The semantic problem with homophobia

Sometimes I wish we had another word in the english language… this tends to happen when I see “homophobia” thrown around in gay rights statements; the goal seems to be to shock the reader into instantly siding with the writer or raging against a designated opponent or group.  It’s typically in the form “homophobic group x”, or “well-known homophobe y” etc.

Now, before I start, I need to explain that I *do* believe homophobia exists, and it’s a horrible, horrible thing.  I even agree that some of our opponents are homophobes.

But here’s my key point:

A phobia is a disease.

Bigotry is a chosen course of action.

Let’s break it down:

Homophobia comes from two greek roots, “Homo” meaning “Same” and “Phobos” meaning “fear” – put those together and you have fear of sameness.  Homoerotiphobia (homo, eros, phobos) or homophilophobia (homo, philia, phobos) might be closer to actually describing what we currently label homophobia.

That level of semantics aside, the question needs to be asked, “what exactly is a phobia?”

According to the American Psychiatric Association,  ‘“Homophobia” is a term that refers to the irrational fear and prejudice against homosexual persons.’ In another page, a “phobia” “is an abnormally fearful response to a danger that is imagined or is irrationally exaggerated”… is it any wonder there’s confusion about this word?  We’re using a clinical diagnosis to describe prejudice!? Strong phobias require treatment, not attack.

I personally am an arachnophobe and an acrophobe, and I’d suggest that the symptoms I experience when I see a spider or have to do stuff at heights are vastly different to most “homophobes”‘ reactions to meeting me…

Homophobia implies a level of fear, and typically the response is that they’re not fearful… attacking the phobia portion rather than the prejudice statement. Because they’re not afraid… their base emotion seems to be contempt, honestly. My dealings with what most people would label homophobes seem to wind up with them showing me haughty derision, looking down on me and essentially feeling sorry for me because I don’t even understand why I’m “wrong”.  It’s out-and-out prejudice.  Out and out bigotry.  They’re not homophobes.  They’re just bigots.

And because homophobia implies fear, there is no room to label a statement or position “homophobic” without labelling the person or entity making it as such as well, even if it’s a one-off statement.  “Homophobia” short-circuits conversations much more so than racist, or sexist, or ageist.  It puts people on a personal emotional defensive rather than promoting an intellectual discussion.

So what do we do?  We’re now in a catch-22… If we use a new word, people won’t necessarily know what it means, but when we use the current word, people choose to argue against the definition we don’t mean.  Let’s make a new word for prejudice.  I think it needs to be an -ism/ist word… unfortunately the short words were all taken… sexism, racism… “Sexual-orientationism” doesn’t quite cut it, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue… I thought about queerism, but it’s too specific… sexualitism?

I believe we need a word besides homophobia to specifically deal with prejudice for a couple of reasons.  I think it needs to have connotations along the same lines as racist or sexist. I think it needs to be able to convey issue with a statement, not an individual.  I think it needs to be neutral (not “queer” and not “straight”,but a word that describes discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation)

Maybe you could suggest some more words in the comments?  Let’s see if we can coin a word!

11 thoughts on “The semantic problem with homophobia

  1. Homobigotry? I agree, Dylan. I’m not a fan of the term ‘homophobia’. There are a lot of reasons for bigotry against LGBT people. Describing that as a phobia is a generally a misnomer, in my view. I’m not sure of the history of the terms but I suspect it was devised to be deliberately insulting to homo-bigots: if you don’t like me, it’s probably just because you’re afraid you’re secretly gay. It seems a bit oversimplistic at best. Still, I think it’s here to stay. And it’s meaning has extended beyond just ‘fearfulness’ now I think.

  2. What happens when a word’s usage in the vernacular evolves beyond it’s etymology? Language does evolve, and whilst the true meaning of the word homophobia may not apply in all situations, the understood meaning may be more applicable.

    In the case of our current prime minister, Julia Gillard, I would say that her belief that same-sex couples are not entitled to equal treatment before the law is a case of homophobia. Clearly she is not fearful of same-sex attracted people, yet she is comprehensively capable of acting with bigotry towards us, and in my eyes that is a homophobic attitude.



    • To me the problem is that “phobia” is highly recognisable and therefore brings connotations of its other meaning along with it. I agree that under current usage “homophobic” is the best word we’ve got. But is it a word that *ever* actually *helps* an argument… For the record, I’m a fan of “homo-negative” as a word, although it doesn’t have that neutral flavour I was talking about… Gillard maintaining a homo-negative position doesn’t have the same implication about her as a person that her having a homophobic attitude does… Make sense?

      • Yes, it makes sense. Perhaps the success of the word homophobia (and it’s derivatives) is the ease as which it can be said in English. The word “homonegative” seems harder to pronounce and I suspect that would determine how readily it would adopted by society.

  3. I agree that the word has become redundant in these times of mediocre reactivity being the norm. To me, “homophobia” is the opposite of “xenophobia”… Does that mean all gay, lesbian, queer, transgendered, transsexual or bisexual people can attribute any bigotry to xenophobia? No. It’s simply seen as reactionary behaviour. Seems less of a oduble-edged sword to me, and smells of more bigotry entrenched in our language patterns.

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