It was several weeks ago when it happened. The word "homophobia" was casually in play within American conversation, playing its part, when... yank! Out of nowhere, timeout was called. The word was out of the game. No flags on the field, no deliberation with the coach or team owner. The Associate Press just blew the whistle on it.
I was not happy about it at first. The explanation was unsatisfying. "It's just off the mark," said AP deputy standards editor Dave Minthorn to Politico. "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."
Many who use the word to describe the atrocities inflicted on LGBT people were not happy. On The Huffington Post, Michelangelo Signorile commented "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. This comes at a critical juncture in the gay rights movement, when anti-gay forces appear to be losing ground and are grasping for ways to gain it back."
Blogger Kathleen Zottarelli stated, "I feel like it is giving a free pass to those that have an irrational fear and who go out and cause harm with hateful words and actions."
Popular blogger and mom Amelia chose to ignore the game call altogether (which is only right; moms should be exempt from the AP's rules) and instead wrote a spirited article about homophobia being active and in play now, and permanently enshrined in old kids' movies. She observed, "How many of the other movies we were nostalgic about carry the same homophobic message hiding under the guise of comedy? And how harmful was this message to the gay kids trying to grow up around us? I'm sure it didn't go unnoticed by them. Well, it's a chance we won't be taking again." Amelia is one of the coolest people on the planet as far as this gay dad is concerned, but you would not know that from reading the comments on her piece. They took her to task for being everything from a "vapid PC revisionist crusader" to being "thin skinned" and a "non-relaxed parent." (Now there is a fantasy concept if I have ever heard one. Please show me a truly "relaxed" parent.)
Meanwhile, in the other part of The-Words-We-Use-ville, HuffPost Gay Voices editor Noah Michelson was under fire for a fun and frivolous article on the "gayest Christmas songs." Apparently, many readers did not like the fabulous concept of "gay" and complained. Noah shot back with "Hey, Queers! Lighten Up!" The word "gay" breathed a heavy sigh; it would still be permitted to carry the festive Christmas ball for seasons to come.
Still, elsewhere, the de facto referees, the Associated Press, were acting like addicts in denial, still using the word they had unceremoniously exorcised from play just weeks before. They just could not help themselves.
It was really the noisy outcry that mom Amelia received that made me stop and ponder. We parents are like that, you see. We watch as one of us is berated by non-parents (thank God that in this instance it was not a kid under scrutiny), and then we resolve never to do that thing again ourselves. However, in this case, it was not being a parent of kids that was being raked but being a parent of words.
Am I sorry that "homophobia" has been yanked? At first I was, but now, I may have hit the "acceptance" level of the Kubler-Ross process, and I am not. Here are the five reasons why:
5. I love the way "'homophobia' is gone" sounds. OK, I am not an idiot (and for those who disagree, please, no need to comment, I know you are out there). I know that what is being discussed is the word "homophobia," not the concept, but words have power. I love writing "'homophobia' is gone." The more I write it, the more I believe that not only will the word go away but so will the concept. Maybe breaking the word is like breaking a bottle: The acid in it was real, but now it has a chance to soak into the earth and disappear. It is not editing free speech; instead, it could be eradicating the world of a hideous philosophy. That philosophy is true in the world today, but maybe by taking away its word, we can really and truly say, someday, that "homophobia is gone."
4. Focusing on wrongdoing blinds us to rightdoing. I have been arguing for gay rights for decades. Anti-gay arguments have shifted. They have morphed into new arguments. There has been education, and new mythologies have arisen. The conversations have changed. I would suggest that for pro-gay people, hiding behind the blanket word "homophobia" and tossing it out as a coverall term harms us more than the people we level it against. We see them all the same. We see the ignorance all the same. We see one irrational, crazy blob. By losing "the word," maybe we will be forced to take a closer look in order to describe the anti-gay sentiments, and we may have a chance to see where those sentiments have actually progressed. In seeing that, we then may be able to capitalize on it and give it momentum to truly evolve into revelation.
3. We need to disempower words. If the current environment in which young people are committing suicide from bullying teaches us anything, it is that words have power. That leaves us with two choices to ultimately bring healing and strength to the vulnerable: 1) control all the words ever said and make sure they are nice ones (a virtual impossibility), or 2) take power away from words. The true answer, obviously, is a combination of the two. We do need to watch what is said, and especially the torrent in which it is delivered. However, we need to defuse the power that we have given certain letters and syllables strung together. "But words can never hurt me" is unfortunately not true today, but we need to make it true. In terms of "homophobia," we are being asked to say goodbye to a word and all the implied power we have given it. Maybe it is a good wakeup call, and by letting this one go, we will be all the stronger for it.
2. We need to let go in order to heal. We need to heal ourselves and each other so that we don't cringe at every ignorant assertion and focus instead on the principles of life that we know are true. For me, the word "queer" is a painful one. For others it is not; it is truthful and positive. I need to let my concept of it go; there is no harm intended, and in fact, my psyche could use the lesson. Holding on to my old concept and pain serves absolutely no useful purpose. By letting it go, I won't forget to not harm others myself; I will just rise above the injury inflicted on me and relish my new health in life in doing so. I do not need to keep creating an entity out there known as "homophobia" like it is a general toxic cloud choking me. I can parse the concept I am describing into its components -- ignorance, hatred, dogmatic fears and many other specific things -- and deal with those one by one.
1. Individuals need to be allowed their unique faults. This is the most important reason that I am not sorry that "homophobia" is dead. First, by assigning actions a pathology, we actually subtly excuse bad behavior: "Homophobia made her do it." Let's stop making excuses and make the individuals accountable for what they say and do. Second, generalizations are fodder for misperception. I don't know about you, but I cannot stand any statement that starts out this way: "Gay men are...." All that statement makes me want to do is shout, "No, I am not...!" Generalizations are intellectually lazy, and whether based on some truth or not, they will only lead to error. In this case, all "homophobes" are not created equal. Every one of them is not similarly motivated by ignorance, pathology, religion, a sense of reality or emotional damage. Some are motivated by feeling superior as heterosexuals; others are motivated by the fact that they're actually gay themselves and hate that they are. Who knows? I don't. Just because many of them sound the same does not mean that they are the same. Maybe in losing the single word that we have employed to categorize them all, we will be enticed to take a closer look and sort out the misinformed from the truly evil, the opportunists from the agendized. We need to stop focusing on who we think they are or might be and focus instead on what they are doing and the harm they are causing. In confronting the individuals with diverging motives about their actions rather than their secret psyches, we have a better chance of dividing them and conquering.
So, again, to be clear, I fully understand that even if the use of the word is gone (and that is highly debatable in spite of the AP action), the concept that gave rise to it reality is not. There are people who hate irrationally. And they hate us. They will not be stopped because we use a certain word to describe them. For us to realize that may mean that "homophobia" did not get taken from us in vain.