On Finding a More Useful Word Than “Homophobia”

In my capacity as managing editor for the Catholic channel (and also as the anointed “Mommabear of the New Homophiles”) I am seriously thinking about laying down a decree to Patheos’ Catholic bloggers that the word “homophobia” will no longer be used, unless it describes a truly “phobic” situation.

This comes after watching Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s piece on anti-gay laws in Uganda get waylaid — and made irrelevant — due to people, in comboxes and social media, landing on a variation of “homophobia” and getting stuck there. Readers fixate on the word and then immediately veer off into screeds on its inexactitude, its overuse and the way it acts as a cudgel to principled argument. One member of Facebook wrote, “use the word and I’m out of the conversation.”

Demanding that “exactly the right words be used in every circumstance or all conversation must end” foments a soft tyranny against dialogue — one that’s been seriously detrimental to our nation.

Yet, it seems to me that, beneath their anger, these folks do have a point. How many of us who harbor no “phobia” toward homosexual persons have nevertheless been called “homophobic” — and thus tainted with this often-baseless and recklessly misapplied shorthand for “hateful hater” — simply for suggesting that “tolerance” should be a two-way street, whereby religious consciences are afforded an equal allowance to “be who they are?”

. . .if we lose the ability to respect that people can only go as far as their consciences will allow, we risk becoming mired in a muck of illusion, imagining hate where none exists, equating compelled behavior with authentic love, and losing sight of the fact that traveling together sometimes means that we walk the extra mile on one challenging road, and they walk it on the next. Everyone spares a bit of shoe-leather for the sake of the other. This is how love travels.

It’s also how “tolerance” actually works, but only if the word itself is properly understood and not bastardized to mean “celebrate unreservedly”.

Just as “tolerance” is broadly mis-used, so is “homophobia” and the weight of the word has become a toxic barrier to real understanding. How does one make a case for either tolerance or a full absorption of one’s position if — by immediately using the word “homophobic” — you have made some feel defensive? I once had a very worked-up lesbian (who knew nothing at all about me beyond that I believe churches should be protected from coercion on gay marriage) call me a “bullying homophobe”, and — protected by her Linguistic Shield of Righteousness — she felt justified in ignoring or distorting my words. Her cries of “Bullying Homophobe” meant my argument was moot. Engagement was pointless, because one of us was not debating in good faith.

So, “homophobia” is inexact; it is divisive; it is over-used. Most troublingly for a thoughtful writer, it is a word whose use risks an idea going unread — often by an audience that most needs to ponder it — or getting so bogged-down in ideological cant that its point is lost.

Henceforth, I wonder if people forging good-faith discussions will agree that “homophobia/homophobic/homophobe” are words that must be limited in use and employed only when doing so will invite neither confusion or slander, because the subject of a piece is known to be authentically driven by “phobia”. Writers could be encouraged to bypass the easy shorthand for more arduous (but more exact) phrases, such as “persecution of homosexuals” or “anti-gay” both of which are perfectly suited to this blog post:

This morning, a rally was held in Uganda to celebrate that country’s new and notoriously harsh anti-gay legislation. I was greatly distressed when I found out that the Catholic archbishop of Kampala, Cyprian Kizito Lwanga, had participated.

I find this absolutely unconscionable. This should be so easy. A law that punishes homosexual acts with sentences up to life imprisonment, and punishes non-reporting with prison, is plainly unjust and against the Gospel and the Church’s Holy Magisterium.

Exactly so. And Gobry is exactly right that the church must have a clear, unified voice on issues such as these. In the past Lwanga has argued against this law as being “at odds with the core values”, so let us hope for some clarity on his position and participation in this matter.

Clarity of meaning is not just important, it is necessary for justice.

Words have meanings, too, and the ways in which we use them to bring light or to obfuscate also feed what is just and unjust. “Homophobia” (and all of that word’s variants) seems to me to be a word which over-generalizes, blurs distinctions and too-often halts conversations before they even begin. It is one more word used to label people and instantly negate them — to justify a turn away from charitable discourse, silence the timid, and keep our society stalled, bickering and distrustful and hopelessly divided.

There have to be other, better, words out there. What might they be?

And how do we protect their meanings from being distorted or their use misappropriated, so we do not, in a few years, have to revisit the question?

Comments have been closed for Lent, but my question necessitates them being opened, just this once. What are you suggestions? (I will be monitoring so answer seriously or don’t bother.)

Homo-disto? (to stand apart)
Homo-tracta? (to ponder)
Homo-cerno? (to distinguish, to reckon)

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    I don’t know- I kind of like Sven’s “Heterosupremicist” below, because it actually does accurately describe my views.

    Having said that- yeah, what has gone on in Canada, I see as a precursor for what will happen in the People’s Republic of Oregon, except here we had mandatory sterilization of certain classes until 1981 that could easily come back, and we also have euthanasia that is one step away from being used politically.

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    “If a man has sexual intercourse with another man, what is it to you? ”

    Behaviors that increase disease transmission should be discouraged, if nothing else.

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    The Catholic Church survived Greek Homosexuality when it tore apart that culture. It survived Roman homosexuality when it destroyed the empire. It survived Spanish homosexuality when Gaul fell to the Islamics, and took over Spain again. It survived the death of the Italian Empire and the French Empire and the German Empire, and the British Empire.

    What makes you think a few effeminate wimps are going to bring it down?

    Oh yeah, and no matter what you do, you still can’t have children with your same sex lover- you need a third person involved.

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    That works as well!
    I like heteronormative.

  • MeanLizzie

    I thought it was pretty clear in the post that just for this one subject I’d leave the comments thread open for its customary 72 hours. I’m frankly ready to close it now. I may not reopen them after Lent. Moderation is time-consuming and the discussion is not productive.

  • oregon nurse

    And you don’t get to be taken seriously when you re-define history to support your personal prejudices. And fyi, the LGBT community is an extremely modern construct, barely a few decades old. At least know your history before you start dismantling it.

  • RelapsedCatholic

    Funny, I have family members tha have had unprotected sex for twenty years without that end result. Their love and union are no less sanctified. I have a cousin that lost both ovaries at 18, nobody told her she was banned from marrying and sex.

  • RelapsedCatholic

    The Church forces them to choose between membership in the church community and membership in a marriage.

    And that is not what they assert. They assert that they have a state of being that prevents them from experiencing Eros with the opposite sex. You lacked a qualifier that was quite important.

  • RelapsedCatholic

    II find no such prohibitions in the New Testament, or rather none that would override the Gospels central message of loving those at the margins and finding God and goodness in those where it is not expected.

  • RelapsedCatholic

    Bollocks. Homosexual love is no more driven by lust than heterosexual love. Assertions like this are based on inexperience and prejudice. Live alongside them and you would know that it not any different than what you experienced in your life. Sometimes it is full of pure intentions and spiritual fulfillment. Sometimes it is about lust and the next conquest. I prefer encouraging the former over the latter.

    I hate to tell you, my love for my wife is partially lust driven also. Yours should be to, it’s kinda a healthy thing.

  • RelapsedCatholic

    I am a supporter of full equality within my church. I am also a science teacher and trained biologist. This amounted to little more than a screed of poorly understood history and regurgitated rhetoric. It’s funny that you mention growing acceptance of gays as a death knell for the church. 60% of Catholics support marriage equality. That number includes my family and friends; all of which are regular church goers. The Church has survived schisms far more fundamental than this and conflicts far more grave. We are still here. Keep predicting doom, I’ll keep showing up on Sundays.

  • RelapsedCatholic

    When you have been beat down and dehumanized from birth over something beyond your control you internalize that hate. Hence when young black children preferred white dolls over black dolls. It becomes necessary to positively assert your own goodness and humanity (think JB’s ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud’). The fact you don’t feel the need to is a testament to your privilege (and mine).

    I am all for the brotherhood of humanity, but that’s not possible when we have two or more separate but equal groups.

  • RelapsedCatholic

    How much did you have to pay Glenn beck for stealing this line?

  • http://www.facebook.com/don.meaker Don Meaker

    One way to not be called a homophobe: Declare yourself a muslim.
    I support homosexual marriage, if inacted by the legislature, but even then only if it is called Muslim Marriage. After all we are told that the word Marriage is what they want. Give it to them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/don.meaker Don Meaker

    Odd that when you lose the argument that you assert that the argument is over.
    You must have serious issues with reality. Get counseling.

  • http://www.facebook.com/don.meaker Don Meaker

    One notes that the children of homosexuals (won’t be there).

  • CSmith

    Oh, I realize you meant the com box was open for this article. That was just my reaction after reading through the comments. I think I’d be tempted to leave the box closed also.

    But, re: the question in your post. I don’t think we can come up with a term that can’t or won’t be misused/twisted by some if doing so would serve a purpose. Any word can be turned on its head. Especially in the Orwellian world of the internet.

  • Evan Dickinson

    It is vital to have a good word for our positions. We cannot refer to ourselves as anti-gays or homophobes and expect to ever have an impact. You might ask if we will have an impact regardless, but the point is we shouldn’t be shooting ourselves in the foot.

  • Evan Dickinson

    The “alleged” supremacy of the relationship that is the sole reason for the existence of everything homosexuals use in their relationships.

  • Evan Dickinson

    Homophobic: Irrational fear of homosexuality.

    “you don’t get to dictate how they respond to that.”

    She is not dictating anything. She is trying to discuss what we put forward as the term that describes our position.

    Note that you have a term for us that implies that we have an irrational fear of homosexuality. You want to dictate that we use it even though it basically defines us as wrong. That is the sole point of your post.

  • P Mike

    I’m not sure a ” chaste, same-sex attracted” person is a homosexual. I think that’s called “celibate,” and although I’m not Catholic I’m pretty sure the Catholic school system allows celibate teachers.

  • Sven2547

    Homosexuality is disordered, abnormal and unhealthy behavior just as other behaviors such as drug addiction, alcoholism, gluttony, self abuse etc etc etc.

    Pretty hard to take you seriously when you say stuff this out-of-touch.

  • MeanLizzie

    Ugh. This thread is not worthy of Lent. Ugly, unproductive and seriously making me reconsider whether I wish to reopen comments after Lent. I don’t see the point. Ppl can fling mud all over the net. Not sure I want it here. Closing comments.