Internalized homophobia refers to a conscious, subconscious, or unconscious belief by LGBTQ+ individuals that same-sex sexual attraction, behaviors, and relationships are wrong or unacceptable. This occurs because all of us–LGBTQ+ folks included–are socialized in a heteronormative culture that asserts that heterosexual attraction, behavior, and intimate relationships are the only valid experiences and expressions of sexuality.
What Is Internalized Homophobia?
It can seen impossible for LGBTQ+ people, who experience same-sex attraction, to believe that their sexuality is fundamentally wrong–but this is exactly what happens with internalized homophobia. When growing up in a society that is more than 90% heterosexual, we are socialized in family and community institutions that, more often than not, treat heterosexuality as the norm, and same-sex attraction and behavior as somehow deviant.1
However, though common, the term “internalized homophobia” is problematic. The clinical meaning of “phobia” is an anxiety disorder characterized by extreme, irrational fear of or aversion to a specific experience. LGBTQ+ people aren’t experiencing an extreme or irrational “phobia” of same-sex desire or behavior, rather, LGBTQ+ people can internalize society’s homophobic biases and apply these biases to themselves and other LGBTQ+ people.
Signs of Internalized Homophobia
Internalized homophobia can express itself in many different ways in individuals and communities, and across different stages of life. It can be very explicit, such as negative self-talk about hating one’s same-sex sexual desire, and very implicit, such as judging or disliking LGBTQ+ people without acknowledging or accepting one’s own same-sex attraction.
Signs of internalized homophobia include:
- Lying to oneself or denying one’s same-sex sexual desire
- Maintaining same-sex sexual relationships and keeping them secret out of shame
- Believing that same-sex sexual relationships are bad
- Judging, hating, or bullying LGBTQ+ people
- Feeling a pervasive sense of shame about one’s sexuality, sexual attraction, and sexual behavior
Effects of Internalized Homophobia
Effectively, internalized homophobia can present as a form of cognitive dissonance and rationalizing. This occurs when an individual purports to believe one thing (e.g., “I am a safe driver”) but also believes or behaves in a contradictory way and rationalizes it (e.g., “I don’t wear my seatbelt because I am a safe driver”). Similarly, an LGBTQ+ person experiencing internalized homophobia might perceive that same-sex sexual attraction is bad or unacceptable and says “I am not gay” or “Being gay is bad” but also enters into and maintains same-sex sexual relationships.
Another version of this might be an LGBTQ+ person who says “I am gay and I accept my same-sex sexual desire” but simultaneously feels a pervasive sense of anxiety and shame about themselves when at family or friend gatherings with mostly heterosexual people. In such circumstances, such an individual may try to rationalize that they must feel this because they are somehow a bad person, not seeing that these feelings at least in part come from the invalidating oppression of being in a heteronormative environment where their same-sex sexual desire is a deviant from the norm.
Effects of internalized homophobia include:
- Anxiety: Internalized homophobia can cause feelings of unease about the gap between perceived acceptable heteronormative values and one’s own same-sex sexual desire or behavior
- Shame: Internalized homophobia can leave folks who experience same sex sexual desire feeling humiliated, embarrassed, or fearing of ridicule
- Depression: Internalized homophobia can result in feelings of depression and hopelessness among people who experience same-sex sexual desire, as their sexual orientation is at odds with the perceived virtues of heterosexuality
- Minority Stress: People who experience same-sex desire can feel additional stress due to our pervasively heteronormative culture and oppression they may face. Internalized homophobia can exacerbate this minority stress by bringing that sense of friction into an individual’s psyche rather than primarily from the external environment.
- Isolation: Sometimes the dissonance between one’s internalized homophobia and one’s same-sex sexual attraction is too overwhelming and provokes an underdevelopment of or a retreat from familial, social, and intimate relationships. This can be quite detrimental as we are social creatures and need social connection.
- Anger: A person who experiences internalized homophobia may feel frustration and anger as the conflict between their intrinsic desire and the oppression of heteronormative values rages in their minds. This anger often ends up being directed toward oneself and other LGBTQ+ people.
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How to Deal With Internalized Homophobia
If you are an LGBTQ+ person experiencing some of the detrimental effects of internalized homophobia in your life, there are useful ways to cope with this challenge. Many of them involve things you can do on your own and some include collaboration with community members and with mental health professionals.
“Internalized homophobia is a belief about oneself that can be challenged, either through psychotherapy, personal experience or both. Understanding that homophobia is a societal prejudice is important; give yourself permission to be angry at this injustice and the people who perpetuate it. Seeking out other LGB people will also help break down the stereotypes that are associated with homophobia and help you see that LGB people are just as diverse as everyone else.” – Richard Montoro, MD CM, MSc
Here are nine ways to deal with internalized homophobia:
Self-care is taking care of yourself emotionally, mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually so that you are at peace and in total alignment with yourself. Internalized homophobia can be exhausting and stress-inducing, so make time to do things that are restorative to you (e.g., exercise, sleeping adequately, and spending time with friends that support you wherever you are on your sexuality journey). This might seem like an obvious statement “take care of yourself” but it counts for a lot in managing the frequency and severity of mental health challenges.
2. Emotional Self-Care
Emotional self-care is a form of self-care specifically focused on your internal emotions and thoughts. When experiencing internalized homophobia, our minds and bodies are constantly processing conflicting emotions. Practicing emotional self-care through activities like journaling, meditation, and setting boundaries can be game-changers in understanding and living with internalized homophobia.
3. Learn to Accept & Love Yourself
At the heart of internalized homophobia is a rejection of one’s same-sex sexual desire. The impact of this type of self-hatred cannot be understated–it can permeate across many aspects of one’s life, even those we might consider to be unrelated to sexuality. To counter this self-rejection, spend time learning to accept and love yourself by embracing your strengths, developing a mindfulness practice, and managing the way you compare yourself to others.
4. Come Out If You Feel You’re Ready
If you have already come out about your same-sex sexual desire, congratulations! If you have not come out yet, take your time. If and when you feel ready, begin to share your truth. While in the closet, internalized homophobia can feel even stronger because we can feel there is “so much to lose” by coming out. However, coming out to parents and loved ones can be both an immense relief and an opening to connect with other members of the LGBTQ+ community. Moreover, if you are closeted partially because of the homophobic beliefs of some of your family and community members, your coming out may help them to reconsider some of their homophobic beliefs.
5. Talk About It With Close Friends
If you’re experiencing internalized homophobia, a great way to explore and better understand these thoughts and feelings is to process them with close friends. By talking about the internal conflicts, dissonance, anxiety, and stigma you feel related to the internalized homophobia you carry, you can receive emotional support and hear different perspectives to your own. This is a way of “processing” these disparate uncomfortable feelings into something meaningful for you to understand.
6. Explore & Participate in Support Groups
You don’t have to navigate internalized homophobia on your own. Consider exploring support groups in your area or online that discuss internalized homophobia and experiencing same-sex sexual desire. Just seeing these groups might make you feel less alone. If there are groups that feel like a good fit for you, reach out to the facilitators and see if you can learn more about participating. You might even make some friends in the process.
7. Identify & Challenge Your Beliefs
Internalized homophobia is, on some level, a collection of beliefs about what is acceptable and what is not in the realm of sexuality. One practice you can develop as you deal with internalized homophobia is to actually identify your beliefs about sexuality. You may find that you have conflicting or contradictory beliefs and feelings, which is totally fine! The goal of this exercise is to actually look at these beliefs to recognize you’re carrying them and forming emotional responses, and then to challenge them. You can do this on your own, with friends, or with a therapist.
8. Identify the Effects of Internalized Homophobia on You
In addition to identifying and challenging your beliefs, you might also consider writing a list of the ways that you find internalized homophobia impacting your life (e.g., feelings of stigma, shame, anger, avoidance). This is a good exercise to better understand just how much mental and emotional energy is being consumed by internalized homophobia. This may also give you insight into patterns of circumstances, people, or other variables that contribute to triggering your internalized homophobia in specific ways. You can then process this inventory with your therapist, a support group, or even a close friend.
9. Imagine a Life Without Homophobia
Far from just a futile exercise, which this might appear to be, imagining a life without homophobia can engage your imagination to picture what your life and society would look like without homophobia. Try to imagine how your life or choices might be different if you accepted your same-sex sexual desire exactly as it is.
How to Be an Ally
If you do not experience same-sex sexual desire, but have LGBTQ+ people in your life, there are many ways you can be an ally. These range widely, from one-on-one support for your friend, to recognizing your own internalized homophobia, to the challenging homophobic social norms. Ways to support LGBTQ+ people in your life include:
- Not making anti-gay jokes
- Speaking out against people who make anti-gay statements
- Listening to your LGBTQ+ friends talk about their perspectives and feelings about specific issues and challenges they face
- Interrogating the homophobia you carry within you and challenging it
- Being a supportive friend that is available for both deeper conversations and fun experiences (a good antidote to internalized homophobia is fun and joy!)
How an LGBTQ+ Therapist Can Help
The effects of internalized homophobia can be severe (e.g., anxiety, shame, depression, anger). If these symptoms are reaching a point where they are impacting your ability to function, develop, and have healthy relationships, it may be time to seek out work with a professional, preferably an LGBTQ+ therapist who works with these specific issues.
A therapist can create a safe, nonjudgmental space for you to talk about these vulnerable thoughts and feelings. In therapy, you’ll have the safe space to explore any conflicts between homophobic beliefs you may have internalized from our heteronormative society, and the same-sex sexual desire you feel. In the process of these discussions, your therapist can support you in normalizing these feelings and support you in exploring self-acceptance. You can find a therapist using an online directory.
We all live in a heterosexist society and internalize different amounts of homophobia, and managing its impact is a lifelong practice that can yield beneficial results for LGBTQ+ individuals. It is important that you pay attention to the signs of internalized homophobia in you and your loved ones. Internalized homophobia is difficult to overcome entirely, but there are ways to mitigate its negative impact.