Bigotry and ignorance are not “phobias”

A very kind commenter recently pointed out to me that in using that word “homophobic” in my post about eliminating ableist terms from my vocabulary I was in fact (in an unfortunate irony) using an ableist term.

Phobias are, in fact, recognized mental health issues. Homophobia is not, in fact, a phobia, and conflating it with the very real experience of people with phobias is unfair. In many more ways than one. Let me explain.

The primary issue here is, of course, the unfair, incorrect, and damaging impact of comparing people with real phobias to bigots. Mental illness continues to be massively stigmatized, and people with mental illnesses are often portrayed as violent or otherwise inherently and uncontrollably abusive. By suggesting that anti-trans, anti-gay, anti-bisexual, anti-queer, and anti-asexual bigotry are “phobias” we are only contributing the idea that people with mental illnesses are bad people.

But I know that a lot of people are for some reason not convinced by this kind of argument, and think that because “everyone knows” that bi-, homo-, trans-, femme- and acephobia aren’t actually phobias that the use of the same terminology is irrelevant. So let me give you some other reason why it might be useful to avoid using these terms.

Referring to bigots as being “phobic” lets them off way too easy

The rhetoric of bigoted “phobias” carries the inherent implication that bigots can’t help the way they are, and that they can’t change. And, while I actually don’t believe most bigots ever will change, I also think it’s important to remember that the fact that they don’t change is entirely on them, based on a series of choices they make throughout their life (to not listen to other people’s experiences, to care more about their discomfort with learning than about the pain and death of other people, etc.) Bigots are responsible for their own bigotry and absolutely need to be held accountable, always. Calling them what they are (bigots), and calling their ideas what they are (bigoted), calling their actions what they are (bigotry) instead of couching it softly in terms of phobias is a powerful and necessary rhetorical move.

But it does even more than just holding people accountable.

Referring to bigotry as bigotry, and not as a phobia, makes it harder for the folks committing bigotry to derail the conversation

You see it again and again: someone points out that something another person said is problematic, and calls what was said (or the person saying it) ace/bi/femme/homo/transphobic. The person being accused of said “phobia” responds that they are not afraid of the group in question, and that they are therefore not “phobic”. Of course we know that this person knows that’s not what the word means. Of course we all know that no one thinks that anyone was actually referring to a real phobia.

But the conversation is derailed, just like that, and moves into a conversation about what it means to be whatever-phobic. Why give the person in question, the one who fucked up, such an easy out, when it can be so easily avoided? Call bigotry what it is, and close the door to this sort of derailment.

My commitment

All of this is really to say that I am making a personal commitment to no longer use the terms transphobia, acephobia, homophobia, and the like. I will instead refer variously to what is actually happening. There’s actually a plethora of better, non-oppressive, and more precise terms than “phobia” applicable to various incarnations of bigotry or just plain ignorance. Consider:

  • Acephobia may refer to:
    • anti-ace bigotry
    • compulsory sexuality
    • ace erasure
  • Biphobia may refer to:
    • anti-bisexual bigotry
    • monosexism
    • bisexual erasure
  • Femmephobia may refer to:
    • misogyny
    • devaluation of femininity
    • compulsory masculinity
  • Homophobia may refer to:
    • anti-gay bigotry
    • heterosexism
    • gay erasure
  • Queerphobia may refer to:
    • anti-queer bigotry
    • queer erasure
    • heterosexism
    • monosexism
  • Transphobia may refer to:
    • anti-trans bigotry
    • transmisogyny
    • cissexism
    • trans erasure

I mean, just look at the amazing list of more precise terms to refer to different kinds of bigotry and ignorance faced by LGBTQIA folks! There are so many options, and they are all so useful and way more accurate and direct than “phobia”.

I also plan to go back and edit references to phobias out of my old posts, although I currently barely have time to even sit down and write this out, so I’m not sure when I will manage to do that. I simply promise that it will happen.

I will, however, continue to use “phobia” terms in my tags, for indexing purposes. As a librarian, I understand that using the terms that other people use is sometimes important to make information searchable and findable. I am open to the idea of making sure that false phobias don’t turn up in the tag cloud on the right though, if that is potentially harmful or triggering for people. Please let me know if you have thoughts on this!

13 comments

  1. I think this is really an excellent point. I am literally lesbophobic, due to hostility from a lot of lesbians due to my presenting as and being trad feminine while seeking a female significant other, but I’m not bigoted. Grouping people like me who have problems with genuine fear reactions in with bigots is unfair as it implies we’re personally at fault. As well as what you said in your post.

    However, on the other hand it does occur to me that some bigots may be phobic as well. Abuse and bullying by people with same sex attractions towards those without those attractions, including of adults to children, does happen and it’s not that rare, and I have known bigoted people whose bigoted attitudes go alongside personal experiences of this nature. I have suffered from other phobias and it is often impossible to think rationally around a phobia because the fear reactions just at the thought of the thing you’re phobic about, prevent it.

    I grew up with boys being sexually abused by teachers. It was an open secret, I even witnessed it, I even talked about it to adults. This was in a working class community. It was rife for these things to be happening in the schools and children’s homes in our area. It affected the witnesses as well as the victims. Afraid as a child, afraid as a parent, of these abusers, you could get a phobia and fall into an unable to think rationally mindset and I feel that’s probably what happened to some people I’ve known. I feel that’s why you often get the paedophilia remarks from homophobic bigots; because so often the only same sex relationships people heard about in working class communities were the paedophiles in schools, children’s homes and underworld crime barons lifestyles.

    I’d like to know, research, why the word homophobia was invented and what it was supposed to signify back very long ago, (I’ve been hearing it since the 80s), when it was first used.

    1. Interesting points! I actually think the idea that bigots might also be genuinely phobic strengthens my point. Their phobias do not, after all, justify their bigoted behaviours, and it is important to keep those bigoted behaviours seperate form their phobias, which they may not be able to control as easily.

      1. Yes but although it doesn’t justify it, their bigotry may nevertheless not be under their control in some cases. If someone can’t think rationally about people with same sex attraction due to their phobia, they may not be able to help talking bigotedly about same sex attracted people sometimes. Which, isn’t the same thing as them verbally insulting or physically attacking someone who has same sex attractions, which would be a character defect, of aggressiveness. But, ‘re them expressing bigoted opinions in conversation, I wouldn’t say they were necessarily culpable for that, because sometimes phobias can’t be cured.

        But, I think it would be good to stop using the phobia word because of how bigotry and phobias don’t necessarily go together and how aggressiveness and phobias don’t go together. Not all anti-same-sex-love people are phobic about same-sex-attracted people, not all people with phobias about gay people are bigoted, and, not all bigoted people, phobic or not, are aggressive. So it’s just a word which excuses abuse of same sex attracted people while vilifying unfairly phobic people who aren’t aggressive or bigoted.

        1. Phobias do not force you to say things. Unless you have Tourette’s, or something related, you are in control of the words that come out of your mouth. Period. I accept that phobias may cause people to uncontrollably *think* bigoted things, but the moment you let those thoughts into the world (assuming you are expressing them as fact), you are committing bigoted behaviours.

          If for instance, you are talking about those thoughts in the explicit context of explaining your phobia (i.e. “I have a phobia and it makes me think/feel these things”), then that is not necessarily bigotry. But simply saying those bigoted things as if you believe them to be true is.

          I’ve also written about this with respect to rape survivors and trans exclusionary spaces (https://valprehension.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/trans-women-women-only-spaces-and-penis-panic/). Some people use the argument that it is ok to exclude trans women because some women who have been raped by men are triggered by penises. But that doesn’t justify bigotry, and the exclusion of trans women is bigotry, period.

          *Especially* once you know you have a phobia, it is your responsibility not to behave in bigoted ways. It is everyone’s responsibility to do the difficult work of undoing their own prejudices – we all have them, and we have all been raised in fucked up circumstances that caused us to think fucked up things. And we are all of us responsible for our own shit and for refraining from oppressing others.

          1. Yes but a phobia is described as an irrational fear, so if you don’t realise your fear is irrational, so you don’t know you have a phobia, then you cannot proceed in the ways you describe.

          2. Not knowing that what you’re doing is bigoted doesn’t make the thing you’re doing less bigoted. People who genuinely believe that homosexuality is a sin punishable by death are still bigots. People who genuinely believe that white people are genetically superior, and think there is a rational basis for that belief, are still bigots. Bigotry is irraitonal pretty much by definition.

            They are still responsible for their actions around those beliefs.

            To be clear, I will forgive just about anyone who comes around to realizing the error of their ways, regardless of what was causing them to be bigoted in the first place. And I have extra compassion for people who have mental illnesses that make it harder for them to get past their personal bigotries. But those bigotries are bigotries regardless of their reason for existing.

  2. Yes I agree bigotries are still bigotries regardless. But I don’t think people are responsible, and therefore blameworthy, for their thoughts and words under circumstances, such as possibly phobias, where they’re unable to mentally process new information, or to think rationally. With the exception of aggressive attacks, and not referring to aggressive acts, because aggression is not socially acceptable. Just my view.

    I would suggest to a non violent bigot that they had a phobia, not vilify them as a bigot. I don’t think the latter would get them to try to change.

    1. You are right that there are kinder ways to frame criticisms of bigoted actions, and that sometimes they are more effective. I do tend to favour characterizing actions as bigoted, and not people, for instance.

      I will add, though, that I consider statements that vilify entire groups of people (i.e. queer people) to be a form of violence and aggression. It is an action that causes harm, and I don’t differentiate types of harm.

      It is impossible to be a non-violent bigot unless you refrain entirely from talking about your bigoted beliefs. Which is what I would suggest those who are incapable of thinking rationally about whatever group of people are obligated to do.

      1. Well I think a lot of homophobic talk happens because people are asked for their honest opinions, usually because others can sense that those people are uncomfortable, lukewarm or antagonistic about same-sex attracted people despite not saying anything impolite.

        I personally wouldn’t define violence as giving an honest opinion, however unpleasant it was, if asked for, or in certain situations like debate. To me, violence would be unasked for or personally directed derogatory remarks, active attempts to hurt with intention to hurt, discriminatory actions.

        I’m not for social justice to the extent of trying to make everyone see only equality and goodness in everyone in general because I don’t think it’s remotely feasible, or even wise, because harmfulness can come from anywhere or anyone or any group of people at any time, so it’s wise to remain discerning, and just because of the previous, it’s human nature for people to tend to see inequalities, to have preferences, to be biased. I do believe in not pre judging people and in not acting out one’s biases hostilely in social and working life, but when it comes to opinions, to some extent inwardly people feel whatever they feel inescapably. Which goes for heterophobic people and cisphobic people as well as the reverse.

        I especially wonder how people who can’t rationalise due to malfunctioning brains or nervous systems can be got to keep quiet because that’s particularly not going to work.

        I don’t want to argue, that’s just how I see it. Got to run.

  3. This is a really excellent post! This should be reposted on Everyday Feminism! I’m gonna share this on my FB for sure. I had never really clearly thought about these issues but you lay them out so clearly.

  4. I once read an article which used the term ‘sexual prejudice’ to describe the negative attitudes and behaviours people exhibt towards minority status sexualities (LGBAQ, etc.) as an alternative to the use of sexuality+’phobia’ because those terms convey assumptions about the underlying reasons for those attitudes (i.e. fear instead of hate/disgust). I thought it was a better measurement term and a better term in general, too bad it hasn’t caught on.

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