By Robert Epstein, Ph.D.
The term “homophobia,” introduced by psychologist George Weinberg in 1972, is an unfortunate euphemism. People with strong reservations about homosexuality don’t fear gays (a phobia is an irrational fear); rather, they often have an aversion to them. And that’s a euphemism too. Many people actually hate gays and even the very idea of homosexuality.
Anti-gay feelings vary from time to time and culture to culture. In the U.S., surveys suggest that the proportion of the population that’s anti-gay has been decreasing gradually over the years, but it’s still likely well over 50 percent. In the Netherlands, that proportion is under 20 percent, whereas in Uganda, legislation is now being considered that would make homosexual behavior punishable by death.
Anti-gay sentiment in Western countries is rooted in the Bible, which contains strong language prohibiting males from “lying with” other males (see Romans 1:26-27 and Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, for example). But the Bible also contains other prohibitions – against getting tattoos, for example (Leviticus 19:28) – which are largely ignored these days. As cultural norms change, people are often willing to set aside Biblical proscriptions. The growing number of states in the U.S.that allow gay marriage or domestic partnerships – now 19 – is indicative of such change.
Language changes too, although sometimes very slowly. In recent decades, the trend toward using politically correct language – that is, language that does not demean particular cultural groups – has gained traction. Although the correctness shift itself is offensive to many people, it appears to be unstoppable, in part because groups that were previously denigrated by harsh language – women, blacks, and Latinos, in particular – now play more important roles in mainstream society. Demographic trends in the U.S.assure that various minorities will play even greater roles here in the future.
Shifting toward neutral, inoffensive language is, one hopes, part of a larger cultural trend toward tolerance and understanding. It also has commercial value, because people are more likely to buy when the language directed at them by vendors is neutral or positive rather than objectionable.
So how should we describe people with strong anti-gay sentiments? The Associated Press is right in setting aside the homophobia lingo, but what do we have to replace it? In an article I published in 2003 in Psychology Today magazine when I was editor-in-chief there, I suggested that the Greek root misos, which means hatred or aversion, was the way to go. That gives us homomisia for the noun and homomisic for the adjective.
From both the communications and correctness perspectives, homomisia and homomisic are better terms than homophobia and homophobic. They’re more honest, for one thing, and they rightly put a weightier burden on the haters. When you fear something, it’s often because the object of that fear is genuinely frightening. When you hate, however, it’s often because of ignorance and bias, which is clearly the case with homomisia. Violence against gays is a hate crime, after all; it would be absurd to call it a fear crime. Suggesting that gays are in any sense objects of fear was ludicrous from the beginning, in my view.