Friday, November 12, 2010

The Use of the Term "Homophobia"--Comments on Another Blog

Yesterday I found myself inspired to comment on a blog post, "Re: Homophobia," on the blog of Fuller Seminary New Testament Professor J.R. Daniel Kirk, Storied Theology. Prof. Kirk suggests that the use of the term "homophobia" (and its cognates) is generally unhelpful in promoting civil discourse in what is so often an angry debate. Since this concept of homophobia (its use and allegations of misuse) is a topic I was working on just before I started writing Is God a Delusion? (a project I abandoned in order to finish the book), I couldn't resist saying a few words. Maybe I'll be inspired to take up the project again--after That Damned Book is finished, of course.

In any event, the discussion thread has gotten quite lengthy but many of the comments are well worth reading if you are interested in the subject. I've made a few additional comments since my original, but must now restrain myself so that I can focus on such things as grading and finishing Chapter 7 of That Damned Book. My original comment, for those interested, is reproduced below:

 Since I think that the analogy between “homophobia” and “racism” is right on in terms of actual usage, I want to explore the analogy just a bit to see what it means.

In its root meaning, “racism” refers to the systematic marginalization of one racial group by another. But the term does not merely have a descriptive meaning. It also makes a strongly negative evaluative judgment. Thus, the term binds together systematic oppression based on race with the judgment that such systematic oppression is wrong. By extension, lots of things—acts, people, beliefs, attitudes—can be called racist insofar as they are the kinds of things that serve to perpetuate the social marginalization of racial minorities. A belief would do this if, were it true, it would JUSTIFY the practice of social marginalization.

As such, in calling a belief “racist” one is not merely casting a pejorative label on it but offering a reason to reject it. One is saying, in short-hand, that this belief implies that the social marginalization based on race is just; but it is not just; hence, the belief implies something false and so must itself be rejected as false.

That one can say all of this with a word rather than an argument both reinforces and expresses the appropriateness of binding together the descriptive and normative senses connoted by the term. That is, in using the term, one expresses the fittingness of treating a certain moral judgment as presumptively correct.

Now if you think it is indeed fitting to condemn the systematic exclusion of gays and lesbians from full access to crucial social goods (marriage), then you will find it fitting to use the term “homophobic” to label beliefs, attitudes, and practices that contribute to such social exclusion. For example, it will be judged fitting to label as homophobic the belief that all homosexual acts are wrong (since this belief justifies what one takes to be clearly unjust practices and policies, the belief is therefore judged false).

If, however, you think that all homosexual acts are wrong, you will by implication think that the systematic social marginalization of sexual minorities is not wrong, and so you will find the homophobia label unfitting—since this term attaches a negative judgment on something you do not think warrants such a judgment. And you are likely to bristle at the use of the term, because its use takes for granted a moral perspective with which you do not agree.

Such bristling CAN be an impediment to productive dialogue—but it can also serve other purposes. There is a tendency for many in the dispute about homosexuality to assume that there is only one locus of moral debate: namely, over the morality of homosexuality. They think that only once THAT matter is settled should we look at whether excluding sexual minorities from access to marriage is unjust. But the homophobia label can serve as a potent reminder that there are two loci of moral debate—one over the morality of homosexuality, one over the morality of systematically marginalizing gays and lesbians. Since how we answer one has implications for how we answer the other, to set aside consideration of the ethics of socially marginalizing gays and lesbians until we’ve settled whether homosexuality is wrong may be to unfairly exclude from the moral discourse one of the most compelling reasons to think that homosexuality is NOT wrong. Shouting “homophobia!” may, it seems to me, be a way for marginalized gays and lesbians and their allies to demand due attention to the social justice issue.


  1. I very much appreciated your participation in that thread. It was productive to read through it all, and even to get a thoughtful framework for what normally strikes me as a more emotive use of language.

    Thanks, and I hope the conversations will continue.


  2. I am short on time to follow the entire thread where you posted this but I appreciate this initial response. As always, it leaves me wanting to make time to follow your blog more closely.


  3. As always, you are a cogent voice for inclusion - though I am beginning to dislike that term because it still quietly assumes that we, the straight majority, are the gatekeepers, as of right.

    I think this is where you were going in your last paragraph: "to set aside consideration of the ethics of socially marginalizing gays and lesbians until we’ve settled whether homosexuality is wrong may be to unfairly exclude from the moral discourse one of the most compelling reasons to think that homosexuality is NOT wrong."

    Until WE'VE settled whether THEY are wrong...we will hang on to power. How convenient, and un-Christian. Thanks for calling attention to this point.

    I personally would prefer to see "homophobia" reserved for conscious hostility, and use "heterosexism" for the structural inequality that even well-meaning people can participate in without realizing it. Presuming the worst motives in your opponent just makes him defensive. "All white people are racist" makes me shut down, while "All white people have some white privilege and ought to work toward racial justice" gets my attention.

  4. Regarding the use of Romans 1, please consider the following: