Quick hit: Nathaniel Frank on the AP’s misguided ‘homophobia’ ban

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Yesterday the Associated Press announced that it will drop the term “homophobia” along with “Islamophobia” and “ethnic cleansing” from its Style Book.  Politico reports that the reasoning behind dropping the term is largely semantic, citing AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn’s rationale that a phobia, or “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.”

This is a big deal because the AP Style Book is very influential and could impact journalistic standards across the field.

While I understand the basic sentiment behind this decision, my initial feeling was one of dismay that we would eliminate such phrases without suitable equivalent or improved alternatives. My feelings were put into (very articulate) words by Nathaniel Frank, who has a great explanation at Slate of why this was the wrong move, even if it is being done in the name of “journalistic neutrality”. His logic is pretty airtight:

“So is anti-gay sentiment an irrational fear worthy of being dubbed a phobia? Passive anti-gay sentiment—which people hold when they have not devoted energy to learning about the issues or when they unthinkingly accept selective religious teachings—may be more of a position than a fear. Some might call this a value and say that such beliefs and attitudes should be tolerated whether or not they have a rational basis.

But anti-gay activists aren’t passive. They make specific claims that gay people are a threat to their way of life and should indeed be feared. …

With the more recent rhetoric, anti-gay advocates are making testable claims about specific threats—and all have turned out not to be true. This is one reason that courts—which do require a “rational basis” for unequal laws—have consistently struck down anti-gay laws…

After enough of these hearings—both in courts and elsewhere—have brought rational evidence to light, those who continue to insist that gay people are a threat are being irrationally fearful. Or homophobic.”

In other words, while I agree with Morgan Freeman’s Twitter parody Morgan Freeman’s overall sentiment that anti-gay advocates are assholes, Frank has me convinced that we need to hold onto the term for at least a little while. The whole thing is worth a read.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/sashabirman/ Amber Thompson

    Homophobia, is the correct term, hate comes from fear; where there is no fear, there is no hate.

    • http://feministing.com/members/mjameson/ Matthew T. Jameson

      That makes for a good platitude, but it’s not clear that hatred necessarily follows from fear. If what we are describing is hateful behavior, why not just call it like we see it, rather than inferring a causal model (fear->hate) and assuming that hate and fear are interchangeable?

      Also, phobia and fear are not the same thing.

  • http://feministing.com/members/xocoatl/ Pat

    Not actually Morgan Freeman – it’s a parody account.

    • http://feministing.com/members/lori/ Lori

      Wow just looked into this and you’re right! Thanks Pat. Updated in the post.

  • http://feministing.com/members/isidore/ isidore

    Maybe this will drive journalist to come up with a better word, but my fear is that they will just fall back on “anti-gay” which is missing the connotation of hated that homophobic has. It’s like if we took away the terms misogynist and racist and just made people use “anti-woman” and “pro-white”. Awful.

    • http://feministing.com/members/mjameson/ Matthew T. Jameson

      Would you consider the terms “woman-phobic” and “person-of-color-phobic” as acceptable synonyms for misogynistic and racist, though? The term homophobic assumes a causal model where hatred must always flow from fear, and that the two terms can therefore be used interchangeably. If what we are describing is anti-gay action, why not just call it that instead of imagining that there must be an underlying fear?

  • http://feministing.com/members/ellefred/ ellefred

    Isn’t using the term *phobia when referring to political or social positions also ableist? A person with a diagnosed phobia can intellectually understand why their phobia is not real and still react the same way, but associating their illness with a social position seems insensitive to the reality of their anxiety. A better term could be “heterosexist.”