If you live in Ireland and haven't been actively avoiding all forms of media over the last couple of weeks, you'll be aware of the current fuss over homophobia. Or, at least, not over homophobia itself, but over the word 'homophobia'. Of course, I could go over the whole question of the appropriateness of RTE's actions, and so forth, but that has more or less been done to death. I'm more interested in the calls, not just from the anti-gay-rights crowd, but from neutral parties and even some on the pro-gay-rights side, to eliminate the word from discussion of gay rights issues. This seems to me to be a grave mistake, and a dangerous concession to those opposed to equal rights.
Homophobia. It's a harsh, unpleasant word. It looks like a medical/psychological term, and indeed had its origins as one. And yet, in common usage, 'homophobia' is essentially to persons of non-majority sexuality and/or gender identity as 'sexism' is to women, and 'racism' is to ethnic minorities. 'Islamophobia' sounds nastier than 'anti-Semitism', with the word 'phobia' and the vague clinical feel, but it is, in general, just as offensive to call a person anti-Semitic as it is to call them Islamophobic. Xenophobia is sometimes actually used as a euphemism for racism, when talking about rabidly anti-immigrant far-right politicians, for instance. There's nothing special about the use of the 'phobia' postfix in describing certain bigotries; it's an accident of history.
Perhaps it would be better if a softer-sounding word had come to mean prejudice against gays, and a desire to deny them the rights enjoyed by the majority. Would the anti-civil-rights crowd prefer, for instance, to be called cis-hetero chauvinists, or gayists? However, it's about 50 years too late for that, now; 'homophobia' is well understood to be colloquially used in this way.
And yet, there is an apparent drive to define 'homophobia' to a stricter standard. If you propose, for instance, that black people should not be allowed to marry white people, then you will be called a racist, and few would have an issue with that, even if your reasoning is based on religion (as was the reasoning of some American proponents of the interracial marriage bans in the 60s) or on misunderstanding academic research (again, common in anti-racial-equality arguments), or on nebulous fears of the effects on society (again, not uncommon). Racism, here, extends to opposition to equal rights, even when the opposition is ostensibly based on something other than fear or hatred.
And this is about the narrowest definition of racism in common use. Even those people who argue that sexism and racism no longer exist in society because women and non-whites have legal equality (and there are people who will argue this) would typically have difficulty as seeing a proposed ban on inter-racial marriage, or a law removing the right of women to retain property in marriage, as anything other than racist and sexist respectively, regardless of the justifications.
I can see why some people, who oppose equality for gay people, would want to see the word 'homophobia' removed from discourse. It would lend a respectability to their wish to deny gay people civil rights over and above, say, the old attempts to deny women and racial minorities equal rights; it would make opposition to gay rights different and more credible in the eyes of the public.
It's hard to see the justification for doing so, though. What, after all, are their arguments? There's the religious argument, of course, but then that was used to oppose inter-racial marriage in America, too, and we don't treat that opposition as special and non-bigoted. There's the argument that marriage is for the production of children, but given that we allow infertile people to marry this one is lacking in credibility. There's the argument that gay marriage will somehow harm society, generally in a rather vague way, but this surely falls into the fear bracket. And there's the argument that homosexuals want to destroy marriage, for some reason, but this falls clearly into the fear bracket, and very paranoid at that.
I think part of the reason for this drive to avoid the h-word is that gay marriage is currently not legal, and thus opposition to it seems a little less obviously mean-spirited than, say, opposition to interracial marriage, or to married women being allowed to own property. You'll have significant difficulty today finding many people who claim to have opposed civil partnerships, and even fewer who'll admit to having opposed the legalisation of homosexuality, and yet both passed to considerable opposition. It is to the great advantage of opponents of gay marriage to be seen to be opposing it for principled reasons, and words which highlight that they're against civil rights damage this perception.
I'm not seeking to stop people voicing their opposition to gay marriage, and very few other people are, either. I'm just cautious of the attempt to set opposition to gay rights fundamentally apart from opposition to womens' and racial minorities' rights. If you wish to say, in public, that gay people want to destroy marriage, then more power to you, but you shouldn't expect this opinion to be held as somehow more reasonable and respectable than any other conspiracy theory about a minority group.
I don't think very many people in the anti-civil-rights camp really hate gays; for that matter, most racists don't hate black people. There is, clearly, however, a lot of fear, irrational fear of what granting equal rights would mean. I see no reason that this shouldn't be described as homophobia. It is, for some reason, terribly important to these people to deny me the rights that they (mostly; there are gay people opposed to gay marriage) have; I see no reason to sugar-coat their denial of my rights or the fear that drives them to it.
And the idea that the opponents of gay rights are being somehow silenced by the use of the word, or the allegations of 'heterophobia' (a word which should be treated with the same contempt as 'misandry' and 'anti-white bigotry') is absurd. Opponents of gay rights have a substantial platform in this country. If they choose to use it to say things which people criticise, this is not silencing.