Should the AP Have Banned Homophobia?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Nov. 27 2012 3:58 PM

The Associated Press Bans Homophobia

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

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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.

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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.

Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire, is the director of the What We Know Project at Columbia Law School.

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