On the Words “Homophobia” and “Heterosexism”

The word ‘homophobia’ likely had some good operational use when it was coined by G. Weinberg in the 60s-70s, which at that time referred to irrational fear or phobia of persons with same-sex sexual inclination. But now homophobia has a plurality of definitions, with even one scholarly work robustly defining homophobia to encompass any negative criticism of homosexuality or same-sex sexual behaviors. (Fyfe, 1983). Some of these newer, broader definitions have led some commentators to lament, claiming that these uses have lost operational precision. (Hudson and Ricketts, 1980). William O’Donohue and Christine Caselles (1993) take the concern further by arguing that some of these changes of definition are problematic because they are too vague or attach pejorative connotations to one side of an open debate concerning the moral status of homosexuality and same-sex sexual behaviour. Philosopher Gary Colwell has come to a similar conclusion about the uses of the term ‘homophobia’. Colwell says this (1999):

The boundary of the term ‘homophobia’ is made so elastic that it can stretch around, not just phobias, but every kind of rational fear as well; and not just around every kind of fear, but also around every critical posture or idea that anyone may have about the practice of homosexuality. (p. 220)

Colwell’s point is that sometimes the meaning of the term ‘homophobia’ is so flexible that it can be used to encompass any critical idea of homosexuality and same-sex sexual acts. A rhetorical benefit of this flexibility is that just about any critic of homosexuality or same-sex sexual behavior can be cast as homophobe or a bigot, or an otherwise bad person. Knowing about this use of language, critics or would-be critics of same-sex sexual behavior or relationships are made to choose between silence and vilification. In addition, critical arguments and ideas involving negative evaluations of homosexuality and same-sex sexual practices can also dubbed as homophobic or bigoted, which then discourages or silences their expression within public discourse, even without addressing the reason or justification for these evaluations. Thus, the truth or justification of these evaluations is treated as irrelevant or inconsequential—the concern is with whether these evaluations conform to the new sexual orthodoxy. The pursuit of truth is thus assailed–that’s a problem.

Colwell’s paper becomes even more interesting: He also argues that the definition of ‘homophobia’ has been used fallaciously, particularly when an arguer presumes the definition of ‘homophobia’ in a way contentious to his opponent. For example: Suppose an arguer presumes a definition of ‘homophobia’ that encompasses any negative evaluation of homosexuality, same-sex sexual acts or relations. Suppose further that, in using this definition, the arguer infers that the critic or the critic’s conclusion is homophobic. In this case, the arguer likely begs the question or commits the fallacy of persuasive definition, for whether there is justifiable criticism for homosexuality and same-sex sexual acts, one not aptly described in terms of “fear”, “hatred” or “bigotry”, is likely a part of that which is at stake between the arguer and the critic; and so this matter cannot be presumed and used against the critic without fallacy. But as any vocal critic of same-sex sexual acts will tell us, these fallacious inferences happen a lot in public debate. In fact, I have heard several people state that if a person disagrees with the actively gay lifestyle (that is, being sexually engaged), then that person is a “homophobe”. There were no qualifications added or implied–it would not matter why this person disagreed, no. It would only matter that he disagreed. These people reason in ways described by Colwell.

In a similar vein, an article that recently grasped my attention reported the belief that disagreement with the moral permissibility of homosexuality is as a belief “fundamentally incompatible” with western liberalism and tolerance. Yet, that is a weird claim to make, for tolerance regarding homosexuality presupposes disagreement, and so disagreement cannot be incompatible with tolerance. But more importantly, what we see here is a presumed and contentious definition of tolerance, one that is used to frame the beliefs of critics as problematic for western, liberal society. These critics are thus framed as inimical ideologues against western, liberal society. Now I admit: I am a critic of modern, 1960s-style western liberalism, so take from that what you may, but I take serious objection to that understanding of tolerance as appropriate to frame this debate, for it is unfair and uncharitable to the more traditionally-minded thinkers. But let’s move on: Consider ‘heterosexism’.

The word ‘heterosexism’ is a neologism referring to those ideas or beliefs that see heterosexuality or heterosexual sex as the only natural sexuality or sexual behaviour, a sexuality or behaviour superior to any other. But the word itself is constructed to conjure ideas of sexism (hetero-sexism), a concept that carries a lot of negative connotation in the West. Thence, just from viewing the written word or hearing it said aloud, a person is meant to associate its referent with something bad and oppressive. Moreover, the word itself is typically used within a context about unwanted discrimination and oppression, or its referent is sometimes explicitly stated as an oppression. Hence, it is quite clear that the creators and users of this word aim to stigmatize “heterosexist” beliefs and stigmatize those persons who believe them. So what’s the big deal with this? Well, there are two problems.

First, the creators and users of the word ‘heterosexism’ are trying to solidify or perpetuate a belief or attitude through arational means. They are not trying to warrant belief or attitude through rational demonstration or argument, but through the manipulation of language and propaganda.  In this way, they denigrate the value of human reason, for they intentionally circumvent our reason. Informed readers should not be surprised by this tactic, because these sorts of manipulations for public persuasion have been a model for gay rights activism since the 80s. In fact, some gay rights activists explicitly admit that they prefer and target arational means for persuasion (Read Feser speaking about the book ‘After the Ball’. His quotations are accurate–I checked myself).

Second, what is picked out by the word ‘heterosexism’ is shared by many Abrahamic faiths, including my own (see para. 2357), and even some other traditionally minded individuals. Hence, these faiths and these people’s beliefs are stigmatized, not through rational judgement of our respective positions, but through the manipulation of language and political framing. But, of course, whether heteronormative conceptions and values are true, justified or good is an active part of that which is at stake within this cultural debate; thus, these progressivists who propagate the word ‘heterosexism’ beg the question and act unfairly toward their more traditional counterparts, for they presume part of that which is at stake.

To help see this point, suppose my fellow Catholics depicted “Catholic-phobia” as any negative evaluation of Catholic beliefs, even our heteronormative beliefs regarding sexuality.  Suppose further that they framed Catholic-phobia as a bad thing and then pressured people not to be Catholic-phobes, enforcing this pressure by means of social ostracism and stigma. Hence, on this supposition, if you’re a sexual progressivist, then you’re also a Catholic-phobe. Now, is this fair? I don’t think so. In this scenario, I’d object, even as a Catholic, for I would find it unfair and uncharitable to my progressivist opponents. I would say that it begs a question. I would also say that it is a denigration of human reason, for it aims to secure persuasion by means other than or contrary to reasoned judgement.

So given the concerns mentioned within this blogpost, I distance myself from the words ‘homophobia’ and ‘heterosexism’, just as I do with the words ‘freedom fighter’ and ‘terrorist’. And I think you should, too. For these words function more like ideographs and scarlet letters, often revealing more about the mindset of the word user than anything else. In saying this, I don’t mean to deny that some of those things often picked out by the word ‘homophobia’ exist. For example, teasing, bullying, threats, and physical violence toward homosexual persons exist and they are deplorable. I don’t doubt that. My concern is just with what else the word ‘homophobia’ has been used to pick out, which, in this case, are those traditional beliefs about sexuality and its norms that stand in contrast to this new sexual revolution.

So how should discussion proceed if we shouldn’t use these politically marred words? Here’s some suggestions. Knock off the demonization. Adopt some humility. Presume that your opponent is sincere, rational and of good will. Open your ears: Listen to the differences regarding philosophical anthropology, sexuality, the purpose or end of sex (if any), political ideals, and ideas of the good(s).  Quit dumbing stuff down to slogans and caricatures. Reason together.  I’m not saying that this will solve our problems, but it is a lot better than shouting ‘bigot!’ at each other.


  1. Catholic Hulk,

    I partly agree with that. But I think presuming one’s opponent is being rational is not epistemically justified, and in any case, a lot of philosophical and moral debate happens without that presumption and wouldn’t happen with it.
    For example, Plantinga claims or implies that people who believe in unguided evolution are being irrational, at least after considering his EAAN. Craig believes there is no non-culpable unbelief. Swinburne’s arguments for the existence of God, the resurrection, etc., imply that the epistemic probability of the positions that he defends is high; but implicitly, that entails that those assigning a low probability – or worse, a negligible one – are being epistemically irrational.
    Other people – including philosophers – disagree, and further, some (many) believe that the belief that Jesus walked on water, or that he is God, or that the Bible (or the Quran) was inspired (or written, dictated, etc.) by God is a belief held irrationally, or irrationally after reflection (I’m among them too).
    This is not limited to religious matters. The issues of what people (and in particular philosophers) should believe, what’s epistemically irrational to believe, etc., are part of philosophical debates, argumentation, etc., even in many cases in which it involves implying, believing and/or saying that one’s opponents are being irrational, at least about the matters under discussion.

    That said, holding that one’s opponents is being epistemically irrational about some matters doesn’t need to involve so holding they’re not very intelligent, knowledgeable about other matters, or that they do not have sophisticated arguments defending their views (even if based on a few irrationally held beliefs). Usually, there are intelligent people with sophisticated arguments holding radically different views on some issues.

    Also, I agree that terms like “homophobia” are often misapplied, or used just as an insult. While I believe Swinburne’s belief that homosexual behavior is immoral because God forbids it is both epistemically irrational and morally culpable (due to the damage that some unwarranted beliefs may cause), on the other hand, it would be epistemically irrational on my part to believe that he has the belief that homosexual behavior is immoral due to hatred and/or irrational fear of homosexual behavior. It may well be – and it’s more likely – that he has is due to an irrationally held religious belief, and he’s committed to that belief regardless of any hatred or fear of homosexual behavior. The fact that some other Christians do not believe that that homosexual behavior is immoral (not in general, leaving aside other factors also affecting heterosexual acts like, say, cheating) doesn’t provide any good reasons to believe that Swinburne doesn’t believe that homosexual behavior is immoral due to his religious beliefs, just as the fact that some Christians do not believe in YEC doesn’t provide any good reasons to think that YECs don’t have their YEC belief due to their religion.

    In the end, I don’t know whether reasoning together is the answer; it seems not to work very often – else, philosophical disagreement would be far less common than it is -, but I do agree it’s a lot better than shouting “bigot”, or something like that. Of course, some cases involve different positions on what laws to have, and that sometimes involves doing a lot more violence than shouting, so I would say – obviously – that we should not defend unwarranted stances. But that’s not going to stop, and I reckon it would be generally better if the shouting at least stopped. Then again, the shouting probably won’t stop, either…

    • Just out of curiosity, do you believe that there can be reasonable disagreement between epistemically peers who have the same body of evidence?

    • The presumption that your opponent is rational is a precondition for a good, respectful debate or exchange, for otherwise the point of reasoning with them is undermined. It is also a good charitable presumption to enter into debate.

    • Sorry, let me build on that. If we enter into debate or rational discussion with people, we should presume their rationality, for the belief or presumption that they are rational, that is, that they can understand reasons, that they have competency in identifying bad reasoning, that they can be persuaded by reasons and perhaps have their own reasons, etc. is a precondition for good respectful debate in the first place. Otherwise, the endeavour is pointless, because the practical foundations for debate and the exchange are undermined. For the same reason, we don’t debate fundamentally irrational people (say, the insane).

    • Catholic Hulk,

      I engage in debates or discussions in a civil and respectful manner, sometimes either without a belief that my interlocutors are or are not being rational, and sometimes even when I reckon they are not.
      To be clear, I do think that my interlocutors can understand reasons, that they have competency in identifying bad reasoning, etc., but what I sometimes do not think is that they are being epistemically rational on the specific matter I’m discussing with them, or that there is any chance that they will be persuaded by reasons (at least, not the reasons that are available and that should persuade them). I don’t think this is so odd.
      For example, we may consider the exchanges between a prominent Christian philosopher, and a prominent atheist philosopher. Based on previous exchanges among that kind of philosophers (and also their arguments, etc.), I reckon that neither the Christian will persuade the non-theist that Christianity is true, nor will the non-theist persuade the Christian that it is. They probably reckon that as well – or I think they should, given the info available to them. But they keep debating. And I think there is room for civil, respectful debate, even in those cases (“respectful” doesn’t include having to hold that the other person is not being epistemically irrational; for that matter, it doesn’t include having to hold that the other person is not being immoral, either).
      Also, there are reasons to debate other than persuading one’s interlocutor. For example, one might aim at persuading readers. Alternatively, one might aim at persuading one’s interlocutor of things that are not the main points of disagreement, but that are still of some importance, and that one can argue for on the basis of premises one’s interlocutor already accepts, even if one believes those premises to be false, and even if one makes it clear one believes they’re false.

      All that said, I share the concern that people often debate in ways that are not civil, and also do not listen to the arguments of the counterpart. But one can debate civilly even if one thinks the other person is not being epistemically rational on the matter. I think most people do not debate in a civil manner in such cases, but maintain it is surely doable. It’s a matter of choice: for example, one can choose not to insult the other person, not to engage in sarcastic remarks aimed at ridiculing them – or not to use sarcasm at all, to reduce the chances of conflict -, not to call the other person “homophobic”, or “racist”, etc.

    • Hi, Angra.

      I’m not too sure if we mean the same thing when I talk about people as rational and you speak about people being (acting?) rational. But if we are, then I don’t think that your engagement is a good one, or at least if its engagement makes sense on a practical level, because the working presumptions thst make an engagement or a debate fruitful, or even possible, are not present. It would make no practical sense for me to engage with someone who is not persuaded by reasons and someone who cannot distinguish bad reasons, or good ones, and so forth, since ideas would only be shared, not assess and evaluated. That’s all I have to say about that.

      Regarding the idea about having a debate for the purpose of persuading listeners and readers, you’re right. I don’t doubt that, but the context from which I made those suggestions was about how to share ideas and engage with each other in ways other than loaded terms and insults. The audience is not considered–I’m offering suggestions about how progressivists and traditionalists should think and act in engagement with each other.

  2. Rob,

    That’s a difficult question, for several reasons, such as:

    1. It’s not clear to me whether “unreasonable” in this context would be the same as “epistemically irrational”, or a significant degree of epistemic irrationality is required.
    2. There are no actual cases of people with the same body of evidence, since our different life experiences shape our probabilistic assessments, our memories differ, etc.
    3. The term “epistemic peers” is ambiguous, it seems to me.

    That said, I think the following idealized example might help: let’s say that A and B are two agents with the following properties:

    a. For each t, they have the same entire body of evidence, let’s say E(t) (that wouldn’t happen in the case of humans except they live on extremely distant places in a vast universe, but AI might get somewhat close).
    b. A and B always make correct Bayesian updates.
    c. They start with the same priors, and their probability function is the same.
    d. They process information at exactly the same speed.
    e. Each of them prioritizes what info to process first in the way that maximizes their own utility function.

    Is it possible that they assign different probabilities to the same hypothesis H(t), at a certain time t?
    The answer is affirmative, because it might be the don’t process the same information at the same time. Different agents (humans, computers, etc.) may have different goals, rationally (in the sense of means-ends rationality) prioritizing processing some info instead of some other info. Then, some of the evidence E(t) might not have been processed yet (in real life, there will never be fully processed), and A and B have processed different parts of E(t).

    Since A and B have the same body of info and are probably epistemic peers under any understanding of such term, I think the answer to your question is affirmative (if they are fully epistemically rational, I think they probably count as “reasonable”, at least in the epistemic sense; the converse is more difficult to assess).
    In practice, two humans will likely have differences in the info they have, and also their processing speed will be different, etc., so even if they make no mistakes, they might disagree.

    However, I think that kind of disagreement would tend to disappear after they focus on carefully considering (processing) the same arguments, pieces of evidence, etc.

    So, in short, my answer to your question is “yes”. But on the other hand, I think make cases of philosophical disagreement (especially in religion) involve epistemic irrationality (often on both sides), and I actually think those are the most common cases.

  3. Hi Catholic Hulk,

    I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing, but let me try: there is a difference between being epistemically rational on specific matters, and being capable of reason, of identifying bad arguments, etc. I have no doubt that philosophers have the latter, and even that they do apply it regularly. They have to – for example – use reason regularly in their daily lives, and even they had to reason more deeply than most in order to get a degree in philosophy, let alone a PHD. They understand logic, and they’re even good at finding errors in their opponents’ arguments, where there are such errors.
    However, none of that guarantees that they are being epistemically rational when assessing their beliefs, and in my view, there are times when some of them aren’t.

    That aside, if the matter is about how progressivists and traditionalists should think and act in engagement with each other without an audience, I would say they should assess whether their interlocutor is being rational on the basis of the information available to them – just as they should assess everything on that basis.
    However, I’m not confident there is any room for rational progress on the contentious matters at hand.
    For example – and to address one of the issues in your OP -, let’s consider the question of the morality of homosexual behavior.
    On the traditionalist side, a prominent philosopher is Swinburne.
    While I’m neither a progressivist nor a traditionalist nor a philosopher, given that I disagree with him on the matter and I’m reasonably familiar with his arguments and other conservative arguments, I can speculate on how I would approach a debate with Swinburne, without an audience. My assessment would be:

    First, I will not be able to persuade him that Christianity is false, and that he will not be able to persuade me that it’s true, or generally that God inspired any part of the Bible.
    Second, I will not be able to persuade him that under the assumption that Christianity is true, then one still should not reckon that God bans homosexual behavior. Then again, I don’t even believe that one should not reckon that, and I wouldn’t even want to persuade him of something I don’t believe.
    Third, I reckon he doesn’t need to convince me that if Christianity is true, then homosexual behavior is forbidden by God.

    On the basis of that, how would I approach the debate?
    At most, given no audience, I would consider it an interesting intellectual exercise if I try to convince him that Christianity is false and he tries to convince me that it’s true. But other than debating for the intellectual exercise (and for the fun of it), there is no room for anything fruitful. He would certainly continue to believe that homosexual behavior is always wrong – or at least, for those who have access to Christian scriptures; I’m not sure what his take on that is -, and I will surely continue to believe it’s often not wrong.

    Maybe some progressivist philosophers should reckon they can have a fruitful debate with him (though given the respective arguments and positions, it seems unlikely), aside from the matter of convincing the audience. But I think that there are plenty of cases – perhaps most – in which the chances of persuading one’s opponent (not the audience) are negligible – and after considering each side’s arguments and positions, people often should reckon they’re negligible.
    That said, I do believe that shouting, name-calling and the like are generally a bad idea.

    • I’m not too sure this discussion is worth the trouble. We don’t even seem to be understanding rationality in the same sense, so there doesn’t seem to be a clear disagreement. Unless you want to take issue to the larger themes in this post, I’m checking out.

  4. I can imagine a liberal objecting to your Catholic-phobia analogy by pointing to the asymmetry between Catholics and LGBT persons–i.e. Catholics are the oppressors, and LGBT persons are the oppressed. Not that I agree with this argument, but I thought it was worth raising this potential objection, since it’s one often raised by liberals in response to conservatives’ pointing out the double standards of liberals. At least this is the case in my experience.

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