12/05/2012 06:26 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Associated Press and Terms Like 'Homophobia'

The Associated Press (AP) revealed recently that its new stylebook will no longer include the words "homophobia" and "Islamophobia" in political or social contexts. AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn told Politico that the terms are "just off the mark" and seem "inaccurate."

In psychology a "phobia" generally refers to an irrational fear, as in agoraphobia (a fear of open or public spaces) or phasmophobia (a fear of ghosts), for example. Minthorn justified AP's decision by asserting, "It's ascribing a mental disability to someone, and suggests a knowledge that we don't have."

Though the terms "homophobia" and "Islamophobia" have adequately communicated their intended meanings, the person who coined the term "homophobia" in his 1972 book Society and the Healthy Homosexual, Dr. George Weinberg, did actually consider people who feared and hated homosexuals as having a psychological problem, in stark contrast to the then-prevailing notion that it was homosexuality that constituted a psychosexual malady.

Oddly, though, and for entirely different reasons, I agree with the AP that the terms "homophobia" and "Islamophobia" (and "biphobia" and "transphobia," for that matter) are imprecise at best, so I, too, find them problematic. What we have been calling "homophobia" and "Islamophobia" are, in reality, not irrational fears. In fact, they are not irrational at all but socially taught and learned attitudes (prejudices) and behaviors (acts of discrimination). They stand not merely in the realm of psychological disorders but as forms of oppression on multiple levels, including the individual/interpersonal, institutional and societal/cultural (Hardiman & Jackson 1997), as do other forms of oppression, such as racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, adultism, ethnocentrism, looksism and others. These stand as "isms" rather than as "phobias."

Written in the form of a mathematical equation, O = P + SP, we can chart oppression (O) as constituting prejudice (P) plus the social power (SP) to enforce that prejudice upon members of minoritized groups (Howard 2006). If we understand this symbolic depiction to explain oppression, then we can clearly recognize that the term "reverse oppression" represents a contradiction, or an inaccuracy at best.

For example, can a gay may feel prejudice toward a heterosexual person? Sure! Can that gay man discriminate on the individual/interpersonal level against a heterosexual person? Of course! But does that gay man, or do members of gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual and transgender communities, have the social power to oppress heterosexuals on the institutional and the larger societal/cultural levels? I would argue that the anser is a resounding "no!" Likewise, we can argue that "reverse racism" and "reverse sexism" do not exist, either.

At one time I preferred the term "homophobia" to refer to oppression against lesbian and gay people, "biphobia" against bisexual people and "transphobia" against transgender people. In fact, I titled the 1992 anthology I edited Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price, discussing the ways in which this form of oppression hurts everyone regardless of one's actual sexual identity. However, if I were to publish this book today, I would title it Heterosexism and Cissexism: How We All Pay the Price.

I did not coin the term "heterosexism," though I define it as the overarching system of advantages bestowed on heterosexuals. Heterosexism is the institutionalization of a heterosexual norm or standard, which establishes and perpetuates the notion that all people are or should be heterosexual, thereby privileging heterosexuals and heterosexuality and excluding the needs, concerns, cultures and life experiences of lesbians, gay males, bisexuals and asexuals. Often overt, though at times subtle, heterosexism is oppression by neglect, omission, erasure and distortion, and also by intent, purpose and design (Blumenfeld 2000, 2010). Related concepts include "heteronormativity" (Warner 1991) and "compulsory heterosexuality" (Rich 1986), which establish the normalization and privileging of heterosexuality.

We can understand "cissexism" as oppression directed against transgender people. "Cis" comes from the Latin root meaning "to/this the near side," so "cisgender" refers to those whose gender identity and gender perception and expressions accord with the behaviors and roles socially constructed as appropriate to the sex assigned to them at birth.

The terms "heterosexism" and "cissexism," while formed in relatively parallel constructions with other forms of oppression, still remain problematic, given that they differ from other "isms" in that they enumerate the dominant or agent groups (heterosexual and cisgender people) in their roots. Conversely, terms like "racism" and "sexism" have in their roots the socially determined distinguishing factor that determines the socially created and enforced hierarchical degrees of power and privilege that are accorded (race and sex in these examples).

Therefore, a possibly more precise and parallel term sometimes used to express oppression based on gender identity and expression might be "genderism." This places the distinguishing factor as the root, rather than the dominant or minoritized groups, while deploying the suffix "ism" to signify a form of oppression.

I have attempted to coin a term to represent oppression against lesbian, gay, bisexual and asexual people within a similar construction, though each term I devise seems rather awkward at best, terms like "sexual identitism," "sexualism" or "sexualitism." I am quite sure these terms will not find wide acceptance anytime soon, so, at least for the time being, I prefer to stick with the word "heterosexism" to encompass the previously used "homophobia" and "biphobia."

No matter what terms we agree upon, hopefully one day, with the creative and inspiring work of the change agents among us within our households, schools and businesses and all our social institutions and communities, and in all the countries across our planet, we will experience a time when all these forms of oppression will be relegated to the trash heaps of history, when we transform these present-tense "isms" into past-tense "wasms."


Blumenfeld, W. J. (2000, 2010). Introduction to Heterosexism. In M. Adams, W. J. Blumenfeld, R. Castañeda, H. Hackman, M. Peters, and X. Zúñiga. (Eds.). Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. New York: Routledge.

Blumenfeld, W. J. (Ed.). (1992). Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price. Boston: Beacon Press.

Hardiman, R., & Jackson, B. (1997). Conceptual foundations for social justice courses. In M.
Adams, L. A. Bell, P Griffin (Eds.), Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice (pp. 16-29). New York: Routledge.

Howard, Gary R. (2006). We Can't Teach What We Don't Know: White Teachers, Multiracial Schools. (2nd Edition). New York: Teachers College Press.

Rich, A. C. (1986). Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence. Blood, Bread, and
Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985
. New York: Norton.

Warner, M. (1991). Fear of a queer planet. Social Text. 9 (4): 3-17.

Weinberg, G. (1972). Society and the Healthy Homosexual. New York: St. Martins