I’ve been thinking recently about the word “homophobia.” As our society has been rapidly–and very publicly–sorting through its feelings and perspectives regarding LGBT issues, the term has emerged with increasing frequency. Broadly conceived, it is often used to refer to the feelings of those who take issue with, criticize, or attack homosexuality. Considering the actual construction of the word, though, I have increasingly felt that it is not a helpful one for the national conversations in which we are engaged.
I took to Facebook yesterday to ask friends to “define homophobia.” In response I received a number of thoughtful and respectful answers. Also this Simpsons cartoon (I’ll let it speak for itself.). Two responses stand out: one from a friend involved in counseling who noted that in 1972 one Weinberg “defined it as meaning ‘the dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals.’ More recently, both in gender theory and the mental health field, homophobia is understood to be “any negative attitude, belief, or action directed against homosexual persons (Hudson & Rickets, Journal of Homosexuality, 1980).” Another friend (a lawyer), defined homophobia as “The position that lgbtq individuals are less human than you, and/or are not entitled to equal protection of the law, and/or are objects if scorn due to their lgbtq status.”
I think that all three definitions encompass part of what is often meant by the term. Strictly speaking, “homophobia” would refer to a kind of fear related to homosexuals. Much like agoraphobia (the fear of open spaces) and claustrophobia (the fear of enclosed ones), “the fear of gay people” would seem to be the narrowest definition of the word. Often, though, the term is applied more broadly than this and is connected with those who seek to deny the LGBT community certain rights or heap scorn upon them in word or deed. Even more expansive is the idea that homophobia can be “any negative attitude, belief, or action directed against homosexual persons.”
While I fully admit that there are many in our country who interact in fear over issues of homosexuality, I would also assert that fear is not the only motivating emotion or perspective that defines their actions. To say that everyone who opposes gay marriage or holds a certain religious or societal position is motivated solely out of a fear seems a bit unfortunate. To use homophobia to refer to their position does not represent the full range of beliefs actually held, and it does not help in conversation. After all, some people aren’t afraid; they just have a different opinion. And then, of course, some people aren’t afraid; they’re just jerks.
This said, I do admit that for some who are opposed to homosexuality and its various implications, fear is a real part of their perspective. Fear is insidious in that way and can masquerade itself as many things. I also admit that regardless of what motivates anti-homosexual rhetoric and actions, a lot of the things that are said and done can come across as hurtful or hate-filled to those who are affected. This isn’t helpful either. But saying, in essence, that because someone disagrees with you they are afraid of you is probably also not the best approach.
In light of this, I think it might be wise for us as a society to invent a different term to use. Different terms. I consider the plural here because it is one thing to engage in hate-filled actions and/or dehumanizing rhetoric against fellow human beings that are homosexual, another thing to refuse them basic civil rights, and still another to have a certain religious opinion about homosexuality. While I certainly don’t deny that each of these things can be felt and experienced as attacks by the LGBT community, simply labeling all of them as “homophobia” is too broad and-at least etymologically speaking–inaccurate. Because even if the meaning of the word has moved on from its roots, the idea of fear is never separate from it.
So then: I’m sure that in just a few hundred words I have not adequately expressed myself. In the process I’ve probably made a few assumptions that need correction or nuance. I myself need to think more about what alternate terms would be helpful. There is a lot of confusion, anger, hate, misinformation, doubt, sadness, reluctance, prejudice, oppression, and fear out there…and it is complicated. I welcome your thoughts and invite you to consider what I’ve shared–agree or disagree–and suggest possible alternatives for our culture as we discuss such issues.