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.