There Is No 'Neutral' Word for Anti-Gay Bias

The Associated Press has removed "homophobia" from its style guide, but its alternatives have their own downsides.

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Jorge Lopez/Reuters

Late last month, the Associated Press tried to clear something up about homophobia. Or, rather, about anti-gay bias: the word "homophobia" is no longer approved by the AP Stylebook, the resource many Americans newspapers use as the arbiter of how to write right. "It seems inaccurate," AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn told Politico. "Instead, we would use something more neutral: anti-gay, or some such." But reactions to the AP's decision have only shown why and how the language of bias is likely to get far cloudier before it gets clear.

At first, the decision—which also applies to other -phobia words, like Islamophobia—may have seemed straightforward enough, if surprising. The reasoning provided by the AP is that the -phobia suffix implies a DSM-certified pathological fear, which does not necessarily apply to so-called homophobes. As linguist extraordinaire Ben Zimmer told Voice of America, it's a weird choice considering we use -phobia in a non-clinical way all the time—what else would be the opposite of -phile?—but, sure, okay. Doing away with euphemisms is one of the commandments of good journalistic writing, and has been since 1946, when George Orwell wrote in Politics and the English Language about how euphemisms obscure truth: "A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details." A modern go-to example of the strength of Orwell's point can be seen in re: abortion. Pro-life and pro-choice are weighty terms; the AP prefers anti-abortion and pro-abortion-rights, phrases not coined by advocates. But language, too, abhors a vacuum, and a euphemism is like a gray hair. Pluck one and two grow in its place.

The positive reactions to the nixing of "homophobia" have largely come from people in a position to get accused of being homophobic. These responses tended toward a point also made by Orwell: that "if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." Now that AP-following newspapers won't imply that people who express anti-gay thoughts are mentally ill, it'll may become easier to make arguments against gay rights. Those arguments tend to turn to a different piece of Orwell's work for back-up. At National Review, Charles C.W. Cooke claims that "homophobia" is a "thought police" word. He praises the AP: "Presumably, there are some people who are genuinely scared of homosexuals..."—here he goes on with a tongue-in-cheek list of absurd phobias-- "but homophobia is not a condition that afflicts many." The website Deceptionation.com mentions a study out of Regent University, a religious institution, finding that "homophobia" is part of a concerted effort to "desensitize" the population, again citing 1984: "[That strategy] is reminiscent of George Orwell's premise of goodthink and badthink." Frontpagemag.com differentiates fear and dislike, once again citing 1984, claiming that words like "homophobia" help opinion pass as news.

The negative responses to the AP's move generally argue that what we call homophobia is, in fact, an irrational fear. Strong arguments to that point have come from George Weinberg, who coined the term in the '60s and spoke to The Advocate (which does not use the AP Stylebook and where the term will still be employed): "Is every snarling dog afraid? Probably yes," he said. Other support for that idea comes from Nathaniel Frank at Slate and, of course, from Yoda ("Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate.").

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Lily Rothman is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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