“Homophobia” and the Rainbow Flag

Within the past couple weeks two notables who created symbols of pride, hope, and meaning for the LGBTQ community passed away: Gilbert Baker (1951-2017), the artist who created the rainbow flag; and psychologist George Weinberg (1929-2017), the nongay ally who coined the word homophobia.

Daniel Kreps, Rolling Stone, on the origins of the rainbow flag:

The flag made its debut at the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade as an eight-colored banner, with each color representing a certain meaning: sexuality (pink), life (red), healing (Orange), sunlight (yellow), nature (green), art (turquoise), harmony (indigo) and the human spirit (violet). The flag was eventually reduced to the six colors it is associated with today, with pink (due to fabric unavailability at the time) and indigo removed and blue replacing turquoise.

Just five months after the flag’s debut, the assassination of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk propelled the rainbow pride flag’s status as the rallying symbol for the community.

About a decade before the flag was created, in the 1960’s, Weinberg had already come up with the term homophobia. He went on to write about it in 1971, and he later became well known for his 1972 book Society and the Healthy Homosexual. For further historical perspective, here’s how Kirkus Reviews critiqued it:

Society confronts the homosexual with ‘revulsion and hostility’ or homophobia, for the most part. Right. There are certain psychoanalytic explanations (fear, envy, etc.) but the profession has applied false labels (maladaptive, neurotic) and indulged in eclectic conversion techniques (brain surgery, emetic treatment) which are far out and not far short of horrifying and constitute the most surprising part of this book. The homosexual can be as healthy as anyone else. Right. And there is the current preferable word ‘gay’ indicating the evolution of his stance. Right on…

Psychologist Gregory M. Herek (blog Beyond Homophobia) (update 2022: currently on “indefinite hiatus”) recently highlighted the oppressive environment in which Weinberg was operating back then:

In 1972, private consensual sexual conduct between two adults of the same sex was illegal in all but a few states. Homosexuality was officially classified as a mental illness in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In a national opinion survey a few years earlier, 70 percent of respondents had said they believed homosexuals were more harmful than helpful to American life. Only 1 percent believed they were more helpful than harmful. From a long list of groups named in the survey questions, only Communists and atheists were considered harmful by more respondents than homosexuals.

Yet Weinberg went against the tide and “helped lead the campaign that led the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the second edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (NY Times). In addition, he continued until his death to advocate for gay rights and the appropriateness of the term homophobia despite some backlash in recent years by the press and elsewhere.

From a pertinent Huffington Post article in which Weinberg explains his strong views: “Unlike other persecuted groups, gay people have been characterized as ’emotionally disturbed,’ so a word that assigns the disturbance where it belongs — to the oppressors — is needed. It is a curious decision to shun the word ‘homophobia’ when there is no other word that does the same job. No other word suggests that the problem is in those who persecute gay people. As long as homophobia exists, as long as gay people suffer from homophobic acts, the word will remain crucial to our humanity. Indeed, the next big step should be to add ‘homophobia’ to the official list of mental disorders — not to cleanse the language of it.”

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