The banning of ‘homophobia’

At some point not long before the election, I raised the issue in one of our many news meetings at MPR that “homophobia” is increasingly being used by journalists to describe opposition to initiatives of what are referred to as “gay rights.” In this particular case, it referred to discussions surrounding November’s attempt to codify the same-sex marriage ban in Minnesota into the state’s constitution.

For journalism, it’s a loaded term that’s best avoided in several situations, especially when it’s used to stop a political conversation rather than participate in one.

The Merriam Webster definition is:

“irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals.”

Declaring a political stance “irrational” is always dangerous ground for journalism and this week the Associated Press launched the debate anew when it changed its Stylebook (pretty much the bible of newswriting) to eliminate the use of the term.

Dave Minthorn, the AP’s standards editor, told Politico:

“Homophobia especially — it’s just 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.”

The initiative found few friends in the comments section. Like this one, for example:

The AP has further determined that the Nazis were engaged in “enhanced Semitism,” that the KKK is characterized by its “unique racial neutrality,” and that Catholic priests – while certainly not homophobic – tend to exhibit “involuntary youth fondness”. Since, however, everything is neutral and nothing is anything particularly, the AP has also banned the term “news” and stopped reporting, since no one has done anything that can be described anymore.

But another commenter makes a useful point. Sometimes “homophobia” is the proper word to use.

So what do you call heteros who refer to gay men as fags and worse? I think “homophobic” is still accurate.

If you were opposed to the same-sex marriage amendment, are you by definition “homophobic?” Not necessarily. If you kill someone because of an aversion to homosexuality, are you “homophobic?” As a starting point, yes. The problem isn’t the use of the word; the problem is the imprecise use of the word.

But the Associated Press’ ban on the word because it might be used incorrectly is a longstanding tradition. Up until recently, people found not guilty in a court decision were to be identified as “innocent,” according to the Associated Press, even though there is no such court finding as “innocent,” and it, too, is a word that could be used imprecisely (think of someone who committed a crime but was found not guilty by reason of insanity; they weren’t innocent). But the AP was afraid newspeople would inadvertently leave out the word “not” when writing “not guilty.”

In an email to Poynter today, Michael Triplett, the president of the National Lesbian Gay Journalists Association, said, “the general sense is that the AP is probably correct in terms of the literalism of the word ‘homophobia’ and that it really 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 describes anti-gay sentiment.”

How about “anti-gay?”