12/09/2012 11:33 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

On 'Anti-Gay' and 'Heterosexism' in the Wake of the AP's Ban on 'Homophobia'


In the days since the AP Stylebook's decision to discourage the use of the word "homophobia" by journalists, "homophobia" has been getting all the attention, whereas "anti-gay" and other alternatives have been getting significantly less. I thought it might be interesting to take a look at "heterosexism," what it does and doesn't mean, and why it (along with "anti-gay") cannot exactly replace "homophobia."

In a recent HuffPost Live segment, "War on 'Homophobia'," I mentioned that it surprised me that the AP Stylebook offered only "anti-gay" as an alternative to the term "homophobia," which it was discouraging journalists from using for the sake of neutrality and accuracy. In short, the latest edition of the AP Stylebook will discourage the use of "homophobia" because they believe its use makes assumptions about someone's psychological state (fear) or clinical diagnosis (phobia) due to the clinical, technical meaning of the word "phobia." "Anti-gay," in contrast, is promoted as a more neutral option.

I don't agree with this decision for many reasons, but I will only mention a couple here. For one, the decision relies on an impoverished idea of how words work in the world. Words are often polysemous, meaning that they can have more than one meaning or sense. We know that a trunk can be a place to put your luggage or a long nasal appendage an elephant breathes through. We know that "teabagger" has a couple of meanings, too.

Similarly, the noun "phobia" has more than one meaning, from the clinical sense of debilitating, irrational fear described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to the popular sense of hatred and bigotry (possibly coming from a place of fear). We cannot hope to halt the process of technical words being taken up and used in everyday interaction with related but divergent meaning; it happens all the time, as language change is an inevitable linguistic reality. The clinical sense of the noun "phobia" really should have no bearing on the use of words with the suffix "-phobia," which date back to the 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). While some words with the suffix "-phobia" may be clinical diagnoses, many are not.

As many have pointed out, "homophobia" is a word whose history is imbued with the struggle for equality for LGBTQ people. I would add that "homophobia" is a great example of what George Lakoff calls reframing. A frame, according to Lakoff, is a "mental structure that we use in thinking," and framing is structuring the thinking about an issue through language. In Don't Think of an Elephant! Lakoff writes, "Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary -- and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas." When other people, people who oppose you and your beliefs, frame you, you have lost control over the debate because someone else controls the mental structure evoked. Lakoff argues that "[i]f you have been framed, the only response is to re-frame." When George Weinberg coined the term "homophobia," he reframed the debate from a situation in which LGBTQ people (or "homosexuals," as they were called at that time) were the problem to one in which the problem resided in the antipathy of others. So, yes, the term is not neutral.

However, neutrality in language is an elusive beast, and "anti-gay" is not neutral, either (although it lacks the social justice cred of "homophobia," as well as its clinical baggage). "Anti-gay" also frames the debate in a certain way. If you don't think so, just look at how both sides of the abortion debate struggle for control over the prefix "pro-" ("pro-life," "pro-choice"), or how people who might be called homophobic trip over themselves to explain that they are not anti-gay. Other problems with "anti-gay" include the practical (e.g., the fact that it is an adjective, so it must be used to describe something, as in "anti-gay proposal" or "anti-gay preacher," but cannot be used to talk about an ideology) and the more serious (e.g., "anti-gay" privileges one LGBTQ identity -- gay, male -- and erases lesbian, bi and trans folks).

However, if one opts to avoid using "homophobia," as encouraged by the AP, there are many options other than "anti-gay." Let's look at one of those options: "heterosexism."

In "Beyond Homophobia" social psychologist Gregory Herek highlights three terms that work in concert to describe, in turn, antipathy toward LGBTQ people ("sexual stigma"), institutionalized discrimination against LGBTQ people ("heterosexism") and individual attitudes against LGBTQ people ("sexual prejudice").* Herek's explains:

If sexual stigma signifies the fact of society's antipathy toward that which is not heterosexual, heterosexism can be used to refer to the systems that provide the rationale and operating instructions for that antipathy. These systems include beliefs about gender, morality, and danger by which homosexuality and sexual minorities are defined as deviant, sinful, and threatening. Hostility, discrimination, and violence are thereby justified as appropriate and even necessary. Heterosexism prescribes that sexual stigma be enacted in a variety of ways, most notably through enforced invisibility of sexual minorities and, when they become visible, through overt hostility.

Although Herek limits his definition of "heterosexism" to a societal-level phenomenon, the term in popular usage seems to cover the meaning of all three terms Herek carefully teases apart. "Heterosexism" is defined by the OED as "prejudice and antagonism shown by heterosexual persons towards homosexuals; discrimination against homosexuals." The term first appeared in print in 1979, according to the OED, and like other "-isms" ("racism," "sexism"), it has an adjectival form, "heterosexist," that can be used to describe a person who holds such prejudiced beliefs or a policy that seeks to codify the disenfranchisement of LGBTQ people.

Is "heterosexism" just a nice, neat, neutral substitute for "homophobia"? Absolutely not. The terms are different, and, in my opinion, one would ideally have both terms and more at her or his disposal to be able to communicate accurately and with nuance. However, if one is looking for a substitute to "homophobia," "heterosexism" has some advantages over "anti-gay," which unfortunately is the only option mentioned by AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn in his Politico interview. Perhaps when the new print edition of the AP Stylebook is released in the new year it will provide a more nuanced explanation and more alternatives.

*It should be noted that Herek argues in this piece for rejecting the term "homophobia" in social psychology research, while recognizing its important history, which might seem at odds with what I am arguing here. In my opinion, this need for more specific, technical vocabulary in an academic context does not mean that "homophobia" cannot or should not continue to be used in its non-technical sense in popular and even political discourse.