In the article:
- We’ve made progress but homophobia, or heterosexism, is still all around us. And for many, this includes our own heads.
- Internalized homophobia involves accepting intolerance and discrimination not only as true, but also as something we need to enforce. It harms ourselves, our relationships, and the wider movement by pitting us against each other.
- It can manifest in feelings of shame and secrecy, in oppressing others, in finding it difficult to connect with others, and in suffering from mental and physical issues as a result.
- The good news, however, is that we’re not alone, and there are ways to resist and minimize internalized homophobia.
It may not always seem like it to some, given the increased visibility of queer people in media and the growing vocabulary for talking about queer experiences, but homophobia is still very much alive and well.
What many don’t realize is that homophobia is not just in those far-off countries that criminalize homosexuality. It can be very close to home, even in countries we tend to think are relatively progressive. It’s 2022, and homophobia is still stubbornly in our schools, workplaces, healthcare institutions, and social media spaces.
It’s so close to home, in fact, that it might be hard to recognize it sometimes, as one of the most subtle ways that homophobia rears its ugly head is in our own thoughts about ourselves.
This is called internalized homophobia.
Also known as internalized heterosexism, this is when we perceive the intolerance, social stigma, and violence against LGBTQ+ folk and begin to believe all of it is justified. Internalized homophobia means seeing the hatred and prejudice against our queer siblings all around us for so long that we begin to turn that energy inward.
For those of us who are queer, internalized homophobia can lead to conscious or unconscious self-hatred and plenty of other complications.
The Invisible Toll of Internalized Homophobia
Internalized homophobia starts early. Children are like sponges, and they learn about gender roles and which side of the binary they apparently belong to years before they step foot in an elementary school. If their parents happen to have intolerant values, they absorb those, too.
It doesn’t even have to be outright rage at every queer person they might see. Parents don’t have to be card-carrying homophobes shouting about abominations for homophobia to start kicking in through socialization. A snide comment here, a joke there, and conversations about “having a boyfriend” or “acting more masculine” more than do the trick.
By the time kids begin to realize that they might not align with what they’ve been taught all their lives when it comes to gender — the median age being 12, though a more recent study highlights how children as young as nine might know they are queer — the world had already told them it was wrong.
Just like internalized misogyny, the self-hate that begins to form is learned behavior, and certain factors can make queer people more at risk of learning to hate themselves.
Maybe you grew up around a lot of religious conservatism that promotes anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and went on to colleges that spewed the same kind of hatred. Perhaps you were never given the chance to see or be around non-heterosexual people, which makes it even easier to believe harmful stereotypes about the queer community. Maybe you might be facing a lack of social support and are scared that your family would reject you if they knew how you felt.
Having one or all of these experiences can increase your risk of internalizing heterosexism or homophobia.
Learning to hate an entire community that you secretly (or maybe even unconsciously) suspect that you’re a part of can be really tough. It can stop you from leading a fulfilling life and keep you in a state of shame over who you are and constant anxiety of being found out. Internalized homophobia can lead you to shut out a part of yourself, keeping everyone from getting to know and loving that part of you, too.
Given all this, it’s no surprise that LGBTQ+ people are at higher risk of mental health issues than cisgender heterosexual people in their lifetimes.
But internalized homophobia goes beyond just individuals. It also affects how we relate with others. Left unchecked, internalized homophobia can put people into heterosexual relationships because they feel compelled to act straight.
Even within queer relationships, it can cause strain as it keeps you from being honest or hopeful, leading you to struggle to enter or stay in romantic relationships or even see fellow LGBTQ+ people as equals.
In terms of wider society, internalized homophobia can lead queer people in power to make decisions that can harm LGBTQ+ people or threaten our rights.
The end effect of all this is that internalized homophobia keeps us from seeing our queer siblings as our allies, and our rights as something that must be collectively won. Instead of recognizing our collective source of struggle (heterosexism), many feel that they need to try to “achieve” cisheterosexuality and gain the privileges associated with it to move around in the world and be accepted by others.
Is It Happening to You?
Over the years, researchers have sought to explore how internalized homophobia works. A 1996 study by Ross and Rosser introduced a scale that explores homophobia among gay men in four key dimensions:
- Public identification as gay: Studied through statements like, “I am not worried about anyone finding out that I am gay,” and “It would not be easier in life to be heterosexual.”
- Perception of stigma associated with being gay: Expressed in statements like, “Society still punishes people for being gay.”
- Social comfort with gay men: Explored with statements like, “I prefer to have anonymous sexual partners,” “Most of my friends are homosexual,” and “When I think about other homosexual men, I think of negative situations.”
- Moral and religious acceptability of being gay: Conveyed in statements like, “Homosexuality is morally acceptable.”
Another study, published by Meyer and Dean two years later, also aimed to assess how badly lesbian, gay, and bisexual participants rejected their own sexualities, felt uneasy about their own preferences, and sought to avoid same-sex attraction.
This was called the Internalized Homophobia Scale, and consisted of nine items that asked how often individuals “wished you weren’t gay,” or “felt that being gay is a personal shortcoming.”
Though these scales are useful in understanding how internalized homophobia might affect us, it’s not always easy to measure. Moreover, the researchers themselves admit that the data is somewhat limited. Ross and Rosser, for instance, explain that their participants were volunteers and were likely more accepting of their own sexual orientation. Plus, it was also very focused on gay men.
Just as our gender identities and sexual orientations can be varied and multi-layered, so are our experiences of the world around us and in how we might internalize homophobia. Thus, the question of whether you are suffering from internalized heterosexism is one that is best answered by yourself, and with a lot of time and patience.
Here are some ways internalized homophobia might come up in our lives.
Shame and Secrecy
Perhaps the most common effect of internalized homophobia is the self-hatred that comes with it as we struggle to come to terms with who we are and what our place is in the wider world.
In this way, internalized homophobia can manifest as:
- Denying our sexual orientation, both to ourselves and to others;
- Being afraid of being labeled as a lesbian, gay, or bisexual;
- Lying to ourselves about who we feel attracted to;
- Keeping queer relationships a secret; and
- Trying to behave in ways that are consistent with what we’ve been taught is “normal” in heterosexist stereotypes.
These are two big words, but basically, horizontal oppression is when people from marginalized groups believe, act on, and enforce the oppression they experience against other members of their marginalized group. It’s taking all the ugly ideas the world has taught us and then passing them on to people who are just like us.
Other words for it are “horizontal hostility” and “lateral violence,” and it’s the same kind of thing at work when women are sexist towards other women, or when racial minorities might hold implicit biases against their own racial group. Horizontal oppression has us taking one step back for every two we take forward.
Internalized homophobia can be expressed in horizontal oppression in a few ways:
- Feeling anger, resentment, or contempt for other queer people, especially those that don’t “blend in”;
- Being uncomfortable around other members of the LGBTQ+ community;
- Shaming people who identify as queer and who do not fit in the gender binary;
- Lobbying against LGBTQ+ rights, as in the case of politicians, religious leaders, and other people in power; and
- Thinking that the LGBTQ+ movement is about a single issue, like marriage equality, instead of a complex set of interconnected systems of oppression across race, ability, and class experienced by queer people.
Difficulty With Emotional or Physical Intimacy
Because internalized homophobia makes it difficult to accept who we are, it also makes it hard to be emotionally or physically intimate with others, which requires a certain level of vulnerability we aren’t prepared to experience, both romantically and platonically.
Moreover, at the core of the stigma against queer people and queer love is the false belief that we’re not capable of intimacy and healthy relationships. And this idea forms part of the experience of internalized homophobia as:
- Engaging in unhealthy, sometimes insincere, relationships;
- Developing risky behaviors or engaging in sexually compulsive behavior;
- Avoiding relationships with others;
- Being dishonest in a way that can push people away;
- Not being happy in relationships, which tend to not last, as those with higher levels of internalized homophobia tend to have lower quality relationships;
- Refusing to acknowledge their partner in public; and
- Holding their partner to unreasonable standards, usually in relation to homophobic stereotypes.
Mental and Physical Health Issues
Things add up pretty easily across a lifetime of shame, horizontal oppression, and difficulty with intimacy. And when experienced alongside external homophobia that threatens our safety, employment, housing, and legal rights, it’s clear how internalized homophobia can lead to poorer quality of life.
In other words, we’re less happy, less healthy, and less capable of imagining a happy future for ourselves in the following ways:
- Experiencing chronic stress, which tends to be worse the higher your level of internalized homophobia is;
- Suffering from the many consequences of chronic stress, such as poorer mental health, sleep problems, heart issues, memory impairment, and digestive problems, among others;
- Resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like substance abuse, which comes with a slew of other consequences;
- Having poor mental health overall, which translates to higher risks of suicide; and finally,
- Not getting proper healthcare — whether it is internalized homophobia influencing us not to seek help (and maybe, giving us the false idea that we deserve to suffer) or external homophobia keeping health professionals and institutions ill-equipped to provide queer people the medical attention they need.
Working Through Internalized Homophobia
Being queer and homophobic feels like a bad joke, but the reality is that it’s an all-too-common situation for many of us. Heterosexism is so present in many cultures that even though you might not think the above points apply to you, you may still feel one or two points from time to time.
So if you feel that this is a problem you currently have, then do know that there are ways to work through it. Internalized homophobia, like homophobia in general, isn’t going to disappear overnight, but it’s possible to take steps that allow you to breathe more freely as your authentic self.
And crucially, know that you don’t have to do it alone.
For starters, see if you can find a local LGBTQ+ community. College students, for example, can join student organizations for queer people and allies. There might be an LGBTQ+ bookstore, gallery, cafe, or community gathering spot near you. Even if they might not have specific programs for tackling internalized homophobia, just being around people who get it can do you a world of good.
If your religion is very important to you and the church’s general stance on homosexuality has been a source of pain, know that there are groups for reconciling your faith and your identity, too.
A recent study found that around half of all queer Americans are religious, and you can reach out to others in faith-based LGBTQ+ groups like Dignity USA and the Open Table Network. These types of groups open their arms to the LGBTQ+ community not in a we-love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin kind of way, but in a Jesus-would’ve-been-here-for-you kind of way.
In terms of healthcare, you can also find gender-affirming doctors and other healthcare providers at databases like Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality. Finding an LGBTQ+ affirming therapist can also be a good idea if you have the means for therapy.
Last but not least, see if you can find support from friends, especially if your family might not be able to give you the compassion you need.
A Quick Note About Coming Out
Coming out can be very difficult, and the decision over whether to come out will differ from person to person, as is the when, where, how, and to whom of it. The choice is and should be entirely yours, but know that coming out is not a requirement for queer people — it’s just another unfortunate part of living in a world that assumes everyone is cis and hetero until proven otherwise.
Though being closeted can be mentally distressing and coming out is often very empowering, there are also very real dangers to coming out to others, and it’s okay if you don’t feel safe to do that just yet.
It’s important to pause and weigh the different risks in your specific environment and situation, but even more important is to be honest with yourself about who you are, what you want, and how you can work towards that in a way that is healthy and driven by love — not by fear or shame.
Just because you may not be out doesn’t mean you’ve already internalized the homophobia around you. It also doesn’t mean that coming out will magically free you from the shackles of internalized heterosexism. Things are never that simple, and there’s no right or wrong way to be queer. We just have to treat ourselves and others with dignity and compassion.