Internalized Homophobia: Where it Comes From & What You Can Do About It Today
Did you notice the pink letters on the picture for this article? Have a look if you didn’t, and just notice what you think and feel. It will relate to what you’re about to read.
I was confronted with internalized homophobia in a way that surprised me once.
My husband and I had hired a moving company, and despite the excellent reviews we’d read, we still felt some concern about inviting people we didn’t know into our home.
Would the movers be outwardly homophobic? Or would we overhear them saying something homophobic when they thought we weren’t listening? What about our belongings? Could we trust that they wouldn’t steal or wreck something because we’re gay?
After we’d hired the moving company, we continued to get ready for the move by getting moving supplies. And this is the part which will always stand out to me.
I looked online for some moving labels, and found a few different fluorescent-coloured options. After looking at the different colours, I thought the pink ones looked nice, and would also stand out best against the brown packing boxes.
…But then I hesitated before clicking “confirm order.”
What would the movers think of moving all these boxes for two gay men that were covered in fluorescent pink stickers? Were these pink stickers “too gay?” Would the stickers make it more likely for us to face discrimination?
I thought about it for a little while longer and then ordered the fluorescent pink stickers, not knowing what would happen on moving day.
On the moving day, there was no issue with the move, or the movers. The movers even complimented us on having one of the most organized moves they’d ever seen (no doubt thanks to those pink stickers).
But the experience of ordering those pink stickers, and wondering how they’d be seen, made me reflect on the ways that internalized homophobia (and fear of discrimination) can be intertwined in all sorts of ways for gay men.
What is Internalized homophobia and how does it happen for gay men?
Internalized homophobia is what happens when gay men absorb the negative societal messages they hear about gay people and turn those messages inward onto themselves.
The process of receiving and internalizing negative messages about gay people starts at a very young age. Dr. Joe Kort describes the process of internalization in this way:
With no external affirmation of their feelings from adults, children then must develop their own narrative about their non-heterosexual orientation—a daunting task. The overwhelming message they get is clear: I’m bad, I’m wrong, the world is dangerous, I’m unsafe and must keep my true feelings secret.
As a result of this process, gay men will be affected by the harmful and negative messages about gay people they started to receive as children, and continue to hear into adulthood.
Why the term “internalized homophobia” isn’t accurate
For the purposes of this article, I’ll stick to using the term internalized homophobia because it’s the most recognizable. But it’s worth examining why the term itself might not be the best descriptor for what we’re talking about.
“Homophobia” places a focus on the affect of fear, which doesn’t quite capture all the harmful beliefs and attitudes about gay people that encompass what people are talking about when they use the term “homophobia.” This term becomes even less accurate when thinking about the experience of internalized homophobia because it goes far beyond a “fear of self.”
In addition, using the word “internalized” is not always the most useful place to focus attention. Placing an emphasis on someone “having” an issue that resides within themselves can give the false impression that internalized homophobia is something which is the result of someone being too “weak” to resist this internalization.
However, people don’t “choose” to internalize beliefs about themselves that are so harmful. This is especially true for children, who do not have the capacity to filter out false information the way adults can.
Let me be clear: being affected by internalized homophobia does not mean you’re “weak,” or that there’s something wrong with you. It means that there’s something wrong with society.
And that something is heterosexism. Heterosexism refers to the societal structuring and biases that favour straight people as the “norm.” In this sense, there may be times where focusing on heterosexism is more useful, because it highlights the societal issues that are the root of the problem.
While systemic issues may be the actual source of the problem, this doesn’t negate the very real suffering that gay men experience within these systems. This is why “homonegativity” and “internalized homonegativity” may be a more accurate term to capture all the negative messages about gay people that gay men are affected by every day.
The relationship between fear of discrimination and internalized homophobia
In the story I told at the beginning of this article, two things were happening: (1.) my fear of discrimination and (2.) internalized homophobia.
Let’s break this down:
1️⃣ I had the initial fear of discrimination based on my awareness of the heterosexist and homophobic attitudes that exist in society.
2️⃣ These fears then activated internalized feelings that perhaps the pink stickers were “too gay” (i.e. wrong).
Of course, discrimination is a real concern for gay men, and it’s understandable to fear it. But this concern is different than my sense of the stickers being “too gay.”
These two things can often happen together almost instantly. So the challenge is pulling them apart to the degree that you can be aware of potential threats while remaining in touch with the fact that this fear represents a problem with societal attitudes, not an inherent problem with you.
How does internalized homophobia show up?
Before reading this list, I want to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with you if you can relate to any of these. Again, it means that you’ve grown up in, and been affected by, a heterosexist environment like all other gay men. This environmental influence will have different effects on different people.
It’s also important to say that some of these can come up because of fear of discrimination, and be paired with internalized homophobia. As was mentioned above, fear of discrimination is understandable, and it can be hard to separate this fear from the experience of internalized homophobia.
Some potential signs of internalized homophobia:
➡️ Secrecy / hiding that you’re gay.
➡️ Trying to change your sexual orientation.
➡️ Monitoring / changing your voice, mannerisms, and body movements to appear less “gay.”
➡️ Low sense of self-worth / feeling you’re not good enough.
➡️ Body image issues.
➡️ Over-achieving / perfectionism to try and be accepted.
➡️ Anxiety and/or depression
➡️ Shame / shame about sex.
➡️ Looking for “straight-acting” partners.
➡️ Contempt for more open LGBTQ2S+ people.
➡️ Feeling disdain for LGBTQ2S-focused communities and/or services.
➡️ Believing no on could accept you for being gay.
➡️ Substance use issues.
➡️ Reluctance to be around children for fear of being seen as a sexual predator.
➡️ Thinking that the gay male community is “too sexual.”
➡️ Thinking about or attempting suicide.
What you can do about internalized homophobia:
Okay, pause for a moment and take a few deep breaths.
If you’re feeling ashamed after reading the list above, while you have nothing to be ashamed of, your feelings are understandable. You might also be feeling some sadness or anger, and these feelings are understandable too. Because the insidious thing about internalized homophobia is that it can make you feel like it’s all your fault, and that there’s something wrong with you when you notice it.
I’ll repeat it again: a homophobic and heterosexist society is what you have been affected by, symptoms of internalized homophobia do not make you a “bad person.”
While it’s not your fault that society is the way it is, you can still do some things about internalized homophobia that will be helpful for yourself and other LGBTQ2S+ people:
Remove harmful influences in your life
Remember: internalized homophobia isn’t just about you, it’s about the environment you’re in, and how it’s affecting you.
For some people, it will be helpful to distance or remove themselves from friends or family who are not supportive. Similarly, it may also mean leaving unsupportive workplaces, schools, or churches.
Also think about the media you’re consuming. Are there demeaning jokes about gay people in the show you’re watching? If so, reflect on how this affects you, and think about finding another show to watch.
Surround yourself with LGBTQ2S-affirming influences
It’s not enough to remove harmful influences from your life. It’s also important to bring in influences that are supportive and affirming of you.
If this task feels overwhelming, think about one area you could start bringing in more supportive influences. Is there a supportive family member, friend, or colleague you could talk to or get to know better? Maybe there’s a show or book you’ve heard about that you could give a try. If you’re in an unsupportive workplace, school, or church, looks for alternatives that are explicitly gay-affirming (yes they exist).
Find a supportive community
A few supportive people is great, and pairing this with a supportive community is even better when possible.
When I say “community” I mean any group of people that is accepting and supportive. A supportive and affirming community doesn’t necessarily have to be LGBTQ2S-specific.
This could be an online community, a group at your school, a supportive church, or even an inclusive hiking or gaming group. Searching Facebook and Meetup.com can be a way to find groups like this.
Engage in a reflective practice
Sometimes when confronted with a big topic like internalized homophobia, it can be hard to know where to start with making helpful changes. One way to make this process more manageable is through some form of reflective practice such as journaling. This can help you to organize your thoughts, and identify areas you can start making meaningful changes.
Get more informed
Learning more about the history and societal structures that uphold homophobia and heterosexism is a way to start reframing internalized homophobia as an issue that’s really caused by problems in society, not within yourself.
This learning can also help to untangle the fear of discrimination from internalized homophobia that was mentioned earlier in this article.
Examine your sense of self-worth
Through internalizing negative messages about gay people, many gay men find that their sense of their own value and worthiness is diminished. A low sense of self-worth can be linked to a lot of the challenges gay men experience.
Reflecting on your sense of self-worth, and working to uncover it, can be a powerful antidote to internalized homophobia.
If you’d like to learn more about self-worth, I wrote a more in-depth article on the topic that you can read here.
Counselling with an LGBTQ2S-affirming and informed counsellor
Counselling with an LGBTQ2S-affirming counsellor is critical if you’d like some help with addressing internalized homophobia. A lot of counsellors are well-intentioned by saying that they’re “gay friendly.” Yet there’s a big difference between a counsellor being “gay friendly” and a counsellor being affirming and knowledgable about LGBTQ2S+ topics. If you’re not sure about a potential counsellor, it can be helpful to ask them about their training and experience working with LGBTQ2S+ issues.
Try to be kind to yourself
It will likely take time, and a lot of energy, to start changing how internalized homophobia is showing up for you. So as best you can, try to be kind with yourself as you go through this process by remaining curious and non-judgmental. It can help to imagine how you might treat a close friend in your situation, and apply this same kindness to yourself.
There is hope. I’ve seen lots of gay men begin untangling themselves from internalized homophobia. With time and effort, you can start recognizing that the problem is with society, not you. 🙂