Fear of Homophobia

Weinberg-Healthy-HomosexualThe recent decision by The Associated Press (AP) to discourage the use of the terms “homophobia” and “Islamaphobia” has prompted much discussion.

NLGJA president Michael Triplett emailed the following to Andrew Beaujon at Poynter:

The general sense is that the AP is probably correct in terms of the literalism of the word “homophobia” and that it really is not the best way to describe anti-gay actions or motives. On the other hand, it leaves writers without a term — like racism or sexism — that describes anti-gay sentiment. At this point, I am not sure whether NLGJA will change its stylebook or not given the AP’s recent pronouncement.

Poynter also got the following from David Minthorn, the AP deputy standards editor:

We feel that ‘homophobia’ and ‘Islamophobia’ have two shortcomings: they are not specific, and can also imply a psychiatric condition. We always owe it to readers to say exactly what we mean. Instead of terms that try to describe some general state of mind, we always prefer to say what a person’s position is or how he acts. Does a given person or group assert that gays are immoral? Do they oppose gay marriage? Do they oppose gays in the military? Do they commonly make anti-gay slurs? Does Jones question whether Islam is a religion? Does he say Islam should not be the basis of a country’s law? Does he engage in anti-Muslim violence? Such specifics tell a reader the points that are at issue and allow for a response to those points. As a result, the reader obtains more accurate information.

Of the reactions Poynter cites, this one from John E. McIntyre at the Baltimore Sun sums up the backlash:

If the editors of the AP Stylebook wish to discourage the use of certain words simply because they can be misused or misunderstood, there ought to be a great many in line ahead of homophobia.

I thought that was that until I came across an op-ed at Gay City News by Dr. George Weinberg, a psychotherapist and author of the 1972 book Society and the Healthy Homosexual, which coined the phrase homophobia.

Here’s an excerpt:

The AP’s recent dislike of the word because it is “political” makes no sense. It is political because a large number of people have brought it to light and are opposing abuse. If one man beats up his wife nightly because he’s a drunk, it isn’t political. It is personal. If a million do and women organize in protest, it’s political. But it is still personal and psychological. “Political” just means that many people are trying to do something about it. Homophobia doesn’t lose its status as a phobia just because many people are now on to it and are trying to cure it or to live in spite of it. A phobia is an irrational dread of something harmless, motivating the desire to avoid it or expunge it.

The world needs the word “homophobia” and what it says. People need to understand what it teaches … As for the argument that it is imprecise, so is a word like “freelance” writer; people don’t go around throwing lances any more. And, by the AP’s logic, why not get rid of the word “gay” since not all gay people are joyous.  It’s a big mistake to pretend precision here.

It was a great advance to have the term “hate crimes” brought into the language and into the law. The term underscores the psychological motive of the person who commits such crimes — for instance, violent acts accompanied by anti-semetic language or the defacing of temples. By the AP’s logic, that term should be the first to go. It clearly refers to the mental and emotional state of those who commit hate crimes. Victims of hate crimes wouldn’t tolerate the erasure of the word. I can guess why the term “hate crimes” isn’t being eliminated along with “homophobia.” AP wants its language to go over well everywhere its stories might be picked up. The term “hate crimes” wouldn’t stop the media from picking up AP stories, while the word “homophobia” might draw objection in some places. In short, AP’s decision, far from depoliticizing its reporting, is itself likely based on a political judgment.

No surprise the coiner of the phrase still supports it, but his arguments shouldn’t be dismissed because he coined it. Homophobia may not be as precise as the AP wants it to be, but I can’t imagine not using it until an adequate replacement exists. And I don’t think “anti-gayism” is going to catch on any time soon.

Wemple: If It’s Homophobic, Say That

We haven’t written much about the Roland Martin situation at CNN. It created a lot of conversation inside NLGJA and we did post a statement on our Facebook page.  We also talked with the Poynter Institute and Journal-isms.

Erik Wemple, the media blogger at the Washington Post, has asked the more interesting journalism question: why is it so hard to label someone’s comments as homophobic?

Yet the treatment by these cornerstone media properties remains silent on what the tweets actually are. In both cases, Martin is encouraging physical reprisals against men who are attracted to the same sex. There’s also some stereotyping thrown in — ”pink suit” — to eliminate all doubt about the population Martin is offending

This blog has repeatedly termed the tweets “homophobic,” a characterization that has drawn some blowback in the comments. Commenter “jlamb1313” opined that the tweets “reflect the knee-jerk masculine thinking that many Americans revel in during the Superbowl. A conversation about that overt masculinity may be long overdue, but to see violent gay-bashing in those quotes strikes me as overreach.”Wrote ”QStorm,” in part, “The guy was making jokes. Nothing more.” Another critic e-mailed: “You convicted him of being ‘homophobic’ based on your irrational (in my opinion) interpretation of his tweets, which any reasonable person would interpret as simply an attempt at humor and in no way calling for violence against homosexuals.”

Of course, none of those excuses fetches as far as Martin’s very own, which was that he was just making jokes about soccer. The unfunny thing about these defenses is that, in light of gays’ experience in this country, joking about violence against gays in any way is homophobic,is anti-gay.

Noting the New York Times and AP chose to describe the complaints instead of label the comments, Wemple offers a theory on how this approach misses the point as it applies to both homophobic comments and racist comments.

What’s at issue here is a mere description. Journalists deploy shorthand descriptions all the time — describing a candidate’s position, or a politician’s history with women, or a telling historical episode. Editors and style guides fully authorize reporters to describe all such things. When the thing to be described is potentially racist or homophobic, however, it’s time to punt.

And punting doesn’t release the outlet from making a judgment. When you write that the tweets were “interpreted” as being anti-gay, you’re suggesting that they’re not anti-gay on their very face. They were.

This is a much tougher call than Wemple suggests. I will concede that when I read Martin’s tweets and saw a flurry of tweets asking for his scalp, I found the whole affair baffling. In the context of Super Bowl trash talking on Twitter (which has become a 24/7 snark machine) I thought the whole thing was overblown. The tweets seemed to suffer from too much testosterone and trash-talk (that I didn’t completely understand) but I was having a hard time seeing the homophobia. But I also found the outrage over the tweets equally confusing. Maybe the margaritas at my annual “We’re not watching the Super Bowl” dinner celebration was clouding my judgment.

So if I was a reporter covering the initial contretemps over Martin, I’m not sure I could have–with a straight face (no pun intended)–labeled them homophobic. Oh, I could see how they could be viewed as homophobic and offensive, but it would have been harder to have made the judgment they were per se homophobic. As a journalist, then, how do you make the leap Wemple encourages if you aren’t really sold on the proposition the comments or actions were homophobic. More importantly, if you are convinced that they are homophobic, should that judgment be the final conclusion even if there is evidence that reasonable people disagree?

For LGBT journalists in mainstream newsrooms, that “name it” approach is even more fraught with problems. Since LGBT journalists are often perceived to be furthering “the gay agenda” no matter what they write or report, labeling speech or actions as homophobic immediately results in questions about your objectivity and professionalism, which is a whole new set of problem.

So what do you think, specifically on the reluctance to label things homophobic?

Dustin Lance Black Responds to GQ

A brouhaha has erupted over a cover story of Taylor Lautner by GQ Australia. Apparently, Lautner had dinner recently with Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black. The interviewer asked Lautner if they made a pass at him.

As quoted by The Advocate:

“No, definitely not,” Lautner replied. “I think they know I’m straight. But they’re great guys. They’re a lot of fun. It’s not a coincidence that there was a writer, a director, and an actor at dinner.”

Then the Advocate asked:

“Would GQ have asked Lautner the same question if he’d dined with two older straight women?”

Indeed. And now, via his new blog, Dustin Lance Black has weighed in:

“Really Mr. GQ writer? I’m curious, will you be asking all of the handsome actors I’ve ever had the privilege of working with or meeting if I made passes at them as well? I’d love to be there when you ask Sean Penn that same question. Or, Mr. GQ writer, were you projecting your own unprofessional desires onto me and Gus? Perhaps? Or worse still, are you a homophobe? Above and beyond this clear attack on my character, I’m shocked that GQ would allow their writer to lean on the scurrilous, outdated stereotype that gay men are by nature sexual predators. I mean, would you have asked this same question if it were Diablo Cody and Kathryn Bigelow at dinner with Mr. Lautner? Leaning on lies, myths and stereotypes about gay people is hateful, harmful and outdated. It’s not the 1950s anymore GQ, it’s 2011 and it’s time to grow up.”

So, what do NLGJA members think?

UPDATE – Advocate.com reports that GQ Australia has apologized:

We’ve seen some of the comments floating around regarding our recent interview with Taylor Lautner and apologize if anyone was offended by anything in the article. It certainly wasn’t our intention to paint anyone in the story as a sexual predator. The point we were actually trying to push was that Taylor is irresistible to virtually everyone — regardless of sexuality or gender. Hence the film crew cheering at his shirtless scenes while shooting Twilight, and Mark Wahlberg deeming him better looking than Leonardo Di Caprio.

Taylor is an extraordinary young gentleman, and we can’t wait to see him achieve even greater success in the future. That’s why he’s on our cover — because GQ Australia prides itself on offering readers the best possible advice and insights that help you be modern, successful gentlemen. Whether you’re into fashion, food, fitness, pop culture, politics, travel, technology or cars GQ Australia strives to provide you with top-quality editorial content that allows you to make your own discerning choices.