George Weinberg Dies at 87; Coined ‘Homophobia’ After Seeing Fear of Gays



A few months later, Time magazine used “homophobia” in a cover article, “The Homosexual in America.” Dr. Weinberg used it for the first time in print in “Words for the New Culture,” an article in the newsweekly Gay in 1971, and discussed the phenomenon at length in his book “Society and the Healthy Homosexual,” published in 1972.

The invention of the term was “a milestone,” Dr. Herek wrote in the journal Sexuality Research & Social Policy in 2004. “It crystallized the experiences of rejection, hostility and invisibility that homosexual men and women in mid-20th-century North America had experienced throughout their lives.

“The term stood a central assumption of heterosexual society on its head,” he continued, “by locating the ‘problem’ of homosexuality not in homosexual people, but in heterosexuals who were intolerant of gay men and lesbians.”

George Henry Weinberg was born on May 17, 1929, in Manhattan, where he grew up in Washington Heights. His father, Frederick, was a lawyer who left the family when his son was just a few months old. George did not see him again until he was 18. His mother, the former Lillian Hyman, who had never advanced beyond the seventh grade, took a typing course and found work as a legal secretary.

He attended City College, where his skill at poker and billiards helped defray his living expenses, and earned a master’s degree in English from New York University in 1951, writing a thesis on Samuel Johnson. He remained a passionate Shakespearean, mining the plays for psychological insights that led to two books, “Shakespeare on Love” (1991) and “Will Power! Using Shakespeare’s Insights to Transform Your Life” (1996), written with Ms. Rowe, his sole survivor.

He studied mathematics and statistics at the Courant Institute, a part of New York University — he would later write a textbook, “Statistics: An Intuitive Approach” (1974), and a mathematical fable, “Numberland” (1987) — but found that he enjoyed talking to people about their problems and trying to solve them.

He left math behind and earned a doctorate in clinical psychology from Columbia, writing his dissertation on clinical versus statistical prediction in psychology.

Dr. Weinberg wrote several books aimed at the general reader. He dealt with personality formation in “The Action Approach: How Your Personality Developed and How You Can Change It” (1969) and “Self Creation” (1978); with obsessive behavior in “Invisible Masters: Compulsions and the Fear That Drives Them” (1993); and with relationship problems in “Why Men Won’t Commit: Getting What You Both Want Without Playing Games” (2003).

He was best known, however, for “Society and the Healthy Homosexual,” one of the first books to reject the idea, prevalent in the psychiatric profession, that homosexuality was a psychological disorder.

Dr. Weinberg, a staunch and very public advocate of gay rights, helped lead the campaign that led the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the second edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, a handbook of psychological disorders.

“I felt like an apostle of the obvious, and people imagined I was doing something daring,” he told Gay Today in 2002.

Over time, “homophobia” evolved from a rallying cry to a contested term. Critics, both gay and heterosexual, argued that however useful the word might be as a political tool, or as a consciousness raiser, it did not withstand scrutiny. Homophobia, they pointed out, was not precisely equivalent to an irrational fear of snakes or heights, and the emotions associated with it were more likely to be anger or disgust than fear. Its meaning had become too diffuse, they argued, covering everything from physical assault to private thoughts to government policies.

In 1992, The Associated Press, in a revision of its stylebook, discouraged use of the word. “Phobia means irrational, uncontrollable fear, often a form of mental illness,” David Minthorn, The A.P.’s deputy standards editor, wrote in a column. “In terms like homophobia, it’s often speculation. The reasons for anti-gay feelings or actions may not be apparent. Specifics are better than vague characterizations of a person’s general feelings about something.”

Dr. Weinberg remained unconvinced. The phenomenon still existed, he asserted, and only one word did it justice.

“As long as homophobia exists, as long as gay people suffer from homophobic acts, the word will remain crucial to our humanity,” he wrote in The Huffington Post. “Indeed, the next big step should be to add ‘homophobia’ to the official list of mental disorders — not to cleanse the language of it.”

Correction: March 23, 2017

An earlier version of this obituary misstated Dr. Weinberg’s age. He was 87, not 86; as the obituary correctly noted, he was born on May 17, 1929. The error was repeated in the headline and a picture caption.

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