between “You’re a homophobe” and “That’s homophobic.” Nouns name. Adjectives describe. My conservative Christian parents may not necessarily hate gays or be disgusted by us, but their behavior certainly doesn’t indicate that they love us. They may not tell me outright that they believe I’m going to hell, or that I’m an abomination and a pervert. But they have told me I need therapy, that I don’t deserve to be legally married just as my younger sister was four years ago, and that they won’t acknowledge any relationship I’m ever in, no matter how committed.
Whether or not their behavior is fueled by fear or disgust is another matter. But their behavior is clearly homophobic. Does that make them homophobes? Possibly, but the issue is more nuanced than that. And that may be what the AP is trying to get at.
It’s Not Time to Back Down
Whether or not the decision is a right one is a topic for for discussion. And there will be. This may be an olive branch to Evangelicals and conservatives after the recent marriage equality victories in the U.S. and across the world. If so, it’s a potentially wrong-headed approach. They may have been defeated, but they’re just regrouping, so now is not the time to back down when we can actually make progress towards equality.
Of course, if this is a call to be more responsible and purposeful about language and how we conduct conversations, it could be quite useful. We shouldn’t be stooping to label our opponents into boxes for the purpose of dismissing them. As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “never underestimate your opponent.”
But one thing we can’t do is stop talking about homophobia and its effect on adults and children alike. We need to stop being polite when politicians say hateful things about the LGBT community. What we can do is adapt our methods and change how we talk about these issues. Instead of letting them control the conversation, we can be getting to know friends and neighbors and dissolving the lies and slander by simply being decent human beings.
Our opponents know they’re fighting a losing war, and that it’s only a matter of time before people stop listening to them. After all, if evolution teaches us anything it’s that those who fail to adapt ultimately fail to survive.