“You, my friend, are a gaycist.”
This remains one of the best lines from Happy Endings, an ABC sitcom that ran from 2011 to 2013. Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.) has set up Max (Adam Pally) on a date with a gay co-worker named Franklin.
“I thought you guys would’ve had a good time,” Brad says, innocently, over a video game. “I mean, you’re both …”
Gay. It’s a misstep many gay people are familiar with, even from our most well-meaning friends. You’ll love him—he’s gay! (As a general rule, hearing this predisposes me not to like the homosexual in question, if only to prove a point.) It’s the sort of comment that would be deeply offensive if it weren’t so naive.
“You think all gays are the same,” Max counters. “You think just ’cause Franklin and I are both friends of Elton, we’re just gonna pack it up, move to Vermont, and start selling antiques?”
“No, I did not say that.”
“Relax. It’s fine, I’m just messing with you. Besides, some parts of the stereotype are true. Just ’cause we didn’t get along doesn’t mean we didn’t have raging sex in a bus terminal.”
“No! Playdate suspended on account of your gaycism.”
As goofy as the word appears in this context, it’s in many ways an improvement on the language we now use to describe anti-gay bigotry: homophobia, homophobe, homophobic. Gaycism is an obvious play on racism, one of the most pernicious and deeply rooted issues in American life. Both words share the -ism suffix with sexism, classism, and ageism, forming a foul linguistic family of social ills that contrasts sharply with personal foibles like a fear of spiders (arachnophobia) or heights (acrophobia). When you think about it, homophobia feels insufficiently damning, at best.
Of course, it’s also inaccurate in most cases. Homophobia is a phobia more figurative than literal; in fact, if homophobes were literally phobic of homosexuals, we all might all be better off. At one point in the gay web series The Outs, Mitchell’s boss, Ty, says to him, “Homophobia gets a bad rap, but what it means is people being afraid of homos. And I know I’d feel a lot safer walking home alone at night in Charlotte, North Carolina, if more people were afraid of me.”
Compared to a phobia—something that can’t be helped—an -ism is a doctrine, a system of belief. Isms may be institutionalized, systematized, or proselytized, passed down to subsequent generations. The -isms capitalism and communism have shaped nations, as have the -isms racism and colonialism. Phobias can be debilitating, to be sure, but they exert nowhere near the force of -isms, socially or linguistically.
Luckily, there’s historical precedent for a prejudice graduating from phobia to -ism: In this country, what we now call racism used to be called negrophobia. Dating from 1819 in the United States, it’s difficult to pinpoint when, exactly, negrophobia fell out of use. A Google Trends analysis in this case is, sadly, useless, though negrophobia did happen to resurface recently in the title of a controversial article in Time, on the occasion of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police. Its etymology is appealingly straightforward and gets at the heart of something the United States has been grappling with for most of its history: a fear of black people, which has often been expressed as violent hatred and discrimination. But while negrophobia does describe a specific phenomenon, the benefit of moving on to racism, the origin of which the Oxford English Dictionary locates in 1903, is that it isn’t limited to hatred of or discrimination against only black people. Any minority racial or ethnic group can be a victim of racism—and in the United States, most have.
To be sure, the term homophobia represented a significant and empowering shift in public discourse when it was first introduced. In his 1972 book Society and the Healthy Homosexual, psychotherapist George Weinberg defines the term as “the dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals.” The notion that homophobes—not homosexuals—were suffering from a psychological pathology was radical; homosexuality wouldn’t be removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1974.
Still, as it’s commonly used, homophobia is a disguise for a full-fledged -ism of bigotry, with all its attendant societal norms and national legislative agendas. Other -isms disguised as phobias include Islamophobia, a relative neologism for a specific type of religion-inflected racism, and transphobia, a term used much like homophobia to denote discrimination against or generalized discomfort with transgender individuals. Transphobia is in the vein of Weinberg’s original definition of homophobia, placing the mantle of disorder on the transphobe rather than the trans person. Gaycism may be a suitable catch-all for anti-LGBTQ bigotry, but, just as racism is a many-headed beast, the term’s broad potential application should not suggest that all gaycism is the same.
A slightly stronger term for anti-gay sentiment is heterosexism, which dates from the late 1970s, denoting discrimination or prejudice by heterosexuals against homosexuals. Though its definition varies only slightly from homophobia, it has an -ism advantage. Like racism or sexism, heterosexism implies a system of belief that is inherently biased against a particular group. In this regard, it trumps homophobia as an appellation of bigotry, but unfortunately it has never been widely adopted.
Now, four decades since the last edition of the DSM to pathologize homosexuality, when 37 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized same-sex marriage, we’re due for a new shift in the language we use to talk about anti-gay bigotry. Homophobia is no longer sufficient to describe the cultural and legislative forces currently working against LGBTQ rights. The Westboro Baptist Church is not frightened of gay people; it just hates gay people—as does God, if the picket signs are to be believed. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee—one of many competing poster children for the mainstream Christian right’s chummier, family-values brand of bigotry—told Jon Stewart in 2008 that “If a person does not necessarily support the idea of changing the definition of marriage, that does not mean that they’re a homophobe.” On this point, Huckabee’s not wrong. What may have been defensibly called “fears” 40 years ago have now crystallized into a clear ideology, an entrenched dogma, of prejudice. Huckabee and his ilk aren’t afraid of anything (other than encroaching irrelevance)—they’re just gaycist.