From the NYT Magazine on Sunday January 31st, “How ‘-Phobic’ Became a Weapon in the Identity Wars” by Amanda Hess, with this photo “Slot Machine” by Javier Jaén:


It started, innocently enough, at Hooters. A waitress who goes by Zola got to talking with a diner named Jessica. The two bonded over a shared romantic philosophy (each had a ‘‘sugar daddy’’ at home) and career focus (each moonlighted as an exotic dancer), and when Jessica invited Zola on a road trip to Florida to strip at some local clubs, Zola strapped in. Little did Zola know, she was hurtling toward the center of a backwater psychodrama in which she would face off against a series of pimps, johns, kidnappers, one very weepy white boy and Jessica herself, who had pulled her new friend into this nonconsensual weekend tour of the underground sex trade.

At least that’s how Zola told it in a tweet-storm last fall (though aspects of the account have since been disputed). When her story went viral, big media outlets picked it up, and the retellings brought a significantly more banal showdown — this one between journalists, sex-worker advocates and Twitter commentators. By posting Zola’s tweets — alongside photos of Jessica, clues leading to her personal Instagram profile and a throwaway joke about ‘‘hoes’’ — the women’s website Jezebel seemed to ‘‘mock someone for being a sex worker and further compromise their safety,’’ the writer and activist Lux Alptraum argued in a tweet. The treatment struck Alptraum as ‘‘whorephobic.’’ And that word struck Erin Gloria Ryan, then a Jezebel editor, as over the top: ‘‘lol ‘whorephobic,’ ’’ she replied. ‘‘Nobody’s afraid of anyone here, Lux.’’

A warning right away about the Etymological Fallacy — the fallacious belief that the present meaning and/or use of an expression should follow from its etymology — as it crops up in Ryan’s comment. In this case the element –phobic (also –phobia and –phobe) comes into English from French, which took it from a Greek root meaning ‘fear’, so Ryan believes the element must refer to fear of something.

But this is not the way people use the element. Even the cautious Michael Quinion glosses –phobia in his Affixes list as ‘extreme or irrational fear or dislike’ (emphasis mine), and his list of –phobias regularly uses the disjunction in its definitions. See my 8/10/12 posting “Hate” on the Etymological Fallacy.

The Wikipedia on the subject article embraces a wider range of attitudes, beliefs, and feelings:

Homophobia is a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). Definitions refer variably to antipathy, contempt, prejudice, aversion, irrational fear, and hatred. In a 1998 address, author, activist, and civil rights leader Coretta Scott King stated that “Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood.”

The King quotation also moves from individual attitudes, beliefs, and feelings to matters of large-scale systematic prejudice.

Hess’s article continues:

The ‘‘-phobic’’ suffix has emerged as the activist’s most trusted term of art for pinning prejudice on an opponent. There’s ‘‘xenophobic,’’ ‘‘homophobic,’’ ‘‘Islamophobic,’’ ‘‘transphobic,’’ ‘‘fatphobic’’ and ‘‘whorephobic’’: Any blowhard who spews bigotry against a marginalized group — or any journalist who pens an article perceived as insufficiently sensitive — risks being called out for an irrational anxiety over one Other or another. When did this particular diagnosis become such a powerful weapon in the identity wars?

The fuse that would eventually set off the modern ‘‘-phobia’’ boom was lit a half-century ago by a psychotherapist named George Weinberg. He had noticed a curious cluster of psychological symptoms among some straight men. The typical sufferer felt a ‘‘tremendous pressure to be the aggressor in sex,’’ expected ‘‘conformity and passivity on the part of his woman,’’ subjected his children to ‘‘ludicrous role expectations’’ and — in severe cases — restricted the ‘‘use of color in his home and in his clothing’’ in an effort to avoid ‘‘womanish’’ tones. He never sat too close to male friends and didn’t hug his own son. He loathed gay people. No existing diagnosis applied to these men, so Weinberg invented his own: ‘‘homophobia.’’

Weinberg believed that ‘‘discriminatory practices against homosexuals have deep psychological motives,’’ as he wrote in his 1972 book ‘‘Society and the Healthy Homosexual.’’ But Weinberg was not only a therapist; he was also a gay rights activist, and in his book, he hinted at the term’s strategic value in furthering the goals of the budding movement. In the early ’60s, homosexuality was classified as a ‘‘sociopathic personality disturbance’’ often ‘‘treated’’ with sadistic group therapies and electric shocks. Pathologizing the anti-gay position gave heterosexuals a taste of their own medicine. ‘‘The very knowledge that homophobia is being investigated,’’ Weinberg wrote, ‘‘helps people keep in mind that homophobia is a personal problem.’’

… Gregory Herek, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, argued in a 2004 paper published in Sexuality Research & Social Policy that the movement ought to identify a new foe — like ‘‘sexual prejudice’’ — that is more befitting its civil rights agenda. Coding anti-gay behavior as a personal problem obscures the religious and political beliefs that are spurring anti-gay attitudes, he wrote.

… ‘‘Phobia’’ is now so embedded in our language that it’s easy to forget that it is a metaphor comparing bigots to the mentally ill. The comparison also has the effect of excusing those Americans — like certain presidential candidates in the 2016 race — who wield prejudices strategically. It’s not your fault if you get sick. But hating people is a choice.

Weinberg’s move was to fix on homophobia (whatever it’s called; I’m ok with the label homophobia, though, and want to remind people, once again, that a label is not a definition) not only as a characteristic of individuals, but also to medicalize this characteristic, to treat it as a form of (mental) illness. This has always struck me as a dubious move on scientific grounds and on strategic grounds as well, satisfying though it might be to throw beliefs that homosexuality is a form of mental illness back in the face of those who believe it.

And I’d maintain that it’s far from enough for Hess to say that hating people is a choice, since hating a whole group is not something that someone comes to entirely on their own, but rather is, as Herek suggests, very considerably the result of prejudice promulgated by social insttutions, including churches and political groups. Moving the emphasis from the personal to the imstitutional is one of the goals of the wryly named Facebook community Homophobia Is A Social Disease —


in which the medical metaphor is entirely playful: the point is to see homophobia as embedded in social institutions, gathering its power from the strength of those institutions and their sway over inviduals.

One Response to “homophobia”

  1. Tommy Boy Says:

    More evidence of Etymological Fallacy.
    Not that explaining that will ever change minds like these.

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