Alright, we have to have a conversation about internalized homophobia. The only way I can start this conversation is by talking about my own experience, and it’s going to involve telling you about my sad personal stories and experiences in therapy. Sorry to put you through this, but that’s how best I can explain this topic!
Some of you will recognize my stories if you’ve been reading my blog for a while. I have removed some earlier posts that contained these stories and so I’ll be telling them again. Feel free to skim if you’ve read them before!
The website Cultural Bridges to Justice defines internalized homophobia:
“Internalized homophobia is defined as the involuntary belief by lesbians and gay men that the homophobic lies, stereotypes and myths about them (that are delivered to everyone in a heterosexist / homophobic society) ARE TRUE.”
I will get more specific about what internalized homophobia looks like in this post.
The earliest anecdote I can think of where I denied a same-sex attraction is when I was 9 and I had a crush on a girl at my school. I was fascinated with this girl who I thought was the prettiest girl I had ever seen and I followed her around at recess because I wanted to look at her. I started talking about her at home and my mom casually remarked that I had a crush. This seemed really embarrassing to me and I insisted that I didn’t have a crush. At this point I didn’t consciously think of myself as either gay or bisexual; I didn’t have any concept of sexual orientation and all I knew was that this girl was beautiful. I didn’t draw any conclusions that this feeling said something about me. But I still felt embarrassed when my mom pointed it out. I believe that’s because even at a young age kids learn to view same-sex attraction as something embarrassing, gross, wrong and weird. I never had anyone in my life explicitly say that homosexuality was wrong, but this message is casually inserted into all of our culture, like endless subliminal messaging. Everything in society is geared toward heterosexuality, the way adults talk to kids always assumes their future heterosexuality, every story, movie, and song we consume contains heterosexuality, and we either don’t hear about homosexuality at all or we hear about it in the punch lines of jokes. Characters in films and TV shows make “gay jokes” all the time, they make fun of people by implying they’re gay, they express disgust toward gay people, and they generally act like gay people are weirdos and freaks who are totally different from regular society. Then there’s the talk amongst kids! Every gay kid has had to listen to people calling each other fag or queer or fruit at school and people putting people down by implying they’re less than heterosexual. These messages get stored in the hard drive of the brain and the kid remembers that being gay is weird and gross. When my mom said that I had a crush on a girl, I recoiled in horror at the thought.
When I was fourteen I had a crush on a girl again and there was no way I could hide it. Talking about her made me light up like a lamp, and I couldn’t stop talking about her. I became really goofy around her, it’s like I couldn’t remember how to speak properly when she was around. I admitted this to two friends, one of whom knew long before I told her. When I found out that one of these two friends had told someone else without my permission, I was horrified. I walked around at school wondering if anyone else knew and what would happen to me. I remember in grade ten a boy in my class relentlessly harassed another boy, telling him he was gay over and over until he was fighting back tears. I thought the bully was a total asshole but I was too scared to tell him to knock it off. I didn’t want that sort of thing to happen to me. How I wish I could go back to that day and tell that bully to shut the fuck up! At fourteen I knew that it was taboo that I liked another girl, I was scared of anyone knowing besides my two best friends, and I knew that other people would not be okay with it. This all had an effect on me.
I spent the next few years in denial and tried to be straight, although this didn’t work out. I never loved a man and they couldn’t satisfy me. When I fell in love with a woman at age 20, it broke the denial. I was head over heels for her, acting all goofy and unable to speak again, and writing all sorts of poetry about her. For the purposes of this post I’ll call her “Rosie.” I didn’t notice my attraction to Rosie at first, because I was in denial. What happened was that I started believing I was stupid. I didn’t think that I knew how to even carry on a conversation because I was so stupid. I ended up actually going to therapy because I had gotten depressed to the point where I couldn’t do any schoolwork. My therapist asked me specific questions about my belief that I was stupid. She got me to narrow down the issue for a while until finally what I realized is that I was only stupid when I was around Rosie. I had no idea why this could be. My therapist asked me to describe Rosie and I immediately began to gush about how beautiful, smart, brilliant, and pretty Rosie was. I carried on for a few minutes while my therapist just watched me talk, and then all of a sudden I started to hear myself and I realized what I was saying. I was saying I was attracted to her. I couldn’t look at my therapist anymore. I stared at the wall in shame and wouldn’t look her in the eye.
The reasons for my shame was because of all the years of being in a heteronormative culture and hearing homophobic words used as slurs and even the word “gay” used as a slur and seeing gay people used as punch lines in jokes. What this all adds up to is a belief that gay people are gross and weird. Realizing you have a same-sex attraction means realizing you are one of those “freaks” that you’ve always heard bad things about. Up to this point in your life, you know you aren’t a freak, and you know that gay people are freaks. When you realize you have a same-sex attraction, you can either dismiss it and decide you couldn’t really be gay, or you can sink into despair upon realizing that you are a freak after all! Of course, if you’re lucky, maybe you can skip this process altogether and just accept it immediately, but that’s not what happened to me.
I want to talk about how internalized homophobia can work on a subconscious level. Even that day when I stared at the wall because I was too ashamed to look at my therapist, if you had asked me, “Is it okay to be gay?” I would have said yes. I did not have a conscious belief that there was anything wrong with being gay. I was all progressive and tolerant and I thought it was just fine, as long as it wasn’t me.
I was very lucky I went to a decent therapist who could identify my issue. She kept asking me questions until the real reason for my distress became apparent. She didn’t tell me the reason, she helped me find it for myself. When she saw how ashamed I was about my attraction to my female friend she told me that I didn’t have to be ashamed and she encouraged me to do things for myself that would help, like joining the gay group on campus.
I had another issue to work out too, and that was the issue of female-only space. I didn’t think I belonged in it. I felt like my attraction to women made me like a man, and that I didn’t belong in private spaces with other women because I was attracted to them. Once again, this was a subconscious belief. I wouldn’t have said out loud that lesbians are sex offenders if you had asked me, but I felt like I was doing something wrong by living in close quarters with straight women and sharing bathrooms with them. I felt like I was violating them somehow, just by being there. The only reason I realized I was feeling this way is because my therapist kept asking me questions to get me to dig deeper, and she helped me uncover my underlying attitude that was causing me to feel anxious. We had a whole conversation about it, and I had to tell myself that there was nothing wrong with me being in female-only space—I had no desire to do anything wrong to the women I was sharing a dorm and a bathroom with. I definitely had a desire to have sex with the woman I was in love with, but I did not pay much attention to the others. I didn’t have a sexual attraction to every woman—it was only to certain ones—and I get zero sexual arousal from being in a washroom or locker room.
One more thing I need to discuss, and that’s when I was trying to block my thoughts about women. I don’t know when this started exactly, but I used to prevent myself from having romantic thoughts about women. As soon as I saw a pretty woman or thought about a woman I liked, I would launch into a full-on attack against myself, calling myself names and telling myself to stop, stop, STOP! And then all the other insecurities would pile on top of those—I was also stupid and wrong and awful and would never make it in the world. I had to work hard at identifying these thoughts as incorrect and harmful and then slowly reverse them by teaching myself new thoughts that reflect love and acceptance. And here’s my sparkling snow anecdote which will be the only happy thing in this post! One day I was walking out in the snow, and I thought of a pretty woman I knew, and I realized that I could enjoy this thought. I could allow this attraction to make me feel good and I could enjoy the warm fuzzies, instead of beating myself up over it. So I thought about her and smiled to myself. Because I finally gave myself permission to feel good about it instead of beating myself up over it, everything changed. At that moment, the snow didn’t feel cold or gloomy anymore, it looked sparkly and beautiful. And that’s when I realized that when I stop beating myself up with negativity, I can finally let in what joys there are to find here in this life. Allowing myself to be who I am literally made the snow sparkle.
So to summarize a long bunch of stories, internalized homophobia can look like denial, negative self-talk, and negative beliefs about being gay directed toward the self.
Denial: This can consist of pretending a same-sex attraction doesn’t exist, or conceptualizing it as something else. A woman who is exclusively attracted to women is a lesbian—that’s what the word means. Sometimes women who are attracted to women label themselves by some other name or try to think of themselves in another way. Some of us try to be straight even though that doesn’t work, because we cannot love men. Some of us disguise ourselves as men so that we look straight. Lesbians who are trying to look like heterosexual men are denying their lesbianism.
Negative beliefs: Even people who are homosexual can have negative beliefs about homosexuals. We learn terrible things from homophobic people, from religion, from culture, even from our families. We learn that being gay is wrong and bad, gross and embarrassing, an abomination and sometimes an evil force bringing down civilization. We learn that gay people are sex offenders and perverts (which is not true!) and that we should be converted or ostracized or locked up. These beliefs can live in the hard drives of our minds even if we aren’t consciously aware of them.
Negative self-talk: A lesbian with internalized homophobia might tell herself the same things she is hearing from other homophobic people, and direct hatred toward herself. She might refuse to think of her sexual orientation in a positive way and instead tell herself to stop liking women and that her desires are wrong.
All of the above problems can be solved through cognitive therapy. Internalized homophobia has to be identified and unlearned.
These days I’m a happy lesbian who feels very lucky to be one. I am lucky to be able to share my love with another woman. My partner is the most wonderful person in my life. I am proud to be seen with her and to be seen as a lesbian, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m not afraid to come out to new people and when people are homophobic I don’t even care anymore. If someone wants to live with hatred in their heart, that’s their problem, not mine.
There is another form of internalized homophobia that I don’t have because I’m a femme lesbian, and that is the belief that one’s lesbian personality makes one “really a man.” It is normal for a lesbian to identify with the stereotypes that society assigns to boys and men, such as enjoying rough-and-tumble play, enjoying wearing baggy clothes and short hair, and seeing oneself in the role of breadwinner, husband, and protector with a lovely woman by her side. This is a normal lesbian personality and no body modification is required in order to express it. Some women with this personality will call themselves “butch.” There is a long history of lesbians with this personality type wearing men’s clothing and disguising themselves as men because that is the only way they are allowed to be themselves in a misogynist and homophobic world. This doesn’t mean they are literally male, it means that they have been labelled “masculine” by a culture that defines everything in terms of masculinity and femininity. Being a masculine woman is a wonderful way to be a woman, it’s not a problem, and it doesn’t need to be fixed. The belief that a lesbian is “doing woman wrong” or “not a proper woman” because her personality is not the one we expect from women is another form of homophobia.
There is nothing wrong or shameful about being a lesbian. Love between women is beautiful and life-affirming. Sex between women is also beautiful and very fulfilling. Women form intense and passionate relationships and we stay with our partners for long periods of time. Some people say that lesbians are sick and twisted or immature or broken, but this is not true. We are normal people who live our lives the same way everyone else does except we partner with our own sex. There is nothing evil or wrong about us loving and caring for each other. Our love is wonderful and we are lucky to have it.
Internalized homophobia is a condition that requires treatment, but being homosexual is not.