This piece was written by guest contributor Emily Win and clinically reviewed by FOLX clinician Kaity Stewart, CNM PMHNP-BC. Illustrations were drawn by Ocean Mateus.
Editor's note: While homophobia has historically been used to described the experiences of cisgender gay people, the term is used more universally to capture the experiences of LGB (lesbian, gay, bisexual) people overall. We borrow from the Rainbow Project's description of internalized homophobia: "Like everyone else, LGB people may be socialized into thinking that being non-heterosexual is somehow 'mad', 'bad', 'wrong' or 'immoral'. This can lead to feelings of self-disgust and self-hatred. These feelings can lead to 'internalized homophobia' also known as 'internalized oppression.'” We recognize that homophobia is distinct from transphobia—a specific range of negative attitudes, feelings, or actions towards transgender people—yet understand the experiences of cisgender LGB or otherwise cis queer people to be important enough to address and discuss, especially in a therapeutic environment.
Almost anyone who's gone through discovering their own queer identity has experienced some type of internalized homophobia. Homophobia is obviously all around us, but sometimes some of the most painful places of exclusion make home deep within our own minds and hearts. Because of this, internalized homophobia is inherently linked to mental health. Identifying these parts of your own sexual identity can be hard, but know that identifying that you may have internalized homophobia can be even harder. With the proper support and community, you can understand where these feelings may be coming from and move forward into a healthier place for yourself
First, let's break down the definition of "internalized homophobia. Homophobia can sometimes cover the umbrella of discriminatory actions towards the LGBTQ+ community, such as biphobia and transphobia. The "internalized" part is a bit more complicated because we can turn the homophobia we see around us into a battle with ourselves and even lovers as well as community members. Since we were all born into a heteronormative culture, we were born into a world with a bias towards heterosexual ways of living and thinking. You can see this all around you, from hate crimes and violence to anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Unfortunately, heterosexism informs and drives our culture. You might have even been exposed to homophobia early on in your childhood from family members and other heterosexual people. Before we can even begin to navigate what it means to be queer, we're already dealing with the friction between the world around us and what we feel on the inside. Once we realize we are in the sexual minority, this shame of being different can quickly morph into self-hatred.
Likewise, internalized homophobia goes far beyond sexual orientation overall; it has everything to do with the messages the environment around you is sending about people with your shared queer experience. While the effects of internalized homophobia thrive on the inside of us, it can also be projected onto others and affects our relationships, even with those who we love the most within the LGBT community
As a result of the homophobic environment we live in and the oppression faced by the LGBTQ+ community, it's unfortunately not surprising that LGBTQ+ people have higher rates of mental health issues and substance abuse issues; young people who identify as LGBTQIA are also more likely to self-harm. Internalized homophobia involves an internal conflict between yourself and the world around you that can show up as low self-esteem, low self-worth, and an overall skewed idea of well-being. Physical health issues are often present in our community because we endure minority stress. We carry the weight of our own realities every day, despite the hardships we may face. There is some research to suggest that stress can weaken the immune system and make us more vulnerable to a number of issues. The responsibility for stopping systemic oppression and homophobia is on those outside of the LGBTQ+ community; however, until this cycle stops, there will always be some degree of minority stress on LGBTQ+ people. In our current environment, there are still some things we can do to protect our mental and physical health from these stressors. Validation and community support can be a helpful first step.
Overcoming internalized homophobia can often be a long–and sometimes lifelong–healing process. Finding your community is the first step to self-acceptance. When you're surrounded by people like you, who encourage you to be your most authentic self, you're given the opportunity to feel safe in who you are. If queer community isn't easily accessible for you, an alternative option could be finding a support group, either locally or online. Support groups can look like anything from therapist-run groups to simply finding like-minded people on Facebook or Instagram.
Once you've found your people, you must recognize how you've been conditioned to fit into heteronormative boxes. Internalized homophobia manifests within us from social conditioning all around us. From the first time we step into a school, we're aware of the gender binary and the social expectations around this binary: girls and boys. Games, toys, books, and movies all model various versions of the straight nuclear family, encouraging girls to play with kitchen sets and boys to play with trucks. Our teachers, families, peers, friends, and co-workers make small talk based on the assumption that everyone's gender fits into a binary and their partner's gender and sexuality fits within what they think is the "norm." Even pop culture—from TV shows to music—perpetuate the cissexist trope that a cisgender man and a cisgender woman are destined for love and happiness with each other. Institutions like conversion therapy and conversion camps have been used to "turn gay people straight," which has inflicted incredible amounts of harm, violence, and shame on our community. All of these things can result in carrying these distorted beliefs about our identities within us. Our internalized homophobia is a product of the environment around us. With time and support, we can heal from these wounds.
Self-acceptance is the ultimate act of love and resistance against internalized homophobia. Once we accept, embrace, and love ourselves, we are then given the tools to set our own standards, rules, and values. We can shape the world around us based on what we know is true for us. We can grant ourselves permission to live a life by our own terms which–in turns–gives other queer folks like you permission and representation so that we may collectively reshape the heteronormative model of existing in the world.
Working towards self-acceptance is easier said than done, but working with an LGBTQ+ competent therapist is an excellent first step. We recommend you find a therapist to discuss this more with, especially if you’re struggling with feelings of shame, despair, guilt, and more. You’re certainly not the only queer person to deal with internalized homophobia and there’s no need to deal with it on your own. There’s a growing number of LGBTQ+ specialized therapists trained and equipped to facilitate productive conversations about internalized homophobia and heterosexism as well as how to overcome them. Psychotherapy can be an excellent tool in your healing journey.
Many of us carry some sort of shame, no matter what the cause or reason. If we work to understand how these heteronormative models have affected our identities and our feelings about our identities, we are already on a path to recovering from internalized homophobia.