Internalized Homophobia is something that virtually all gays have to confront (or have yet to confront) in their lives.
The simple definition is that internalized homophobia refers to negative feelings that we have towards ourselves because of our homosexuality. The forms it may take can vary from outright shame, denial, or self-injury, to hating on other gay people and more unconscious behaviors as well.
Internalized homophobia happens for some of the same reasons that straight people are homophobic – namely ignorance, often because of religion and then of course, because of negative stereotypes and misinformation that we hear about in our families, schools, and society. However, with gays, negative attitudes become “internalized” because we are the subject of these prejudices! Whether we realize it or not, we are affected and hurt by hate and discrimination. It’s never a conscious choice to have internalized homophobia, but it must be a conscious choice to change it.
Here is a general overview of the spectrum of behaviors that exhibit internalized homophobia. Everyone has a unique life history, personality, and set of circumstances that inform their place either on or totally off of this list! :
1. Aggressive Denial. Some people feel so strongly that they should not be gay that they will repress their feelings and desires and speak out with some of the most hateful and homophobic language you will ever hear. You often see this happen with fundamentalist religious figures, like Ted Haggard. This never ends well. (Usually it ends with a gay sex scandal, talk show appearances and a lot more denial.) This is the worst kind of internalized homophobia because the hateful rhetoric and actions that these “aggressive deniers” exhibit really hurt other gay people and the movement.
2. Denial. Some people simply deny that they are gay, try to lead a straight life, may even get married and have a family. Many of these gay people in denial lead secret gay lives, or possibly worse, spend their lives feeling unfulfilled, lonely and unknown to everyone they love.
3. Closeted. A closeted person is someone who has gay relationships, but hides that fact from everyone that they know and love. In Beyond the Closet; The Transformation of Gay and Lesbian Life, being in the closet is described as a “life-shaping pattern of concealment.” Being closeted is linked with high-anxiety, low self-esteem, increased risk for suicide and general lack of fulfillment (though closeted people rarely admit to not being fulfilled while they’re in there, though they always remark about it when they finally come out!)
4. In the closet with the door open. Many people are only partially closeted. They have gay relationships, and don’t completely hide their sexuality, but they make a point to not talk about it with family, friends, co-workers or, if they are public figures, the media. Sometimes gay people do this for their own safety, for example, if they know they could face possible violence at work or lose their home if they are living with homophobic family members. There can be a practical side to being careful with your disclosure. However, many gays have gay friends, gay friendly (or at least loving) parents and still they remain silent. Often they say things like “it’s not anybody’s business,” or “we don’t talk about those kinds of things,” when questioned. The root of this avoidance and secrecy is shame, fear to disappoint, fear to face actual homophobia from people or to not be accepted. This kind of internalized homophobia really encourages subtle and systemic discrimination in our society. It makes a statement that even gay people believe that gays should be marginalized and gives straight people permission to ignore us. When we do not advocate for ourselves and others who need support, we are weak as a movement. Additionally, the people found in this part of the spectrum are often the most avid deniers of the existence of ‘internalized homophobia.’
5. Out, and generally fine with other gays, but really dislikes ‘dykes’ and ‘flamers’. Many gay people are out and open and educated and “perfectly wonderful” gays, except for the fact that they vocally dislike flamboyant gay people. If you are this person, there are a few things you should consider.
- These outspoken, visible minorities (a.k.a. someone who does not or cannot pass as straight) have been on the forefront of the gay rights movement from the very beginning. They take the brunt of the homophobia, face the most violence, and through their differences have created greater visibility for LGBTQ people in the world. After all, if no one could see us, how could they know we existed?
- Every group of people has extreme examples and stereotypes. We encounter straight people all the time who are so ridiculous, they could be cartoons. And yet, we accept these differences to be within the acceptable range of human weirdness and expression.
- It is important to distinguish between a flamboyant person and an annoying person. The reason you dislike someone may have everything to do with the fact that they are irritating, and not as much to do with the fact that they are queer.
- Some of the hate directed at extremely masculine lesbians or extremely feminine gay men, is actually a form of gender discrimination. We need to take into account that gender expression is something that happens in conjunction with sexuality. Many people with non-traditional expressions, are experiencing the brunt of internalized homophobia and transphobia, even if they’re not trans. Lots of straight people want to put sexuality in a box, but lots of straight and gay people want to put gender in a box. Gender, like sexuality, is a spectrum of expression. Some straight women are tough as nails and some butch lesbians are sweet as kittens and don’t know how to swing a hammer. Some gay men are total meat heads, and others are skinny, gentle dreamers in makeup. None of this really matters. Hating on other gays is just another form of internalized homophobia with a terrible dose of transphobia thrown in.
The best way to overcome internalized homophobia is to first realize it’s an issue worth dealing with. If you aren’t out, there’s a good place to start. But if you are, then it’s a matter of education, acceptance, and seeing beauty in our differences (including your own).