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Gay Rights Activist Slams AP for Nixing 'Homophobia'

Mark Wilson, right, helps carry a rainbow flag during San Francisco's 42nd annual Gay Pride parade on Sunday, June 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Mark Wilson, right, helps carry a rainbow flag during San Francisco's 42nd annual Gay Pride parade on Sunday, June 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

The psychologist who coined the term “homophobia” is lashing out at the Associated Press for discouraging its use in the latest Stylebook, saying the decision reverses progress that has been made in changing the public’s view of gays.

George Weinberg said since he introduced the word "homophobia" in his 1972 book Society and the Healthy Homosexual, it has been immensely effective in showing that it's the people who are prejudiced against gays who have a psychological problem, not gays themselves.

“Its power was that it showed this is an emotional aversion to people who live differently, who are totally harmless. It comes from the gut and it resulted in violence and robbing people of privileges, and it obviously wasn’t simply being anti-gay,” Weinberg said in an interview Tuesday.

Neutrality first

AP’s Ask the Editor column suggests the global news agency would rather use neutral phrasing rather than try to pathologize bigotry.

“Phobia means irrational, uncontrollable fear, often a form of mental illness. In terms like homophobia, it's often speculation. The reasons for anti-gay feelings or actions may not be apparent. Specifics are better than vague characterizations of a person's general feelings about something,” according to the column run by AP Deputy Standards Editor David Minthorn.

Like “homophobia,” AP’s latest stylebook also advises against using “Islamophobia” in political or social contexts and discourages the use of “ethnic cleansing” because it is a “euphemism for pretty violent activities,” Minthorn told POLITICO.

Paul Colford, director of media relations, said in an email that the entry in question is among dozens that are added or amended during the year.

Pathologizing bigotry

Weinberg, whose advocacy helped get “homosexuality” removed as a diagnostic category from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), said not only should “homophobia” be in the AP Stylebook, it should be added to the DSM.

“If I am a landlord and I can’t stand the fact that there are two gay women living on the fourth floor and I can’t sleep at night and I try to get legislation to get them out, or hit my head against the wall, that’s a pathology,” he said.

Weinberg, who is not gay, spent years in the 1960s and 1970s trying to persuade police officers, city councilors and other psychologists in New York to take violence and discrimination against gays seriously. He said giving a name to the people perpetrating the offenses gives the persecuted a greater sense of wellbeing.

“If I know that you have a problem, then when you discriminate against me, it gives me a little more of a chance to have dignity and a life,” Weinberg said. “I can enjoy being who I am, whether it’s gay or being black or being a woman, if I know that the other guy has the problem and not me.”

Culture of words

The AP Stylebook, which calls itself the “Journalist’s bible, wherever you are” on its website, sets the standard for use of the English language in newsrooms around the world. Journalists who use the guide reach audiences in the millions.

“Words shape culture and words reflect culture,” said linguist Ben Zimmer, a language columnist for The Boston Globe newspaper. “The fact that a word like ‘homophobia’ was coined in the 1960s in the first place was a way to reflect certain social trends and phenomena.”

But words are always available for reconsideration and rethought, he said, adding that he’s not so sure the AP made the right decision to drop the word “homophobia.”

“Words ending in ‘phobia’ are commonly used outside of clinical contexts. You can think about the word ‘xenophobia,’ which has been around for more than a century to refer to hatred of foreigners. That’s not a clinical condition in the same way that ‘homophobia’ isn’t a clinical diagnosis,” Zimmer said.

As revered as the AP Stylebook is, every news organization is free to make its own decisions and, even if “homophobia” is wiped from the AP’s texts, Zimmer said the meaning won't disappear so easily.

Clarification: An earlier version of this report said the AP declined VOA's request for an interview. Paul Colford, director of media relations, said in an email that the AP would "decline this request, with thanks." He provided VOA material available on the AP website and referred to previous comments made to POLITICO.

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