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.

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 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." 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.").

But support for "homophobia" is, to use a turn of phrase Orwell would probably hate, not unmixed. Andrew Sullivan—okay, not on the left, but not a defender of anti-gay sentiment or action—writing at The Daily Beast, mentions Orwell, calls the word smug, and makes the point that, within an anti-gay worldview, fear or hatred of gay people is a rational reaction, not a pathological one. And Zack Ford at ThinkProgress makes the interesting point that, because "homophobia" has been so successful as a summary of anti-gay feeling, the we're-not-actually-phobic argument allows those who are homophobic (or "homophobic") to explain away their positions without actually getting to the reason they might be identified as such:

It's become quite common— and unfortunately easy—for anti-gay activists to draw a distinction between their positions and any "fear" of gay people, though of course the term never had clinical diagnostic purposes anyway... If news readers perceive the label of "homophobia" as an overreach, they may not appreciate the severity of the anti-gay tactics at work.

Ford suggests "heterosexism" as a replacement but, as the excellent run-down on the take-down of "homophobia" in a column about queer words at Autostraddle argues, the different words for anti-gay feeling each express something different. The Autostraddle writer makes a plea on behalf of "homophobia" and many other words for the many shades of discrimination out there—which gets why the AP's decision will either do nothing or, amid this flurry of debate, backfire.

Weinberg, the man who invented the word, also told The Advocate that "we have no other word for what we're talking about," and, while that may have been true in the '70s, its not anymore. There are a million little fractured ways to talk about bias, and now that "homophobia" is a subject of mainstream debate that number of replacements seems likely to multiply. Even if the AP's deputy standards editor told Politico that the goal is to be "neutral in our phrasing," none of the replacement words can be neutral.

There is no way to be totally neutral in discussing a controversial issue, because each side of a controversy will claim certain terms for its own. "Pro-family" and "heteronormative" and even the AP's "anti-gay" already have their own implications, just like "homophobia" does. Whatever you think about the word, its banning is evidence of the power of labels and the power of whether or not a word is a euphemism and the power of being the one who decides, which means that each side will scramble to claim every label it can. The labels get more precise, yes, while they risk multiplying into such granular specificity that there's nothing left to say about a label than the fact that it exists. It's hard to talk to each other when we don't speak the same language, but maybe that's inevitable when words are owned by opposing positions.

And Orwell knew that too. "In our age," he wrote, and it goes for us too, "there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics.'"