Prior to discussing internalized homophobia, I’d like to note that social and political forces in our culture play a large part in influencing our attitudes, beliefs, and behavior toward lesbians and gay men. Coming out often has genuine risk, whether it’s being endangered physically, fired from your job, or disowned by your family. However, the focus of this article is on how we unconsciously internalize negative societal messages, and as a result pick up where the culture has left off by adding to our own oppression.
Because cultural messages are so pervasive and reinforcing, no one escapes absorbing negative messages about us. Our families of origin (the funnel for society’s beliefs), the government, schools, religion, and the media planted these ideas. As a result, we unquestioningly accepted these messages as true. To this day, our culture continually reinforces them, and we always have to be on guard for internalized homophobia.
Nonetheless, many of us don’t see our own homophobia. These persons feel that they have dealt with negative feelings about themselves and that they have no bad feelings toward themselves or others in the community. Even those who have been out for years, dealt with a lot of issues, and spent a major portion of their lives on personal growth aren’t immune to internalized homophobia.
Why not accept internalized homophobia as a fact of life and just live with it? The answer is that when you have a of degree of unconscious lack of acceptance of any aspect of your self, it leads to threats to your ego (well-being). When you have these threats, you must defend against them, and these defenses can be harmful. A high degree of unclaimed homophobia leads to shame, low self-esteem, and barriers to intimacy. Conversely, accepting the previously disowned homophobic part of your self can release energy that you were using to keep the threats at bay. Once this energy is freed up, you can use it to feel better about yourself and reduce shameful feelings.
Two signs of internalized homophobia: Passing and hiding
Because internalized homophobia can be out of your awareness, you need to look for signs of it. An obvious sign of internalized homophobia is trying to pass while concealing your sexual orientation or gender identity from friends, family, and co-workers.
However, most outward signs of internalized homophobia aren’t so obvious. For example, some people aren’t out at work. When job risk isn’t an issue, many others rationalize the reasons for their own homophobia by saying, “What I do in bed isn’t my co-workers’ business.” What you do sexually is indeed nobody’s business, but being a sexual minority or being with someone of the same gender is not what you do in bed. Furthermore, if you feel the need to cover up where you went or who you were with during week ends, it’s another sign.
Often, gay men and lesbians don’t come out at work because they believe that others will reject them. If you believe this, then it is likely that this fear rests on the assumption that straight co-workers dislike LGBT persons. However, just as likely, what you think they believe is actually what you believe (!), which is known as projection.
Other work-related signs of internalized homophobia include not placing your spouse’s photo on your desk or bringing an opposite sex “date” to work-related events. If you don’t think it would jeopardize your job, you should look inside to discover if the reason is shame.
In addition to work-related indicators of internalized homophobia, there are signs that relate to interactions with your family of origin. Accepting treatment by your family that denigrates you or your partner can be a sign. To illustrate, how would you react to a family member who fails to invite your spouse to a wedding or graduation, or requests that you do not bring him to a funeral? The result of going to these occasions without your spouse is to devalue your current family (i.e., your spouse).
More subtly, when your straight siblings come home for a visit, they sleep in the same bed with their married spouses. If your parents told your married siblings to sleep in separate beds, they would think it’s a joke. On the other hand, some parents ask adult children men and their partners to sleep separately. If this is the case, and you’re already out to your family, complying with such a request may be an indicator that you have internalized homophobia. (There are usually options if you want to see your family – e.g., hotels or your friends’ or siblings’ homes).
The overall point of these illustrations is that same-sex couples have as much validity and worth as heterosexual couples do. Other people will treat you the way they choose, and it is up to you to determine whether to accept their behavior. If you comply with unreasonable requests, it could indicate a pretty high degree of internalized homophobia.
There are other home-related signs of internalized homophobia. One of them is hiding photos, books, and magazines when certain individuals visit your house. Another one is when you don’t reveal your sexual orientation to your children. When you refuse to tell them, or attempt to cover up your relationship with your partner, it’s often due to feeling shame.
Gay men and lesbians often justify their reasons for not coming out. Instances of these types of rationalizations include, “There’s no reason to tell my parents about my the other person because they live out of town.” Or, “It would hurt them.” Any way it’s explained, negative beliefs about your homosexuality belong to you, and not to others.
Internalized homophobia can be even subtler than the earlier examples. Consider the following scenario: When strangers assume you are heterosexual and ask you a question based on this assumption, do you act “as if” in spite of wanting to correct them? When heterosexuals go out of their way to tell you that they know about your sexual orientation and that they are O.K. with it, do you say thanks, but inside you know that you have just been patronized? Or, when you take your significant other to a hotel and ask for a room with one bed, do you do nothing when you get a judgmental look or negative comment from a hotel clerk?
Beliefs that indicate internalized homophobia
In addition to outward signs, there are beliefs that can be used to measure your level of internalized homophobia. For example, some men believe that it’s hard to find a same-sex partner because other men are promiscuous. Although this is a fairly obvious sign of homophobia, it’s often difficult to see it that way.
The truth about promiscuity is that there is a part of the community that is promiscuous, just as there’s a segment of the heterosexual community that is promiscuous. Heterosexual males tend to be more promiscuous than heterosexual females, as men are socialized to be. Of these straight men, it isn’t uncommon to see themselves as normal (or manly) while viewing their female partners as sluts. If you likewise consider men to be “sluts,” you may have adopted a stereotypical assumption.
The same holds true for the misconception that men can’t be in a long-term same-sex couple. There are countless male couples who have been together 10, 15, and 25 years or more. When someone says that can’t happen, it means that they have not ventured out enough to find the men who are committed to another man. It also happens that gay men are not the only ones who have trouble being in a long-term partnership: not only do heterosexuals have high divorce rates, they also tend to have several partners that last for brief periods before settling down for the long term.
At the other end of the spectrum, excessive pride and stridency can be an indication of internalized homophobia. If you’re on guard against homophobes and are ready to defend yourself at the first sign of prejudice, part of the reason may be due to projection, which I referred to earlier as assuming what other persons think. Of course most activists are not acting on our behalf because they feel shame about their orientation. The important distinction is that when you assume what someone else is thinking and are ready to defend yourself (and maybe even come up with a response in your head!), the first thought belongs to you and not to the other person.
Another reason for internalized homophobia being externalized by excessive pride may be due to what psychologist Alfred Adler noted as a reaction to feeling inferior. Some sexual minorities react to feeling inferior by becoming arrogant and self-important, which is actually a way to cover up harsh, judgmental thoughts about themselves.
Lesbians and gay men who act superior reveal a greater extent of internalized homophobia by putting down others in the LGBT culture. For example, some individuals talk about drag queens “ruining it for us” in Pride parades because the mainstream media focuses on them, and they fear that the general community will then think that we all cross dress (and therefore reject us). Others dislike “circuit queens.” Still others are offended when sexual minorities “wave their sexual orientation around” by putting rainbow stickers on their cars or holding their partners’ hands in public. Just like buying into the family of origin’s ideas of what is acceptable, these individuals have unconsciously bought into society’s expectations of what constitutes proper behavior.
How to reduce internalized homophobia
I’d like to first point out that reducing internalized homophobia is a process that parallels self-actualization. Self-actualization means to develop to your full potential and to live life to the fullest. No one can ever fully self-actualize because it’s an ideal. Likewise, we are never completely free from internalized homophobia because we cannot overcome the negative messages that we’ve been inundated with from the time we were small children.
Since homophobia lasts a lifetime, consider some steps involved in minimizing its impact. Keep in mind that any stage process is not linear, and you will come back around to the same issues as before, but with new levels of maturity and insight.
The first step in reducing internalized homophobia is to accept that you have internalized some negative beliefs and stereotypes. Ironically, change already begings to occur when you accept your own internalized homophobia. Change cannot occur when you resist the idea that you could be homophobic or that you shouldn’t feel that way.
As an aside to this point, it’s helpful to separate your thoughts from your feelings. Thoughts are intellectual, and they consist of beliefs that LGBT persons should have equal opportunities and be treated with respect and dignity. However, thoughts are not necessarily consistent with feelings, which lie deeper inside of you and therefore more directly influence you. So, one challenge is to accept that you may feel embarrassed about a segment of the community or maybe you’re afraid to reveal your sexual orientation to certain individuals. That way, you can use your feelings as a way to determine the amount of internalized homophobia you actually have.
The third step is to start or continue to reveal your sexual orientation to individuals who are currently unaware of your orientation. You might also not want to let strangers get away with assuming that you’re heterosexual, even if it creates an uncomfortable moment. Reading more information about internalized homophobia and coming out can help out as well.
After this step, try to connect with others in the community on a deeper emotional level. By connecting, you can learn to view each person as an individual instead of lumping various persons into a group, which in turn can help you reduce judgments about others.
One way to connect is by joining a therapy group. If you have been in therapy, you most likely went into individual therapy because there was a pressing issue in your life. At the time that the presenting problems were being resolved, you may have become aware that you have trouble with intimacy. Since internalized homophobia is a barrier to intimacy, you may want to consider going to a therapy group to help you develop intimacy with other LGBT persons. In group therapy, intimacy issues are not only explored intellectually, but group participants examine their connections with each other. As a result, you have the opportunity to develop more fulfilling relationships.
The fifth step, which is woven into the others, is to ask yourself if you’re feeling homophobic about something as situations arise. This awareness can lead to some interesting insights. You might learn that your beliefs about other LGBT persons are, in fact, internalized messages. Furthermore, you might begin to question your life choices, such as friends who have colluded with you in perpetuating false beliefs and stereotypes. Such a process could impact your friendships, and it could lead to questioning some of your choices in friends.
During this time of self-discovery, remember to be patient and to not judge yourself for having these feelings. Putting yourself down, wishing you were different, or kicking yourself for being homophobic only adds fuel to the fire. Instead, remember how far you’ve come – even if you are just now learning to accept your sexual orientation – and remind yourself of the courage it takes to be who you are. That way, your progress toward self-acceptance can be more pleasurable or, at the very least, a lot less painful.