The Associated Press Bans Homophobia

In pursuit of accuracy, the standard-setters get it wrong.

Margie J. Phelps protests outside Manhattan's City Clerk's Office.
Margie J. Phelps protests outside Manhattan’s City Clerk’s Office as same-sex couples wait to marry in July 2011

Photo by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images.

The Associated Press announced this week that its new stylebook would bar the use of the word homophobia in political or social contexts (along with Islamophobia and ethnic cleansing). AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn told Politico that the term is “just off the mark” and “seems inaccurate”—oddly amorphous phrases for a standards editor. “We want to be precise and accurate and neutral in our phrasing,” he said.

If that’s true, let’s hope the AP doesn’t define “political and social contexts” as broadly as it explains its style updates. Applying homophobia more precisely is a good idea, but banning it outright is a mistake.

The AP, whose guidelines set news industry standards, defines phobia as an “irrational, uncontrollable fear, often a form of mental illness.” But the “mental illness” part is surely too literal—no one accuses arachnophobes of needing an asylum. The term homophobia was first used in the 1960s when psychologists began to notice how vehement their own colleagues’ reactions were to gay people—far more irrational, it seemed, than feelings around other outsider groups. “They had no argument, just repugnance,” says George Weinberg, a clinical psychologist who popularized the term in a 1972 book and opposes the AP’s move to drop the word. “They felt this way even about their own children. I realized this thing is deeply emotional and is based on fear.” As Weinberg and others used it, the term meant a dread or fear of close contact with gay people and a strong discomfort with homosexuality.

In those days, there was little tolerance for research on why people’s rationality broke down when it came to homosexuality. But we now know a lot more than we did then about anti-gay bias and the extent to which it is, in fact, rooted in irrational fear. Some of this knowledge has come simply because we’ve learned how seldom humans consult their rational brains about anything, especially sex. But this is particularly true not only when it comes to pleasure but also fear.

Neuroscientists have shown that the pathway of the brain’s fear response sidesteps the higher brain functions on its way to the fear-processing center. This helps explain a famous story in which a man entered a convenience store and instantly walked out, feeling fear but having no idea why; moments later a policeman entered the store and was shot. The two men had interrupted an armed robbery, but the lucky one who left in time had processed a threat in his brain’s fear center and made the snap decision to leave before his rational brain could even catch up.

In this case, it was the right decision. That’s because our brains have evolved to give us a fight-or-flight mechanism that often saves us from harm before our rational minds—which can be more helpful for long-range planning—do the job. But this same system can lead us astray. Fear instincts that may be rational in one instant or context are not perfectly attuned to others, and one result of irrational fear is bias. Research now suggests that instinctive responses of fear and disgust help explain prejudice, especially negative feelings about homosexuality, which can trigger people’s disgust sensitivities—also designed by evolution to keep us safe, in this case from dangers to our health.

Here’s how this works: People come to associate a particular group of outsiders with the things that trigger their primary disgust sensitivities—symbols of our mortality and animalism such as waste and various bodily fluids. This mental link gives rise to a layer of “secondary disgust”—beliefs, reinforced through a cultural narrative, that the group carries with it the same threats of danger and disease as do sources of primary disgust, like tainted blood or feces. This is why many of the same people want to keep both gays and immigrants at bay—they have a heightened fear of people they believe spend their time in distant or walled-off places mixing their dangerous fluids together and threatening to spread them to others with deadly force. Such a fear doesn’t have to be conscious to be this specific. Nor is it always wrong. American Indians were right to fear white settlers, whether or not they knew the precise nature of the threat. As it turned out, Europeans decimated Native Americans through a deadly combination of just what their brains probably feared most: murder, poaching, and the spread of disease.

Indeed, not all fear is irrational. Aristotle distinguished between fear (phobos in Greek) that was well-founded and fear that was ungrounded. “There are some things that it is right and honorable to fear,” he wrote. Those who fear the right things or face them bravely are called courageous, while those who fear the wrong things are cowardly. If your disgust sensitivity—especially the secondary layer—is overactive, you may be inclined toward irrational fears and in need of a dose of courage.

So is anti-gay sentiment an irrational fear worthy of being dubbed a phobia? Passive anti-gay sentiment—which people hold when they have not devoted energy to learning about the issues or when they unthinkingly accept selective religious teachings—may be more of a position than a fear. Some might call this a value and say that such beliefs and attitudes should be tolerated whether or not they have a rational basis.

But anti-gay activists aren’t passive. They make specific claims that gay people are a threat to their way of life and should indeed be feared. The shape of these claims has changed over time. They used to (and sometimes still) say that gay people were mentally ill, morally weak, and carried disease—in the service of supporting laws to keep them from infecting them and their families. More common these days are assertions that LGBT equality will undermine the health of the country by weakening its values, bedrocks, and defenses—in the service of supporting laws to keep them from infecting their institutions.

With the more recent rhetoric, anti-gay advocates are making testable claims about specific threats—and all have turned out not to be true. This is one reason that courts—which do require a “rational basis” for unequal laws—have consistently struck down anti-gay laws. After exhaustive reviews of actual research in a venue where rationality is the standard, courts have concluded that equal access to military service and marriage does not, in fact, create the harms claimed by anti-equality activists who, it turns out, were expressing irrational fears.

After enough of these hearings—both in courts and elsewhere—have brought rational evidence to light, those who continue to insist that gay people are a threat are being irrationally fearful. Or homophobic.

Not everyone who opposes gay rights has a phobia. At a practical level, it may be wise to throw the term homophobe around less, as calling people names is generally an ineffective way to change their minds. But an important body of evidence suggests that some anti-gay sentiment is a phobia, and this phobia is the basis for anti-gay policy that blocks equality for millions because of irrational fears. In its journalistic effort to appear neutral, the AP risks being part of the problem.