The newest edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, a widely used reference for journalists, online now and due to hit the shelves next year, will specifically exclude words including “homophobia” and all other “-phobia” constructions. The online Stylebook defines the suffix “-phobia” as “an irrational, uncontrollable fear, often a form of mental illness” that should not be used “in political or social contexts.”
Casually conflating phobias with quote-”mental disabilities”-unquote in an interview with Politico, AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn said that “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.”
“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.”
“We want to be precise and accurate and neutral in our phrasing,” [Minthorn] said.
The failures are numerous. The AP uses a very specific and clinical definition of “phobia” that doesn’t represent common usage of the word and bundles all forms, levels, and originators of phobias together under the umbrella “severe mental disorder.” They also confuse phobia the noun with -phobia the suffix. “Hydrophobic” would accurately describe my dog’s fear reaction at the beach; it would also describe his condition if he had rabies, and it describes the treatment that keeps my basement walls from absorbing groundwater and collapsing. Words and word parts can carry multiple denotations and connotations; it’s the difference between meanings and meaning.
Moreover, though, the use of “homophobia” to describe the fear of LGBTQ people or homosexuality isn’t entirely inaccurate. Consider how much anti-LGBTQ sentiment is rooted in fear: Fear that The Gays are going to attack our children. Fear that The Gays are going to attack us. Fear that The Gays are going to spread weird gay diseases. Fear that letting The Gays marry will devalue straight marriages. Fear that somehow The Gays will end human reproduction as we know it. Fear that The Gays will bring down God’s wrath upon anyone who doesn’t oppose them. Fear that letting The Gays go about being Gay unharassed will make other people think being gay is okay, and then gayness will spread, which is a bad thing because obviously it is, right?
And no matter how much evidence is presented to contradict all that, no matter how contrary to logic it is, no matter how cruel and unjust it is to look at a person and think yeah, those people are disgusting and despicable and horrible things should happen to them because of who they are, they still cling to their preconceptions, misconceptions, and indoctrinations. Their conclusions, based as they are on false premises, are unsound. It’s irrational, it’s uncontrollable, and just because it isn’t a panic attack at seeing two women kiss at the mall doesn’t mean it isn’t -phobic.
In situations where the AP has a specific, more precise term for a given display of anti-gay action or sentiment, by all means they should deploy it. I fully accept that such circumstances could arise. But discarding homophobia wholesale as a term in common use on the grounds that it isn’t “precise” is foolish. (“Anti-gay” itself is a nebulous concept — anti-gay what? Anti-gay rights? Anti-gay visibility? Anti-the-sin-but-not-the-sinner?) By discarding the use of the word homophobia to describe instances of homophobia, the AP is, in a way, reinforcing those sentiments — implying that fear of the consequences of Unchecked Gayness might actually not be irrational. They’re leaving room, in the name of neutrality, to consider whether the positions, actions, and abuses taken against LGBTQ people could have a basis in reason and rationality.
A lot of the support the AP will get for this change is sure to come from people who simply don’t like being called out on their homophobia — the ones who hide behind ironic terms like “pro-marriage” and “pro-family.” Some of them are completely conscious of their flat-out hatred of LGBTQ people and just want a less contentious way to talk about it; some are so thoroughly indoctrinated by their churches and peers that they sincerely think their fears are justified and perfectly rational. That doesn’t make it so. That doesn’t make their position “neutral.” And that doesn’t mean we need to buy into some friendly, “precise” term to shield these people and their delicate feelings from the reality that their irrational fear and aversion causes actual harm to actual people and deserves no deference — not from us, and not from one of the largest and most prolific media outlets in the world.