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Posted by on Feb 11, 2014 in Politics | 2 comments

The word “homophobia” is problematic

 

There’s a good post up on Humanisticus about the importance of the term “homophobia” in tackling, well, homophobia. I don’t agree with all of it, but the basic idea is sound; “homophobia” refers to a prejudice like sexism and racism, not merely an irrational fear like arachnophobia. It is a very real problem and something we must work to eradicate (by ‘eradicate’ I do not mean the state should silence or punish opinion).

That said, I’ve always thought that the word “homophobia” sounds a bit off. If I wish to talk about prejudice or discrimination against women, I talk about “sexism”. If I want to talk about prejudice or discrimination against a particular race, I talk about “racism”. If I want to talk about prejudice or discrimination against gay people, I talk about “homophobia”. All is good so far. Now suppose I want to refer to the fear of women. Well, I can use “gynophobia”. The fear of other races might be called “xenophobia”. What do we call someone who merely fears gay people but doesn’t believe that anyone should discriminate against gay people? The distinction is meaningful, since one might discriminate out of something other than fear, or they might fear but not actively discriminate (if you think that doesn’t make sense, imagine someone who supports gay rights but feels uneasy in the presence of gay couples kissing, while realising that the fear is silly and irrational).

While Peter is quite right to say that the meaning of “homophobia” has more in common with “sexism” and “racism” than “arachnophobia” and “hydrophobia”, that meaning would be counter-intuitive to anyone unfamiliar with its meaning. In my view it would be better to replace the term with an “-ism”, so it might more explicitly show its familial relation to the other major forms of prejudice. This is difficult for two reasons. Firstly, “homophobia” is now deeply ingrained in the public vocabulary and would be near-impossible to change. Secondly, I have found it quite hard to come up with a term analogous to “sexism” or “racism”. The best I can think of is “sexualityism”, which is, to put it mildly, rather clunky.

I have heard suggestions like “heterosexism” which might be a better candidate, but is only talks about discrimination about one group, namely gay people. That is probably fine, as straight people are hardly an oppressed minority in any culture. The nice thing, however, about terms like “sexism” and “racism” is that they talk about the irrational prejudice itself, and make no mention of any particular group of people. It is wrong to discriminate on the basis of race, sex or sexuality, no matter which race, sex or sexuality it is. That’s why “heterosexism” doesn’t quite capture what “sexism” and “racism” manage to, and “homophobia” especially fails in the same regard.

Finally, I don’t see why all this wouldn’t apply to “transphobia” as well.

 

Note: Does this really matter that much? Not really. The important thing is that we’re all on the same page about the meanings of words. If  we all understand that we’re using “homophobia” as “like racism but with homosexuality”, then that’s fine. This post is just me thinking out loud about the suitability and adaptability of some words.

 

  • josh

    While I agree that we don’t have a well-known, non-clunky term like racism but for sexuality, I think that ‘homophobia’ is useful as a more specific term that really does relate to fear. In particular, it’s the fear of being gay or being perceived as gay. (Or that your kids will turn out gay, etc.) That’s a bit different from the pathology of sexism/racism. Most men don’t fear that they are secretly women or will be thought to be women (or vice versa). The closest thing is the fear of being seen as ‘womanly’ (‘manly’). Or maybe the fear that you won’t have any sons. I think there is a relation here in that a lot of homophobia is closely connected to ideas of gender essentialism where the important thing is that a man act like a man and not a woman. But the fear part isn’t exactly the same as the idea that gay people are disgusting or that they are deserving moral opprobrium. Contra Humanisticus, I think that if you want to combat the problem you should worry about diagnosing it correctly and in detail.

    There really isn’t much of a direct equivalent for race, except perhaps for the fear of not acting ‘black’ enough and similar ideas of ‘betraying’ one’s race or identity. (There is also just generalized fear of one race or another, in the sense of fearing crime, not trusting members of said race, etc. But that is a different sense from what I have in mind. More akin to fearing that gay people will molest your children or rape you.)

    Anyhow, I like ‘homophobia’ as a term reserved for the actual phenomenology of certain fears, which doesn’t necessarily include all types of discrimination and bigotry based on sexuality. Similarly, I take ‘misogyny’ to refer to an actual dislike or generally negative view of women, which may not encompass everything we might call sexism.

  • iamcuriousblue

    I think the mother of all such terms is “xenophobia”, which implies more suspicion toward, dislike, or even hatred of members of other nations or ethnic groups. Of course, the implication is that the suspicion is based on a certain fear or paranoia about the ulterior motives of the outgroup. The usage of ‘homophobia’ and all the other various social ‘-phobias’ spring from that usage. In terms of pure etymology, the origin of the term is butchered, literally meaning ‘fear of the same’. But in any event, definitions are established by usage more than origin, and the term “etymological fallacy” (such as the idea that the words “seminal” and “hysterical” are sexist in a present-day context because of the gendered nature of the root words, which clearly had sexist implications in their original usage, or that Arabs can’t be antisemitic because they’re of Semitic origin) is used to describe that kind of out-of-context understanding of words.