We Need to Talk About "Internalized Homophobia"
"I hate the word homophobia. It's not a phobia. You're not scared. You're an asshole." ~Morgan Freeman
*Trigger Warning* Talk of violence and gay slurs*
We live in a world in which it is still legal to send a gay person to “reparative” therapy in 39 US states. We live in a world in which it is legal to kill gay people in 12 countries throughout the world. We still live in a world in which religions don’t accept their gay brothers and lesbian sisters for one aspect of who they are. We live in a world that gay people fear for their safety from Miami to London. We live in a world in which lesbians and gay men are beaten, threatened and killed in places where being gay has been accepted and same-sex marriage legalized.
I want to start this article with the realities of living as a gay person in the world today. Granted I live in a more accepting part of the world where my security and life is not threatened on a daily basis for being a lesbian. At the same time, I want people to recognize that because we are moving towards a more equal and just world, gay people face challenges on a daily basis, internal and external that need to be recognized and talked about.
Growing up in Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in the United States, I was sheltered from the gay-bashing rhetoric other lesbians, and gay men are raised with in more conservative homes and parts of the world in which their gayness is seen as a problem. I was not raised in an overly religious home that believed gay people were going to hell and will burn; I was not around people who physically gay bashed. What I’ve experienced is more passive, microaggressive homophobia.
While I escaped some of the awful rhetoric other gay people grow up with, it was instilled in me from a young age there was something wrong with gay people- they were freaks, outcasts, sick and “off” people. While much of my understanding around being gay was related to gay men, it still instilled within me this idea that gay people are wrong. These messages were reinforced in high school; people didn’t like me because I was friends with gay men and people would threaten my gay male friends and call them fag****s.
Being around this negative dialogue, you can imagine when I came out in my late teens, I struggled to accept myself.
I’ve struggled with perfectionism, I think it is something inherent in my personality, but it was also amplified when I came out as a lesbian. Growing up, I believed something was off or wrong with gay people, so when I came out, I felt I had to overcompensate for my gayness because I was not good enough as my sister who dated boys and my other peers who were in heterosexual relationships. I worked hard to make dean’s list in college, support myself by working while going to school, volunteer and worked to keep my body small and lean which eventually led to years of on and off disordered eating. All this external and internal pressure I put on myself landed me in the emergency room with a severe panic attack when I was 20. I knew then; I had to start working on accepting and loving myself for who I was.
Coming out is often showcased as a beautiful and magical event for those in the LGBT community, and for many it is. For the rest of us in the community, coming out is often riddled with addiction, mental illness, self-harm, and suicide. As a community, we experience higher rates of suicide, addiction and other mental health concerns than our straight peers.
Living in a heteronormative word:
We live in a super heteronormative world. Pick up a magazine or watch TV for a little while and the couples you see are straight like 99% of the time. Movie and TV storylines are of straight people, and LGBT characters are rarely showcased, and if they are, they are cast as a sidekick or a character they eventually kill off.
As I write this, I have been out for nearly a decade, and I still have to “come out” to people because of my passing, femme appearance, peeps think I am straight because I guess I "look" straight- whatever that means. I have to think about my safety when I come out to certain people, especially men around my age for fear of violence, and I still deal with people who are homophobic, even in 2018, people! Over the past two years, my partner and I have been denied housing and denied a shared bank account, both acts are illegal, but people find ways to discriminate.
I find the word, internalized to be a bit problematic, it is often a term that is used and seen from a weak, less than empowering perspective. So those living with internalized issues such as internalized homophobia are seen as weak and not empowered or thriving in, for example, a heteronormative world.
Homophobia is also a word I have a bit of an issue with, OKAY- I have a major issue with! I don’t believe those of us who identify on the LGBT spectrum live in fear of gay men or lesbians (err maybe some people do but that is like 1%); we live in a world that has taught us we are less than, and we deserve to be treated as less than. I’d say it’s not so much "homophobia" as hatred or self-hatred due to societal and cultural conditioning.
After coming out at 19, it wasn’t until I was 25 did I fully accept myself as a lesbian. It wasn’t until I entered my first serious and committed relationship with a woman who is my now partner of over 2 and a half years. Entering the relationship with my partner, helped me accept and love that part of myself and validate my experiences as a lesbian.
Deconstruction years and years of learned homophobia aka hate is not easy, especially if you are around people who don’t support you for whom you are or live in fear for your life. It took me years to become comfortable identifying as a lesbian, and if it takes you years, know that is okay, and that is part of your journey. If you take one thing away after reading this, know if you hold an LGBTQ+ identity- out or not, your story matters, no matter how many people tell you otherwise, we need your story and your story is important!
Written by Amanda Shea.