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Is homophobia wrong?

A post yesterday on Anglican subjects, “A woman under those robes,” prompted a tart response from Patricia the Terse that, in passing, complained that I had misused the word homophobic.

This puzzled some readers, who wondered what the nature of her objection was. Another commenter suggested that people who dislike the term object to the phobia component because they do not want to be accused of being fearful of gay people.

I hesitate to put words in the Terse One’s mouth, because there is already an adequate stock there, but I suspect that her objection is linguistic. Anyone who thinks that words adopted from another language must remain true to their etymological roots — like those who insist that decimate must always mean reduction by a tenth — might well complain that homophobia from its root words means fear of human beings, of Homo sapiens.

This form of purism is misguided, because words over time develop meanings far removed from their etymology. (See “A nice mess.”) This happens, and resistance is futile. Martin Estinel of the Queen’s English Society, who still objects to gay for homosexual, can fulminate all he wants, but he would do better to recollect the story of Canute and the tide. Homophobia is a well-established word meaning an irrational dislike of gay people.

Whether you think homosexuality is a good thing, a bad thing, or a neutral thing, a natural phenomenon or an unnatural one — there is no uniformity on the subject in science, religion, or law — is a question of personal belief beyond the scope of this blog. But as far as language is concerned, people use homophobia, and what they mean by it is widely understood. Anyone who dislikes the word is not obliged to use it.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:49 AM | | Comments (16)


On Facebook Dan Puckett points out further: "The ]'"homo-' in 'homophobia' isn't from the Latin 'homo,' 'person.' Both roots of the word are from Greek, in which 'homos' means 'same.' "

It's indisputable that this term has secured its place in the language -- and I agree that people no longer consider the literal meaning when they use it.

But from the get-go, since its conscious creation a few decades ago by people sympathetic toward gay rights, it's been a loaded word, implying very strongly that intolerance of gays is a mental problem on the intolerant person's part, and that it stems from fear (no doubt the fear of acknowledging one's own place on the continuum).

Personally, I'm pleased that the gay rights community scored this victory in the language. But objectively, it really is a loaded, probably unfair word.

Much the same thing could be said about "racism," which also describes a real phenomenon but which is also a loaded word that can be used casually and unfairly.

Shouldn't there be quotation marks around "homophobia" in the headline: Is 'homophobia' wrong? That would distinguish the word "homophobia" from the practice of homophobia. As it stands, I was misled by the headline, and I thought the item was going to be about whether it's right to hate gays.

I totally agree with you both about how the word "homophobia" can be used a loaded word that can be used unfairly. However, as John says for people to try to make the definition mean something else because they feel uncomfortable with it isn't something that will ever work.

Homophobia is now a term that people will related to discrimination and abuse against the LGBT community and that can't be changed (nor should it be in my book). What we do all need to do now as a society is learn to use it better and more constructively, but again that is something that could be said about a lot of "negative" terms concerned with minority groups.

Thanks for the thought provoking post John.

Since phobia's original meaning in Greek was "flight", and it's proto-indoeuropean root is the equivalent of "to run", isn't the use of phobia in homophobia correct? It certainly seems closer to aversion than fear.

I personally don't give a tinker's dam about the "gay rights community." Nor am I much interested in the origins of the word "homophobia:" the word is used purposely to attack people who disagree with a position or point of view, which doesn't gain them points with anyone outside their own small sphere. If I disagree with Big Al (Tawana Brawley) Sharpton, that doesn't make me a racist, although plenty of people in Al's camp would rush to use the word. I suggest that sensible writers with no axe to grind - surely there are some - could stop using the word. Now there's a thought. Now, back to the important stuff of life: How about a new photograph with summer haberdash? It is Wimbledon and strawberry season after all.

P the T, I am still confused as to exactly what your objection to "homophobia" is. In your original comment you said John had misused it. Here, though, you seem to be saying it's the socio-political baggage the word carries, or perhaps the way certain people use it, that makes it objectionable. While that's certainly a point of view that would lead you to dislike the word, it doesn't make John's use of it incorrect. Would you clarify?

Wouldn't an etymological purist insist that homophobia means fear of something that is the same, not fear of people? After all, such sticklers are also likely to be the same folks who claim that a word shouldn't mix Greek and Latin roots.

Whoa, I swear that first comment wasn't there a minute ago; I checked, or at least I thought I did. I blame the weather; it's hot enough here to fry the egg on my face.

Yes - I object to the use of the word for reasons ut supra and because it is used exactly for those reasons. Whether 'phobia'implies fear or flight, the strong implication is that people who either dislike homosexuality for a number of reasons, or ignore it altogether are somehow less moral, or less 'tolerant' then the other side. Of course, the people who hurl "intolerant" are themselves usually guilty of intolerance. You can argue semantics forever, but you still won't change the thrust of the word. In the end, it may just be a difference of opinion: when last I looked, we are still allowed that, regardless of what the strident minority thinks. (Now, about that new photograph...)

People who dislike or "ignore" a certain minority are obviously paragons of tolerance. I don't see where people get these crazy ideas!

While disagreeing with Patricia for the most part, I'll acknowledge that the word "homophobia" is occasionally used too broadly. Nowhere near as often as Patricia seems to imagine, but yes, sometimes it is. Even in its generally-understood sense - wherein the word needn't have anything to do with fear - it still implies a strong emotional aversion to homosexuals, and should not be used interchangeably with mere intellectual disapproval of homosexual activity. I agree with that.

But I think she is mistaken in attributing such use to John E. McIntyre.

"… mere intellectual disapproval of homosexual activity

Putting forward the idea that expressing disapproval of homosexuality could ever be "merely intellectual" suggests such a blindness to one's own emotionally driven motives that further argument against such a position would be pointless.

Now one is not allowed one's emotions or their alleged "motives," but we are allowed an intellectual disapproval? Clearly the manipulation of emotion and intellect has only one end: to sway all opinion to one side. I survived many years in academia, not to mention the popular press, and escaped that. And by what law are people not allowed their "emotionally driven motives?" Often those are based on morals, which are often at odds with the prevailing political cant.

So Patricia can't read and Terry has never met a real human being.

Contrary to Terry, people frequently accept various received moral doctrines on an intellectual level without necessarily having an emotional stake in the matter. Such people's presuppositions may be mistaken, but to attribute their beliefs to an emotional aversion not in evidence is to dismiss the diversity of human experience and thought.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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