The word “homophobia,” when broken down, roughly means being scared of homosexuals. Its loaded suffix suggests that it’s a clinical term, just as arachnophobia refers to people with a fear of spiders.
Gregory M. Herek, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis who has studied LGBT prejudice for decades, argues that the words “homophobia” and “homophobic” are limited in their ability to describe what’s really going on, because it’s not just fear that drives these attitudes.
“It’s a lot of work for one word to do,” he told Tech Insider. “And it makes it hard for us to really analyse the concept, to break it down into the different pieces that are implicitly there.”
The term was coined by psychotherapist George Weinberg in the 1960s, and it helped begin to reframe popular opinion: It wasn’t LGBT individuals who were the problem, the word “homophobia” suggested, but the people who were prejudiced against them. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed the diagnosis of homosexuality as a mental illness.
While”homophobia” was a galvanizing term back then, Herek says, it is no longer an accurate way of describing how both society and individuals are prejudiced against LGBT people. He proposes using the phrase “sexual stigma” to refer to society’s negative regard for non-heterosexual things, and “sexual prejudice” to describe an individual’s negative attitudes that are based on sexual orientation. His 2004 study published in the journal Sexuality Research & Social Policy on the topic has more than 560 citations.
And others agree.
In 2012, the Associated Press removed homophobia from its Style Book, the reference guide used by most newsrooms. “It’s ascribing a mental disability to someone, and suggests a knowledge that we don’t have,” AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn told POLITICO. “It seems inaccurate. Instead, we would use something more neutral: anti-gay, or some such, if we had reason to believe that was the case.”
Last year, family law attorney Mark Baer wrote an essay for The Huffington Post arguing that the term “homophobia” was incorrect and even misleading. “Someone suffering from arachnophobia does not typically harm or kill spiders because they are too frightened of them,” he wrote. “For that same reason, a person who suffers from ophiophobia does not typically harm or kill snakes. There is a huge difference between hate and fear.”
Naming something can give us power over it, and Herek suggests that renaming homophobia — and coming to terms with what’s really going on — can actually help us conquer it.
“Perhaps most importantly,” Herek wrote in a chapter of the book, “Contemporary Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Identities,” in 2009, “it can provide a vocabulary and directions for future research that will better describe and explain sexual stigma and prejudice, and ultimately will offer insights into how they can be eradicated.”
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