Not so long ago the term homophobia didn’t exist, but now it’s everywhere. Why do people like it so much?

First of all, it sounds good. It has rhythm, DA-da-DA-da-DA. The vowels echo (“o-o-o”), then diverge (“ee-uh”), all of them slightly elongated, no dull schwa or curt i as in hit and a as in hat.

The Greek etymology gives it a scientific aura, too, as if the condition were determined by expert minds. We have acrophobia, hydrophobia, and other established fears, so why not assume a homophobia with a medical origin as well?

In its semantics, the first advantage is its scope. Homophobia covers just about any hostile, dubious, or shy attitude toward homosexuality. It applies to the high school bully who throws the gay sophomore into a locker and to the liberal effete teacher who regards Mapplethorpe’s photos as vulgar. The umbrella takes in old and young, rich and poor, male and female. Anyone may suffer from it.

Next, it designates a seen and unseen state. Homophobia may be signaled by a public act or by a feeling kept close inside. If someone yells, “Faggot!” we know what he thinks, but the thought is there whether he says something or not. Homophobia can be concealed, and that, paradoxically, makes the label even more powerful. If homophobia may be latent and unconscious, then more people may possess it, its expression more widespread and subtle. Hence—and here’s its tactical value—it may be alleged on slight and ambiguous evidence. You can be charged with homophobia whether you have those feelings or not. It automatically puts people on the defensive.

Finally, the term translates any less than politically-correct position one has toward homosexuality into a pathological state. Opposition to same-sex marriage on religious grounds, for instance, becomes a screen for someone’s neurotic issues. The particulars of the argument disappear and the irrational, malicious impulses of the opponent are spotlighted. It’s no longer an ethical position, it’s a phobia.

All of this makes homophobia a rhetorical winner, and we should expect its use to continue until those advantages wane.

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