homophobia | noun | an extreme and irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people.
Since its coinage in 1973, the term ‘homophobia’ has become commonplace in not only political discourse, but everyday discussion. However, can we really suggest that a distaste for homosexual people is a phobia?
Let’s start by taking a look at the true definition of phobia:
phobia | noun | an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something
When I first thought about this definition, it concerned me. The two defining characteristics of a phobia are a) that it is irrational; b) that it evokes intense fear. However, when I think about some prominent figures that I would label as homophobes, or even members of my community or social group, I cannot see that they have a fear of homosexuals. Fear, to me, makes us recoil in horror, retract, take cover. However, anti-gays demonstrate none of these characteristics, most probably due to the fact that homophobia itself is an aggressive (in the true sense of the word), reactionary attitude.
The top 3 phobias in the Western world are as follows:
Acrophobia - Fear of Heights
Claustrophobia - Fear of Enclosed Spaces
Nyctophobia - Fear of the Dark
The above phobias would, according to scientific research and basic physiological theory, evoke drastically increased heart-rates and elevated respiration when triggered. However, researchers at the University of Arkansas have suggested that people with an aversion to homosexuals exhibit an initial spike in heart-rate, but then a huge drop shortly after. By comparing the physical and psychological reactions of so-called 'homophobics' to people with other phobias and distastes, these psychologists have concluded that people with an aversion to homosexuals exhibit signs of disgust, not fear.
Furthermore, these researchers also drew parallels between so-called ‘homophobics’ and people who simply held conservative views on sexuality. They have thus suggested that the basis of such an aversion to homosexuals is social or attidudinal, not psychopathological, as a phobia would suggest.
However, why does all this matter?
Labelling something as a phobia somewhat legitimises an attitude - it appears to give a scientific or biological explanation to someone’s actions. By suggesting that being anti-gay is a phobia, we are implying that there is some basis for their ‘irrational’ fear, other than social or attidudinal factors. This dangerously ignores the social factors surrounding anti-gay attitudes, which can be tackled with education and societal change, and instead suggests this aversion is pathological.
Do we need an alternative?
Probably not. As George Weinberg, who coined the term, explained in an interview:
We use ‘freelance’ for writers who don’t throw lances anymore… It seems curious that this word is getting such scrutiny while words like triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13) hangs around.
Weinberg goes onto suggest that homophobia is in fact based on an underlying fear:
Is homophobia always based on fear? I thought so and still think so. Maybe envy in some cases. But that’s a psychological question. Is every snarling dog afraid? Probably yes.
So, although scientific research has proven that homophobia does not evoke fear and irrational emotions consistent with those of an ‘actual’ phobia; it is difficult to deny that there is no underlying fear present (fear of change, fear of dissent, etc.). Furthermore, as Weinburg points out, there are many other words that do not possess a perfectly logical etymology, and thus changing the word on these grounds would be inconsistent. Finally, I personally worry that pushing for an adoption of a more accurate word such as ‘sexualism’ would only risk dividing the push for LGBT rights, and lead to more resentment and accusation of ‘political correctness’.
Disliking gay people isn’t a phobia - there’s no excuse or pathological reason - but, we’ll stick with ‘homophobia’ for now.