The A/P Stylebook has removed homophobia as an approved word for the dislike, hatred and fear of gay and lesbian sexuality. Chuck Colbert reports for Press Pass Q.
In a move that generated considerable pushback in LGBT media, the Associated Press announced recently that its stylebook would no longer use the word “homophobia” in political or social contexts.
The AP stylebook is one of the nation’s most influential and is widely used by newspapers, including LGBT outlets.
As AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn told Politico on Nov. 26, 2012, the term is “just off the mark” and “seems inaccurate.”
“It's ascribing a mental disability to someone, and suggests a knowledge that we don't have. It seems inaccurate,” said Minthorn. “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.”
But the man who coined the term “homophobia” strongly disagreed, as the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Gazette noted.
“This is a major mistake and an injustice to gay people everywhere,” Dr. George Weinberg said, writing in an op-ed for New York-based Gay City News.
“Gay people must never forget that those who condemn them — and not they themselves — have an emotional problem. If you are condemned for being inferior, depraved, or dangerous and you aren’t, it is invaluable to know that the psychological problem is theirs, not yours,” he added. “In the case of homophobia, this was a hard-earned discovery and truth. It must never be forgotten.”
Weinberg, a Manhattan-based psychologist with a doctorate in clinical psychology from Columbia University, first used the word in his influential 1972 book “Society and the Healthy Homosexual.”
Some LGBT outlets simply reported news of the changes. For example, EDGE publications ran a story under the headline “AP’s new stylebook bans the word ‘homophobia.’” The Washington Blade ran a brief under the headline, “AP ban on ‘homophobia’ causes uproar.”
In commentaries, other LGBT media offered pointed critiques. Here is a sampling of the concerns:
The San Diego Gay and Lesbian News “will continue to use the words ‘homophobia,’ ‘homophobic’ and ‘homophobes’ as long as mistruths, lies, hatred, bias, discrimination and propaganda are used by anti-gay activists to demonize the LGBT community,” wrote Ken Williams, the newspaper’s editor in chief. “While those words may anger the Religious Right and the anti-gay activists, who have lobbied against their usage, the words do adequately describe the types of people who hold irrational and illogical hate or mistrust of LGBT people, or incite discrimination or violence against LGBT people, or remain adamantly against equality for all Americans even though those rights are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.”
The San Francisco-based Bay Area Reporter faulted AP’s equating homophobia with mental illness. “There are a lot of anti-gay people in this country who have an irrational fear of LGBTs. That doesn’t mean they have a mental illness [though some might), just as a person who’s afraid of spiders [arachnophobia) does not necessarily suffer from mental illness,” wrote Editor Cynthia Laird.
For veteran journalist Rex Wockner, the meaning of “homophobia” is clear enough, and its usage has a history. “The AP Stylebook gurus' inexplicable focus solely on the medical definition of the word 'phobia' is weird and ignores how the long-established word 'homophobia' is used in American English, as well as the definition of 'homophobia' in the official dictionary of the Associated Press — Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition — which says homophobia is fear or hatred of homosexuals.”
The Advocate and the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Gazette reported that they would continue to use “homophobia.” In fact, editors at all LGBT publications contacted by Press Pass Q said they, too, would continue to use the term, including Washington, D.C.-based Metro Weekly, South Florida Gay News, Philadelphia Gay News [PGN), Atlanta’s GA Voice, Dallas Voice, Gay City News, Windy City Times and the Washington Blade.
However, PGN publisher Mark Segal said, “The word would always be used as a news quote or as opinion by a columnist.”
“As for mental illness,” he quipped, “please refer to The Family Research Council.”
In a similar vein, a Q Syndicate editorial cartoon poked fun at AP’s nixing of homophobia: “What word are we using instead?” an Associated Press reporter asks his editor. “’Gaytred?’ Lesbianimus?’”
Why are so many editors sticking with “homophobia”?
“It is undeniable that ‘homophobia’ and ‘homophobic’ have entered our language as broader descriptors for people who are openly and avidly opposed to LGBT civil rights,” said GA Voice Editor Laura Douglas-Brown.
And why not use a more neutral term like “anti-gay” instead of “homophobia”?
“While they are similar in nature,” said Jason Parsley, editor of South Florida Gay News, “there are differences.
“For one thing, homophobia is a much more powerful word,” he explained, citing the case of Matthew Shepard. “The two men that tortured and killed him were not just anti-gay, they were homophobic. And there is no other word that accurately describes their action.”
Managing Editor Will O’Bryan said Metro Weekly “prefers ‘anti-gay,’ or something similar” but “is not willing to abandon the term [‘homophobia’] altogether.”
“There are times when ‘homophobia’ strikes us as accurate,” he explained. “We expect our readers to know that we’re not trying to offer a medical diagnosis, but that sometimes an irrational fear of gay people, or transgender people, is just too obvious to ignore. If the Westboro nuts, for example, hold a ‘God hates fags’ rally, that might actually be rational. They believe in a wrathful, gay-hating God who’s going to take out his anti-gay hatred on America, so they’re simply trying to sound the alarm. They’re following a sort of logical path, based on their beliefs. Then you’ve got somebody who might go out of his way to viciously beat some gay guy just for sharing the sidewalk. We’re okay calling that ‘homophobic,’ even without getting a note from the attacker’s therapist.”
And yet there is by no means full agreement that the AP’s decision is entirely off the mark.
“The AP’s finding on homophobia is not so troubling to me as it is to others,” said Bob Witeck, president of Witeck Communications, a public relations firm based in Washington, D.C. “I read the usage recommendations with care. As I understand the AP point of view, they are not banning the usage, but guiding their own writers about its proper application. I think the term ‘homophobia’ can be over-applied or generalized in ways that are not always helpful, and it can be a simplistic way to label some thoughts, words, and deeds as irrational when they may be rational in context.”
During a discussion on Sirius XM Radio’s “The Michelangelo Signorile Show,” some callers voiced similar concerns, arguing “homophobia” should be used sparingly.
But in a subsequent Huffington Post Gay Voice posting, Signorile weighed in on the politics of the AP’s decision.
“The problem with banning ‘homophobia’ after 40 years is how it plays out in the debate on the issue of gay rights,” he wrote. “Those who are anti-gay have been railing against the use of the word by journalists and others for years and are cheering the AP for banning it.”
National Lesbian and Gay Journalists president Michael Triplett told the Poynter organization for professional journalists, “The AP’s decision to discourage use of the term ‘homophobia’ has set off some interesting conversations among NLJGA members. The general sense is that the AP is probably correct in terms of the literalism of the word ‘homophobia’ and that is not the best way to describe anti-gay actions or motives. On the other hand, it leaves writers without a term — like racism or sexism — that describe anti-gay sentiment.” [Triplett passed away soon after this interview. See story, “Newly elected president of National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association dies,” below.)
The NLGJA stylebook defines homophobia as “fear, hatred or dislike of homosexuality, gay men and lesbians. Restrict to germane usage, such as in quotations or opinions. Use ‘LGBT right opponents’ or a similar phrase instead of ‘homophobes’ when describing people who disagree with LGBT rights activism.”
“At this point, I am not sure whether NLGJA will change its stylebook or not given the AP’s pronouncement,” Triplett said.
Triplett’s concerns are shared by Susan Horowitz, publisher and editor in chief of Between the Lines, based just outside Detroit. “I’m not ready to abandon the concept anymore than I would agree to no longer use anti-Semitism,” she said. “Both [‘homophobia’ and ‘anti-Semitism’] are succinct and powerful and capture the truth of the situation most of the time. It is interesting that it comes up right now. For me, [homophobia] is a powerful word that should be used with discretion. However, it is hardly true that we are in a post-homophobic period.”
For his part, Dallas Voice Editor John Wright said, “I think we should focus on whether AP is doing a good job covering LGBT issues and not get too hung up on whether [their reporters] are using one word or another."
Veteran journalist Lisa Keen of Keen News Service offered an assessment. “’Homophobia’ is not well-defined enou gh in our current cultural language that it is helpful to news reports for the general population. I would also argue that while we can report on things people do which are hostile to gay people, we can’t know for sure, and therefore cannot report, the inner motivations of those actions — whether it be fear, phobia, ignorance or subterfuge. To the extent possible, I think we should illustrate the person’s attitude about gays simply by reporting his or her statements, actions and affiliations.”