Internalized homophobia

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.

An important post on Feminist Current

I really loved this article on Feminist Current “Feminist Therapy: When our sexualities are shaped by trauma & misogyny, how can we reclaim our bodies & minds?”

There are two segments to this post—the first one is the discussion of reclaiming our sexuality and the second is a question about a family not accepting a lesbian teen and being actively misogynist. Both of these discussions were important to me.

The first segment begins with a woman asking how to reclaim her sexuality after experiencing female socialization and sexual trauma. She has been discovering radical feminism and it’s making her more committed to stopping her submissive fantasies.

The therapist talks about the brain—its response to trauma, and its ability to become “hardwired” a certain way when something is repeated over and over. I think this approach is a good one.

“Based on what we know about changing our brains, there are a few key things that apply: redirection, focus, reinforcement, and time. Take a break from the behaviors and thoughts you don’t like. If you notice yourself thinking something you don’t want to think (perhaps a submissive fantasy pops into mind), distract yourself and think of something else — if possible even think about what you would like to be able to fantasize about instead. Over time that could create positive associations between what’s happening physiologically for you and what’s happening in your thoughts. When you’re engaging in sexual behavior, try to stay in the moment, feeling what’s happening in your body and paying attention to what feels good and what doesn’t feel good, not thinking about what else is going on, what’s expected of you, what you think is expected of you, or what you used to do. Don’t be surprised if “being in your body” is hard to do. For a lot of women, sex is more about performing pleasure — for themselves and/or for others — than experiencing it.”

There are two important things to take away from this paragraph. One is the point about repetition. By the time a woman has reached adulthood, she’s been told hundreds of times that a woman’s job is to be pretty and pleasing to men and that her role in sex is to just look good and be a nice body for a man to use. If she has watched porn, this is made much worse because she has learned to orgasm to images of women being reduced to a collection of orifices for penetration and she has learned to sexualize this role for herself. The brain remembers the images, the ideas, and the physical response that goes with them, and this means that women can indeed enjoy submission. Female socialization and porn culture work together to prepare women for a submissive role in relation to men; men create this culture deliberately in order to ensure they retain their dominant role. One of our jobs as feminists who are trying to liberate women from oppression is to learn how to undo this conditioning and help each other to sexualize equal relationships. The brain learns by repetition, and indeed the brain will default to certain feelings when those feelings are brought back to it over and over. So learning to sexualize equal relationship involves repeatedly changing one’s fantasies from submissive ones to equal ones, and practicing this over a long period of time until the brain learns a new response. It also means choosing to only have relationships that are equal.

The second thing to take away from this paragraph is the bit about “being in your body” and “staying in the moment.” A good sign of a healthy sex life is when you are able to focus on the here and now and the sensations of your body, rather than feeling like you are performing a role or being an actress. Women may need to learn to be in their bodies after having been traumatized, they may need to break up with boyfriends who believe sex is something she has to perform for him, and they may need to practice a body awareness meditation in order to learn to focus on their immediate physical sensations.

I have used these techniques myself to undo what I learned about sex from porn and from the older men who used me when I was a teenager. I don’t believe that women’s enjoyment of submission is something that is a part of our intrinsic sexuality, and I don’t think it’s empowering or sex-positive to indulge in it. However, I also don’t think anybody is a bad person because they enjoy it. I think pretty much all of us can sexualize dominance and submission (that includes me) because we’ve been taught to, and this doesn’t make us bad or wrong as people, it just means we are a product of our society. I think we should eliminate dominance and submission or at least reduce it from our sex lives and fantasies as a part of an overall plan to undo patriarchal training. If we continue to indulge in sexualizing our subordination, why would we ever want to put a stop to it in the wider world? People who think oppression is sexy aren’t in a position to get angry and end oppression.

There are some women who will never be able to reclaim their sexuality or may not want to try, and this is okay too.

The second segment of this article is a question from a woman whose sister came out as a lesbian and was rejected by her parents. To make matters worse, she found out that her brother was a porn user and a john, and that her father was also a porn user and was watching “lesbian” porn. Obviously, she was horrified.

I was full of anger after reading this. It’s terrible, but unfortunately not surprising, that a father would reject his lesbian daughter while at the same time indulging in “lesbian” porn in his spare time. There is a big difference between “lesbian” porn, which I will never write without the quotation marks, and actual lesbians. “Lesbian” porn consists of straight women performing acts that men have coerced them into performing for the pleasure and profit of men. The reason men like it is because they enjoy watching straight women indulge in (their idea of) “lesbian” sex with each other while maintaining that what they really prefer is men. Actual lesbians, on the other hand, do not have sex for the benefit of men, and exclude men from our sex lives entirely. This is something that misogynist men will never accept. They can’t accept that women can have sex without a penis being involved and that we can define our own desire and sexuality without them. This threatens their dominance over women.

The writer of this piece must be in terrible pain. It’s terrible to know your own family members are misogynist, and that they hate not only you but all women. I deal with this in my own life by barely ever speaking to any of my family members.  The therapist gives her some sensible advice, and my advice is get out of there as soon as you can and never look back.

I really like this segment on Feminist Current on feminist therapy—it’s something we all need.

On feminism and therapy

We sometimes think of therapy and feminism as complete opposites. Therapy can be thought of as an individual solution that tries to get the woman to feel more comfortable in her situation, and feminism is a movement to liberate women as a class. If we oversimplify this comparison we can make therapy look like forced compliance with patriarchy and therefore anti-feminism. But therapy does not have to be anti-feminist, in fact it can be very pro-feminist. It can return to us the strength and resilience that has been taken away from us and it can give us the ability to keep fighting for our cause.

The most common form of psychotherapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) which is where the patient talks about her life and the therapist suggests ways of changing her behavior and thought patterns in order to improve her life. I know that when feminists hear this we immediately jump to accusations of victim-blaming. It’s not her fault, it’s the patriarchy! we want to shout. But I have done lots and lots of CBT and it did not turn me into a self-blaming patriarchy enthusiast. Let’s take a closer look at the idea of “changing your negative thoughts.”

Some thoughts are negative because the situation is truly negative. If you are being abused by your husband, for example, and you think this is a negative situation, then you are absolutely correct. This thought does not need to be changed at all, it is an accurate assessment of the situation. Other thoughts are negative even though the situation is not actually negative. If you believe that you are ugly and stupid, those are truly negative thoughts. They are making a negative and untrue interpretation of your situation. Those are thoughts that do need to be changed and you can, and should, change them, because they are harmful to you and you deserve to be safe from harm.

Those of us with feminist consciousness will realize that women are more likely to have thoughts that are truly negative, because we are trained right from childhood to think we are not pretty enough, not smart enough, not good enough, and generally stupid and incompetent. The negative messaging is overwhelming and we do internalize it. When we take a good honest look at our thoughts and assess whether or not they are actually true, we can keep those thoughts that are true and teach ourselves to discard the others. It is certainly a feminist act to discard the harmful lessons patriarchy has taught us.

Have you noticed that a man can get through a whole day doing all sorts of things wrong and not even caring that he’s doing things wrong, and still sleep peacefully at night, but a woman could do everything perfectly and still doubt herself, and stay up late worrying about whether she should have done things differently? Women can fight back against this training. This is patriarchy inside our minds. We are much more competent than we think. Women usually have to do more work in a day than men do and be better at tasks than men are just to be seen as having done the same amount of work with the same level of competence.

The effects of holding on to negative thinking are anxiety and depression. A woman who is overcome with anxiety and depression has no energy left for fighting the patriarchy. How can anyone, say, organize a rally for abortion rights, when she is overcome with feelings of gloom and hopelessness?

I say that therapy can be feminist, when it’s done right. Therapy is not the whole picture, is all. Self-care is something you do until you can feel like yourself again enough to get on with your life. Then it’s off to fight the patriarchy once more. We need both of these things—we need periods of activism and consciousness-raising but we also need periods of self-care and rejuvenation. If you are lucky enough to have access to therapy, you should take advantage of that opportunity.

Western society is in love with pop psychology, ineffective forms of self-help, and a shallow version of “positive thinking.” These can get really, really annoying because they don’t come anywhere near acknowledging systemic oppression and real-world social problems. They are based in fantasy, not reality. The self-help books that major retailers sell are the kind that claim that you can change absolutely anything in life by changing your thoughts and that you are literally controlling reality with your thinking. That is absolute horseshit. Material reality continues to exist regardless of your thoughts on it. And when people get into the theory that we create our reality with our thoughts they also get into the theory that when bad things happen to us it’s either a blessing because we’ll grow and learn from it, or it’s because our thoughts were negative and therefore we attracted negative things to us. Now, THAT is victim-blaming. Imagine if someone preached that we attract bad situations to ourselves because of our negative thinking to Syrian refugees, or victims of human trafficking, or child brides, or kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls? It’s not our thoughts that create war, slavery, and patriarchy, it’s the evil intentions of men and the power they hold that creates these things. They alone are accountable.

The key is remaining in reality. If you are correctly assessing a negative situation, then absolutely do not give up your correct assessment. But if you are going around believing that you are incompetent and stupid when actually you are talented and intelligent, then YES! Do some CBT. What attracts me to feminism is that it’s reality-based. Feminism takes a good honest look at the world we live in and names the problem. Human thoughts are often not based in reality, though. Humans do things like worry, panic, dissociate, deny, exaggerate, and catastrophize. We are allowed to seek help with these things just as we would seek help with a physical condition, so that we can be healthy again.

I highly recommend reality-based therapy that helps us be our healthiest selves, but I do not endorse the cult of shallow, meaningless “positive thinking.” I’m not a particularly happy person—I think that humans are basically horrible and that this whole planet is headed for certain destruction as capitalist patriarchy kills itself off. I think life is full of pain and struggle and I know that the living conditions of many people and animals on this planet are torture. However, I also believe in my own strength and abilities and I believe that I am worthy of being here, on this planet, and I love that I have the capacity to help people around me. I believe that peace and justice are worth fighting for, whether we ever achieve them or not. And I will fight for them, since I’m here and I have the ability to do so.

Therapy and activism are like sleep and activity. You can’t do just one, all the time—you need both. One rejuvenates and rebuilds you, and the other allows you to use your abilities and affect the world around you. If you do only therapy, it feels like pointless navel-gazing. If you do only activism, you will burn out eventually and be unable to continue.

I will share a small anecdote from my own days of CBT. Once upon a time, I had some trouble accepting my romantic feelings for women. As soon as a saw a pretty woman or thought about a woman I liked, I would launch into a full-on attack against myself, calling myself “A FUCKING DYKE” (not in a nice way) 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. One day I was walking by myself 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. And 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. This of course didn’t make homophobia go away, but it did make me way better able to handle it. Today I am a proud lesbian who is out to everyone I know, even my boss and casual acquaintances. I go around wearing short hair and no makeup and baggy clothes with hiking shoes and with my legs unshaven. I’m not embarrassed anymore. That’s the result of therapy done right, and it’s helped me to be the strong lesbian feminist that I am. I wouldn’t be able go around in public wearing a rainbow flag or shout and wave banners in front of news cameras at political rallies or talk to politicians about gay rights and women’s rights if I was still frightened and ashamed. Therapy and feminism can combine together and balance each other beautifully.