AP bans the word “homophobia”

Well, now you done it, AP.

The august Associated Press today banned the word “homophobia,” along with the word “Islamophobia,” which I would have argued is much less a “real” word than the term “homophobia,” the latter having been around since the 1960s.  Then I checked, and Islamophobia appears to have been around a bit longer than I initially thought:

Islamophobia denotes prejudice against, or hatred or irrational fear of, Muslims. The term dates back to the early 1900s, but its modern use originates during the late 1980s or early 1990s. It entered the common vocabulary after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

I still find the word Islamophobia a bit forced, linguistically, even though the condition is real, politically.

Politico talked to the AP about “homophobia” in particular:

The online Style Book now says that “-phobia,” “an irrational, uncontrollable fear, often a form of mental illness” should not be used “in political or social contexts,” including “homophobia” and “Islamophobia.” It also calls “ethnic cleansing” a “euphemism,” and says the AP “does not use ‘ethnic cleansing’ on its own. It must be enclosed in quotes, attributed and explained.”

“Ethnic cleansing is a euphemism for pretty violent activities, a phobia is a psychiatric or medical term for a severe mental disorder. Those terms have been used quite a bit in the past, and we don’t feel that’s quite accurate,” AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn told POLITICO.

“When you break down ‘ethnic cleansing,’ it’s a cover for terrible violent activities. It’s a term we certainly don’t want to propagate,” Minthorn continued. “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.”

I’m sorry, the AP says you don’t exist.Debu55y / Shutterstock.com 

A mental disability?

I don’t know anyone who uses the term “homophobia” to mean that someone is clinically insane, or mentally unstable, or whatever other pretzel AP would like to tie itself into over this word.  Having said that, even the law requires a “rational basis” for anti-gay political actors, so to call the fear of gays and our civil rights “irrational,” and based on an “uncontrollable fear,” strikes me as spot on.

George Weinberg, the author of “Society and the Healthy Homosexual” (1972), who coined the word “homophobia”, weighs in by email:

“I just want to go on record as disagreeing with the AP’s decision not to use ‘homophobia,’ the word. I am a psychologist and author who coined the word a long time ago. It made all the difference to City Councils and other people I spoke to. It encapsulates a whole point of view and of feeling. It was a hard-won word, as you can imagine. It brought me some death threats. Is homophobia always based on fear? I thought so and still think so. Maybe envy in some cases. But that’s a psychological question. Is every snarling dog afraid? Probably yes. But here it shouldn’t matter. We have no other word for what we’re talking about, and this one is well established. We use ‘freelance’ for writers who don’t throw lances anymore, and who want to get paid for their work. Fowler even allows us to mix what he called dead metaphors. It seems curious that this word is getting such scrutiny while words like triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13) hangs around.”

Of course, what the AP is afraid of is picking sides.  Using the word “homophobia” is to suggest that there isn’t a rational basis for thinking that the marriage of gay couples will somehow make hetero marriages fall apart.  And the word “Islamophobia” suggests that Republicans who are afraid that the greatest threat to Topeka is the Sharia aren’t bat-s crazy, when they actually are.

I will say that it’s not entirely clear when AP would use the word homophobia (or Islamophobia for that matter), in any case.  Other than in a quote, I’m hard pressed to think of when AP would use it in a news story.  Still…

And same goes for “ethnic cleansing,” another term AP is unfortunately banning – doesn’t it mean a tad more than simply “pretty violent activities”?  I suppose you could say “systematic effort to forcibly deport or kill an entire ethnic minority.”   But if people already know that that’s what ethnic cleansing means, then why not just use the term when its appropriate (Milosevic in Bosnia comes to mind), since it’s more economical and the meaning is clear on its face?

You know who else banned the phrase ethnic cleansing?  (Just kidding.  But only kind of.)

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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34 Responses to “AP bans the word “homophobia””

  1. Jake says:

    AP absolutely did the right thing. Using the word homophobia suggests that those who oppose gay marriage are mentally ill, which of course is both blatantly wrong and frames the argument in an unbalanced atmosphere.

  2. Magiphart says:

    Have to agree with AP here.

  3. Sweetie says:

    Heterosexism works better, because people already know what the -ism morpheme means, via sexism, racism, et cetera.

    We have “white supremacists” as part of racism, but “heterosupremacy” is more cumbersome and unnecessarily distances the concept from racism, sexism, and other -isms.

  4. Sweetie says:


    The point I made is clear: We don’t try to reduce racism from a systemic/systematic form of superiority/hierarchical prejudice into a knee-jerk emotional/”natural”/unconscious reaction to something (phobia).

    We do this with heterosexism, though, because people do not take it seriously in our culture. They don’t. This is why we have books with QUEER all over academia and not books with the N word. We don’t have N word Theory, and I can’t type the N word and have my post show up in Disqus.

    Our society take racism more seriously, much more seriously. Part of that is determined by word choice and shown by that word choice.

  5. Foot Pride says:

    No, we don’t have black-o-phobia for racism. Neither do we have black-ism or white-ism or whatever other race you might choose.

  6. Krustacean says:

    If it’s just a change to their style guide, I think it’s fine. It is too inflammatory for news reporting. If they will bleep or censor direct quotes using the word, I think that’s wrong. If someone already said this, sorry, but please check your definitions before assuming a word only has a literal meaning. Homophobe and other “phobes” associated with groups of people have come to mean dislike, disgust, or fear. Our language is dynamic, meanings change all the time. As such, homophobia is a fine word to use if you want to classify someone’s negative feelings toward those otheredly-orientated. It is however akin to calling someone a racist -it’s not generally appropriate in news reporting. News should report the negative actions, and discuss the reaction/ramifications of those actions, but not get into name-calling.

  7. Skeptical Cicada says:

    I didn’t. The AP has a long history of running anti-gay stories that wallow in *homophobia.*

  8. Skeptical Cicada says:

    Yes. The AP editor’s statement was little more than a restatement of bigoted whining about the word.

  9. harryunderwood says:

    “Homosexual” as a noun has a history of being used “clinically”, and it is advised against journalistic usage by GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide: http://www.glaad.org/reference/offensive

    But the issue that I think the AP is indirectly addressing is that both “homosexual(ity)” and “homophobia” derived from persons in the behavioral and sexological sciences. The anti-gay folks have taken their own “interpretation” of “homosexual(ity)” from those sciences and both “clinicalized” and politicized the word “homosexual” while the pro-gay rights folks have taken their own interpretation of “homophobia” and both clinicalized and politicized that term as well.

    But there’s no term in the behavioral sciences to describe “hatred”, while there is a word to describe “fear”. I disagree with the common assertion that hatred is based on fear, since some individuals base their own anti-gay activism upon a desire to gain at someone else’s expense. Otherwise, the historical phobia and hatred against African-Americans would not have happened if someone had not decided, without pre-existing malice against them, that Black Africans were good as importable/exportable tools through chattel slavery and the slave trade.

    For some, it’s hatred, just business.

  10. Simon says:

    What about xenophobia ? Is that also banned ?
    In France the word homophobia has evolved to mean the hostility towards homosexuality, whether this hostility is irrational or not. The law punishes homophobic speech (like xenophobic, racist, sexist speech, etc.) so it’s really the official term.

  11. mirror says:

    I find lots of people are perfectly comfortable being bigots or sexist pigs. However, they like much less having the roots of their bigotry pointed out to them or questioned. The question, “What are you afraid of?” is very often the most appropriate, and most effective, question to pose to homophobes. It is certainly the most obvious challenge to someone against marriage equality, for instance.

  12. Sweetie says:

    Heterosexism = the belief in heterosexual superiority.

    That’s all there is to it. That’s what’s at the root of all of it. Nothing more, nothing less.

  13. Sweetie says:

    Too generic. That’s like saying we should get rid of the concepts of sexism and racism as well. Heterosexism is an important separate category.

  14. Sweetie says:

    I really find it astonishing that people don’t seem to understand that heterosexism covers all the bases. We don’t have black-o-phobia for racism, do we? There was plenty of fear involved in racism. But, we see it as a pervasive systemic thing instead of a simple fear. Besides, homophobia embeds the gay panic excuse, as if it’s somehow natural to be afraid of us.

  15. mirror says:

    My perspective is that homophobia indeed has one strong root in the fear of being sexually heterodox that develops in adolescents, particularly in adolescent males. All those closet cases working for anti-gay legislation and causes are certainly frightened of themselves and being found out and punished. It seems clear to me too that many other male homophobes persist in their homophobia out of a fear that they themselves may somehow have “gay tendencies” that can only be stomped out by stomping on gays. Yes, we can add on the other reasons and religions that instill the “hatred, loathing, and looking down on someone who’s different as inferior”, but since then end result is an induced fear of gays somehow rocking the boat, it is still a fear – hence, homophobia.

    I know when I am talking to my son and any of his friends unlucky enough to be stuck in the car with me when the topic arises, I generally challenge their fears of being different. On the other hand, he has a good friend whose parents are gay, and just saying the word “homo” cracks them up like 3rd graders hearing the word fart, so there is clearly a lot of different things going on…

    This is clearly propagandistic language cleansing. Quite a coup by the homophobic right to get an official AP ruling in their favor at a time when they are on the defensive culturally and socially.

  16. Mark_in_MN says:

    This move involves a weird move to clinicalize the term, to force any use of -phobia into the real of abnormal psychology. Nevermind that not all -phobia words belong there. Homophobia is one of those terms. It’s like xenophobia. It’s not a term of mental illness but of aversion and hatred. The AP is simply buying into the homophobes line of propaganda.

  17. Phil says:

    What you call homophobia is indeed the result of fear-mongering, however, we cannot, and must not, allow the religious right and others to give them a free pass when they repeat or regurgitate what they’ve heard from the bigots: they too need to be called out for buying into that crap. Rather than call them homophobes, we can call them what they are: gullible nincompoops! It’s not difficult to point out the hateful idiocy they’ve bought into.

  18. Naja pallida says:

    Or go through Frank Luntz entire lexicon of weasel words and sound bytes that are fed to those who lack the capability of independent thought and reasoned analysis.

  19. “Homophobia”, which means the fear of the same thing, really should be “homosexophobia”. I suggest we take a more basic word like “gayfiendship” and use it instead of an ancient Greek compound word.

  20. tedhayes says:

    When you don’t want to be chastised for bigotry, the simplest way to alleviate the situation is to eliminate words from the vocabulary that describe that bigotry. I always thought AP was better than that.

  21. Beau says:

    While I partially agree with you, there is a real homophobia and fear mongering used by certain aspects of the religious right. According to them, we are all pedophiles after their children, we are trying to convert their children, we are responsible for natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, and we will be the destruction of society. That all sure sounds a lot like fear to me.

  22. Zorba says:

    Yes. Bigotry of all varieties is totally unacceptable, and everyone who has more than two neurons to rub together knows what “homophobia” means. But maybe the AP thinks that their readers are in the same class as the Fox News consumers, who in fact don’t have more than those two neurons.

  23. Zorba says:


  24. karmanot says:

    I, myself, am a gayist, and a straightophile.

  25. karmanot says:

    This is the old ‘bigotry’ is ‘free speech’ dog and pony show.

  26. BeccaM says:

    I’ll give up ‘homophobia’ if they substitute the more accurate term, ‘gay-hating bigotry.’

    As in, “Bryan Fischer, renowned gay-hating bigot and head of the American Family (sic) Association, issued a press release where he once again wrongly conflated pedophilia and bestiality with homosexuality.”

    Anyway, the AP is being stupid. They know damned well everybody knows what ‘homophobia’ means, and this attempt to expunge it from the national discourse reeks of 1984-esque Newspeak. The plain fact is the gay-hating bigots USE fear as their tool to sway the masses to continue accepting discrimination against LGBT folks.

  27. Zorba says:

    Well, how about “homo-hatred”? Or, to use “racist” as a take-off point, maybe “homoist”? No, that doesn’t sound good. Maybe “You are a complete and nonredeemable, small-minded, not fully human jerk.”

    {{Sigh}} Can humans just accept each other in all their wonderful variety, whether it involves race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or whatever? I guess not. :-(

  28. Couldn’t agree more. The best word for bigotry is “bigotry.”

  29. Ann Northrop says:

    John, I think you are exactly right about their fear of taking sides. You nailed it. Saying “anti-gay” implies a value neutrality that is completely inappropriate.

  30. emjayay says:

    These terms are how language works. Ethnic cleansing doesn’t mean removing the idea of ethnicity, or requiring members of minority groups to take daily showers. We know what it means. Same thing with homophobia. It does add a tinge of the idea of irrational predjudice to the idea of being anti-gay. It’s not the same as the phobia in acrophobia. There isn’t really a convenient substitute for either phrase.
    Any word or phrase or idiom means what everyone thinks it means. You know what “beyond the pale” means, but probably you don’t know the literal meaning. (I do. I looked it up recently) It’s like beauty – it’s in the mind of the beholder. I for example agree that the use of Islamophobia is a bit more questionable.

  31. kevinbgoode says:

    I prefer the term “heterosupremacist”

  32. nicho says:

    If they want to start cleansing the language, they should focus their sights on “pro-life,” when used in the context of anti-abortion, anti-choice, and anti-woman.

  33. Sweetie says:

    Heterosexism is generally more apt.

  34. Phil says:

    I never liked the term, as it implies a genuine fear as opposed to plain old hatred, loathing, and looking down on someone who’s different as inferior. It’s way past time to call a spade a spade: fanatical anti-gay bigotry, hatred of LGBT people, heterosexist superiority complex will all do very nicely.

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