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the word 'homophobia'
> The word I would really like to get rid of is 'homophobia'. It is one of
> those goofy portmanteau words, literally, "fear of homos". The 'homo-' in
> 'homosexual' is from from the Greek for 'same' (as in homonym,
> homogenized...), not from the Latin 'homo' = human (as in homo sapiens). A
> truly useless and ugly word.
I'd like to get rid of the word 'homophobia' too. It muddles more than it
clarifies, and it almost always sounds accusatory rather than descriptive.
Originally it had clarity and a narrow focus. George Weinberg coined
the term in his book _Society and the Healthy Homosexual_ (NYC, St.
Martins, 1972) to mean "the irrational fear of homosexuals."
Weinberg's term quickly lost any precision in denoting fear, rational or
irrational, as acknowledged 20 years later in the Concise Oxford
Dictionary, 8th Ed., Copyright 1991 Oxford Univ. Press se:
/homophobia/ <<%h@Um@"f@UbI@>> n. a hatred or fear of homosexuals.
Most usage that I hear now comes closer to 'hatred' or 'dislike' than to
phobia. "You're a homophobe" comes close to meaning "You hate me." If you
mean to say "You hate me", why try not say so directly rather than try to
give your whine a patina of scholarship?
Maya Angelou warns us that "whining lets a brute know that there is a
victim in the neighborhood."
I wish _homophobia_ would still narrowly denote 'irrational fear' of
homosexuals; it has utility for me when used that way.
My Aunt Rose had a phobia for germs. As a child I could tell that Aunt
Rose had arrived for a visit the moment I smelled the rubbing alcohol on
the front door knob. Dutifully she wiped with alcohol every door knob,
every dinner plate she used, every glass she used. It made her feel
better to do that, and she was almost incapacitated with fear if she did
On the other hand, if we went to eat at a restaurant (as she did for lunch
almost every day), she swabbed neither the door knobs nor the plates. My
cousins and I used to giggle behind her back about what Aunt Rose would
think if she could go into the kitchen of most of those restaurants, but
we missed the point. Her fear had nothing to do with thinking. It was
irrational. It was a phobia.
I suppose we could have gotten terribly worked up and insulted by my
aunt's clear message that our house was not clean enough, but it seemed
much more rational to indulge her. She was delightful to be around if we
took no notice of her behavior. She meant no harm to us by it. She did
not swipe the plates we used. And clearly she was the major victim of her
Several years ago a journal for psychologists published the results of a
study that showed that in routine business encounters heterosexual people
kept a greater physical distance from persons of the same-sex whom they
presumed to lesbian or gay. I replicated the results by placing masking
tape at various distances on the floor of my office. I always put the
student's chair against the wall so that a visitor would have to place the
chair next to my desk to review a writing assignment. I monitored the
distance at which the males and the females placed the chair, and my
results came out about the same as those in the journal. A heterosexual
male colleague collaborated with the same test. His males students sat
closer to him than mine did to me. Both of us kept the office door open
at all times. Both of us were strictly professional and both had that
reputation. We did not publish the study not tell the students about it.
We did it for our own understanding.
Again, I would be unreasonable to complain about my students' fears. They
were irrational, and I presume for the most part, unconscious. I have
always been a popular teacher, and I noticed no variation related to those
who obviously liked me and the occasional student who did not. I had no
particular need for them to sit close. Those who sat at the greatest
distance were disadvantaging themselves from being able to see comfortably
the texts which we were addressing, making it harder for themselves to
get the help they sought.
Somewhere in my study I have a thick binder marked 'Episcopal Snide,'
containing abusive mail from Episcopal bishops, most of them now dead,
mail that were they living they would be embarrassed to read because the
vitriol did not match the rest of their character, most assuredly not
their public character. Nor did I ever assume that it did. I assumed
these scathing letters manifested irrational responses. These were not
the kind of correspondence you would write to a colleague, or a university
professor, or even a parishioner....all of which they knew me to be. Nor
had I said anything emotionally loaded to trigger their responses. Ernest
taught me long time ago that prose to one with whom one might seem to be
in conflict is best stripped of emotion and kept to bare facts. It's
amazing how people will transfer their own emotions to such bare texts,
and then fault you for reacting in the ways they have reacted.
For the most part, it's easier to forgive irrational malice than studied,
sane, and intentional malice. Most of those bishops were manifesting the
phobias their education had taught. They were forgiven long before they
felt a need to ask for forgiveness, from the source of my own forgiveness,
from the source of all forgiveness. If one does not understand that, it
is spiritually dangerous to pray "forgive us our sins as we for give those
who sin against us." That's a prayer God guarantees to answer.
I prefer the word _heterosexism_ to the word _homophobia_, but it too
brings much distracting baggage. I like it because it is impersonal: it
addresses systemic problems, not individual guilt, or at least I intend
for it to. However, it is clear to me that many heterosexuals feel
scolded when they hear _heterosexism_, as if to say, "O no! Puleeze.
Not another guilt trip from people whom I don't care much about either
way, and people whom I certainly won't go out of my way to harm."
A word that evokes that response won't say much to the person who hears
it. I am much more interested in finding allies than in telling others
how bad they are.
Let's see if I can make my point without having to resort to terms that
turn away those whose solidarity I seek:
* There are systems that privilege me with little regard to my merit, and
I want to change those systems. I am privileged by having a healthy
body. I want to change those systems that give easy access only to the
* I am privileged by being a male. I don't want to give up any of those
privileges, but I want to work in solidarity with others, males and
females, to assure that those same privileges are extended to females.
* I am enormously privileged by my skin color, in myriads of ways that my
privilege would have isolated me from seeing had I not lived with a
black spouse for almost three decades. I don't want those privileges to
disappear; I want them not to be based on skin color.
* Heterosexuals enjoy far more privileges than they realize, and it is
great that they do. I don't want those privileges to be abolished, nor
do I want them to lose them; I want them to work in solidarity with
others of good will to see that those privileges are extended to people
I hope I have succeeded. No one group can make the world better. We need
the whole human family to do that.