On Homophobia

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.

indexI 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.”homophobia11-10

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 iRacism sexism and homophobia are not permitted in this arean 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.

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14 comments on “On Homophobia

  1. On the lines of antisemitism, “antihomoism”?

    What about “Prejudice”? An evangelical christian might think they had a religious belief, and that made it OK to say disparaging things, but just because something is religious does not make it right, and may make it prejudice.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Clare. It is interesting to consider what would be considered a religious “right” or not.

      Regarding a traditional biblical approach, I might draw a line between someone simply stating an position on sexuality vs. moving on from there to, as you say, any number of disparaging things.

      I’m sure that doesn’t solve all of the difficulty, though, since even having an opposite position will feel hurtful to some, though.

  2. Vera Jackson says:

    I agree that the term “homophobia” is inaccurate as it has been used to negatively label anyone who disagrees with a homosexual lifestyle. People can disagree with each other on many levels regarding many different issues, lifestyles, philosophies, etc., but this does not imply fear or hatred toward another. For example, some parents heatedly disagree on allowing an infant to cry after putting them to bed. Some felt infants should sleep in the parents’ bedroom to incite safety in the child. Others disagree on disciplining through spanking, yet, these same people remain friends who feel the freedom to express their differences. There are many books written on such philosophies vehemently sharing pros and cons for both sides. Other lifestyle differences that claim opposing philosophies are whether to live together or get married, education through public/private school vs home schooling, vegetarian or carnivore, but I have never heard anyone come up with a phobia-labelled-term to describe any of these people with opposing opinions. Should the term homophobia start a trend in labels such as , slumberphobia, flogaphobia, marriphobia, institutephobia, or carniphobia which insinuates that people of different ways of life are fearful and filled with hate toward those who oppose them? Why then must we place a label on those who think differently about homosexuality? Furthermore, we must remember that with any issue there will always be extremists, and there are laws that govern those who use brutality to express themselves, but we should never generalize a population into one category because they simply believe differently. I, for one, believe in the old adage…let’s agree to disagree. In fact, you may disagree with my reply, and I promise that I do NOT fear or hate you because you do.

  3. pinkagendist says:

    Interesting. You have to keep in mind that the term homophobia was born in the world of psychology and there’s a whole lot of background. Society is organized as a heterosexual,white, male hierarchy and homosexuality in and of itself disturbs those social patterns; So I don’t think the fear is necessarily the same sort of fear as in other phobias, but the fear or distaste in the subversion of the traditional gender roles of society.

    • Thanks for your comment; interesting. I do think, though, that even if the phobia in this case is meant to be a different one, the distinctions might get lost in common usage…perhaps necessitating a different word.

  4. Amanda says:

    I think the term that was used in one of my classes was heterosexism. Which I guess would involve discrimination on the basis of heterosexuality being the “norm.”

  5. […] got the idea for this post from Joshua R Ziefle, who asked for alternatives. Vera’s comment there illustrates the point perfectly: she is not […]

  6. W says:

    I wonder if there is a way to ground the discussion in something tangible. Will religious groups be fighting for homosexuals to be hired as teachers/daycare workers? Or do they fear them so that they would not hire them for these positions? If so, does this fear of hiring homosexuals count as homophobia according to your definition? If so, why did the A/G & George Wood oppose the municipality of Springfield passing legislation that would make illegal the firing of someone based upon sexual preference? Shouldn’t this be the very thing that the A/G should be fighting for? Love the sinner, hate the sin, seems that you would support them not being fired for consensual sexual relationships between adults.

  7. Kevin Botterbusch says:

    As an alum from NU, and a Gay Christian, I think the conversation around language are challenge.
    Even terminology around how people refer to Queer people is charged in regards to Evangelicals, particularly with the phrase “homosexual lifestyle”. Its interesting to me because a lot of the time the only place I see the word “homosexual” is when its written by Conservatives.

    There are all kinds of discussions that occur around language around identity and expression. I find the labels “Side A” and “Side B” coined by the Gay Christian Network to be a good example of the utility of adopted different language to convey important concepts and meaning. It not only allows for the conveying of a particular set of theological positions but also a posture around them.

    I brought all that up because I think there already is and will continue to be rich discourse around how we talk about things and the impact of our words.

    In regards to something like the term homophobia, part of the challenge is that often the people who are labeled as homophobic and those who are the target of homophobia are incredibly disjointed.
    Thus there is an immediate cultural barrier involved and a power dynamic present. I found your assessment of the role of fear in the space to be fairly spot on, and the notion of fear is itself a charged concept in matters of faith which means that admitting an action or belief is motivated by fear is difficult at best.

    We have all kinds of words that are of use in these conversations: Harassment, (Systemic/Overt) Discrimination, Hate, Bigotry, Conviction, Belief, Violence. And I understand the challenge of wanting to have language used about us that reflects our perception of ourselves or at least what is accurate.

    As with a lot of language issues, this may remain unresolved.

    In the meanwhile, I do hope though that there are tangible conversations and gains that happen.
    I’d love to see for instance NU add sexual orientation to it’s Anti-Harassment Policy.

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