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Topics In the News
AP Style Guide Disses "Homophobia"; George Weinberg Responds
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 11/27/12
Last updated on: 11/27/12
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The logo of the Associated Press.

In an update to their widely-used style guide for reporters, the Associated Press on November 26, 2012 discourages the use of the word "homophobia." However, the coiner of the term, psychologist George Weinberg, has denounced the move.

The update, which may be found here, defines phobia as "An irrational, uncontrollable fear, often a form of mental illness. Examples: acrophobia, a fear of heights, and claustrophobia, a fear of being in small, enclosed spaces." Then adds: "Do not use in political or social contexts: homophobia, Islamophobia."

The term, which is widely used by gay activists and others to describe anti-gay attitudes and rhetoric generally, was coined by George Weinberg, a heterosexual psychotherapist. Taught to treat gay men and lesbians as though they were inherently sick, he found that some of his teachers were so "phobic" about homosexuality that they judged it reasonable to torture homosexuals by treatments such as electric shock in the belief that this would cure them.

In 1967 Weinberg began calling some of his fellow clinicians "homophobes." He developed the concept more fully in his book Society and the Healthy Homosexual, published in 1972. In it he defined homophobia as a "dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals."

Though Weinberg used the word first in his talks and articles in the gay press, also claiming some credit for introducing the term in psychological circles is K.T. Smith, who in 1971 published an article entitled "Homophobia: A Tentative Personality Profile."

After its use in Society and the Healthy Homosexual, the word was almost immediately adopted both within and without the glbtq community to describe those individuals who both fear and dislike homosexuals. Others extended the meaning.

As Vern Bullough explains in the glbtq entry on Homophobia, the phenomenon "is often seen as an extreme form of heterosexism or heterocentrism, attitudes that privilege heterosexuality or consider heterosexual values as universal. Homophobia is also sometimes used to designate any form of anti-gay bias, from distaste for same-sex sex acts to overt discrimination against homosexuals."

He adds: "Given its coinage within a psychological context, perhaps the most significant aspect of the term, despite its rather slippery definition, is that it turns the table on those who equate homosexuality with mental illness. The problem, the term implies, is not with homosexuals or homosexuality, but with those who hold negative attitudes toward homosexuals and homosexuality."

Following the announcement of the AP Style update discouraging the use of the word, Dylan Byers of Politico spoke with AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn, who defended the change.

Minthorn described homophobia as "off the mark. It's ascribing a mental disability to someone, and suggests a knowledge that we don't have. 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."

"We want to be precise and accurate and neutral in our phrasing," he said.

A question I wish Byers had asked Minthorn is whether the change is the result of lobbying by anti-gay individuals or organizations. Many of our enemies regularly scoff at the term, perhaps because it is so accurate in its diagnosis of their problems.

Trudy Ring reports in The Advocate that George Weinberg strongly disagrees with the AP decision.

Weinberg explains that the word "encapsulates a whole point of view and of feeling. It was a hard-won word, as you can imagine. It brought me some death threats. Is homophobia always based on fear? I thought so and still think so. Maybe envy in some cases. But that's a psychological question. Is every snarling dog afraid? Probably yes. But here it shouldn't matter. We have no other word for what we're talking about, and this one is well established. We use 'freelance' for writers who don't throw lances anymore and who want to get paid for their work. Fowler even allows us to mix what he called dead metaphors. It seems curious that this word is getting such scrutiny while words like triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13) hangs around."

Ring also reports that The Advocate and its sister publications will continue to use the word homophobia.

So will glbtq.com.

The brief video below, from Lambda Legal, documents "Sh*t Homophobic People Say."

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