It’s Time to Retire the Word ‘Homophobia’

Published in: September-October 2016 issue.


WITH THE BLOOD from the massacre on Pride Day in Orlando barely dry, let me put forth a modest proposal: the word “homophobia” is inadequate and a misnomer, and it needs to be retired.

The term “homophobia” was first coined by Dr. George Weinberg, a psychologist, in the sex magazine Screw, in 1969, and was amplified in his Society and the Healthy Homosexual in 1972. It quickly became the standard term for any act or utterance against homosexuals. But “phobia,” meaning “fear,” belongs to the lexicon of clinical psychology, not sociopolitical discourse regarding social privilege and societal change.

The word “homophobia” trivializes and obfuscates what is really happening to GLBT people in the U.S. and globally, today and historically. It says nothing about the system that that breeds anti-gay violence. It describes an individual’s fear of homosexuals, analogous to a fear of spiders or heights. It says nothing about the dominant intellectual, religious, and cultural superstructure that supports an ideology of heterosexual superiority.

I propose that “homophobia” be replaced by “the ideology of heterosexual supremacy,” or “hetero supremacy” for short. Let me justify the latter term with an analogy. The “Final Solution” in Germany was not based on “Jewish-phobia” but was grounded in an ideology of Aryan supremacy and a theory of racial superiority, which created a category of inferior races that were subject to enslavement or elimination.

The ideology of hetero supremacy has always had consequences for GLBT people—including gruesome death, as in the Orlando Massacre. The litany of horrors committed against gay people historically and still today—whether acts of individual butchery or state-sponsored terror in countries like Uganda or Bangladesh—are united by this ideology. The dominant hetero culture has given gay people what they were thought to deserve: see a cockroach, call the exterminator. Is the word “homophobia” the best descriptor for heinous acts of savagery, which have gone on and on, century after century, all over the world?

Orlando reminded us that these acts of brutality are not confined to Islamic countries or to the distant past. There is a growing, documented history of violence and murder committed by hetero supremacists against gay people in the U.S. Before Stonewall, gays were killed, beaten, and driven to suicide one by one, under the radar of the media and the police. The only difference is that now one man can commit mass murder in minutes.

One simply cannot understand what happened in Orlando or what has happened so often without understanding the theory and practice of hetero supremacy. Otherwise, all you get are people mouthing tired platitudes about the persistence of homophobia. If we want to live in a truly pluralistic society, there is no room for cults of supremacy of any kind.


Don Kilhefner is a writer and activist based in Los Angeles.


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