AP on Homophobia

The Associated Press Stylebook, which is something of the standard setter among American journalists, has come out discouraging the use of the word homophobia (and Islamophobia as well):

An irrational, uncontrollable fear, often a form of mental illness. Examples: acrophobia, a fear of heights, and claustrophobia, a fear of being in small, enclosed spaces. Do not use in political or social contexts: homophobia, Islamophobia.

The AP justifies its decision in this way:

Phobia means irrational, uncontrollable fear, often a form of mental illness. In terms like homophobia, it’s often speculation. The reasons for anti-gay feelings or actions may not be apparent. Specifics are better than vague characterizations of a person’s general feelings about something.

But that justification is wrongheaded, a clear example of the etymological fallacy that runs counter to how people use both the word and the suffix -phobia. In many instances phobia is not used in a clinical sense, and it doesn’t even have to refer a literal “fear,” as in homophobia which is a bigotry or intense dislike. I don’t have a copy of Webster’s New World Dictionary, which is the AP’s go-to dictionary, but here is how other dictionaries define homophobia:

  • The Oxford English Dictionary, in an entry dated 1993, defines it simply as, “fear or hatred of homosexuals and homosexuality,” and says that -phobia, in a March 2006 entry is used in “forming nouns with the sense ‘fear of ——,’ ‘aversion to ——.’”
  • The American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition gives two definitions of homophobia: “fear of or contempt for lesbians and gay men” and “behavior based on such a feeling.” Similarly, this dictionary gives two definitions for phobia: “a persistent, abnormal, and irrational fear” and “a strong fear, dislike, or aversion.”
  • Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, eleventh edition, says homophobia means an “irrational fear, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals.” This dictionary has two definitions for the combining form -phobia: 1) “an exaggerated fear of” and 2) “intolerance or aversion for.”

The AP is simply wrong on all counts here.

Furthermore, the AP’s argument that homophobia shouldn’t be used because it isn’t a clinical fear is itself a politically charged one. Conservapedia has this to say in their entry for homophobia, which is a more explicit statement of the AP’s justification:

Homophobia is an etymologically incorrect term which most directly denotes “an unreasoning fear of or antipathy toward homosexuals and homosexuality,” but it also includes a fear of increased political and social power of homosexuals in advancing their agenda. The term is used regularly by activists to describe several kinds of people, which may or may not match the actual definition of “fear of homosexuals and homosexuality.” The recipients of the homophobia label include those who feel uncomfortable around homosexuals, those who reveal that they oppose “gays,” and even those who may privately support homosexuality but who fail to publicly support homosexuals when called upon to do so.

So by stepping into the fray, the AP has declared itself, wittingly or not, as being on one side of the “culture wars.”

For further reading, this Voice of America piece quotes Ben Zimmer, John E. McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun weighs in here, and Nathaniel Frank pens Slate’s article on the AP decision.

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