Please Explain: Internalised Homophobia
CW: Homophobia, transphobia
We’ve all (unfortunately) heard of homophobia. But what does it mean to internalise these prejudices? Grace Joseph explains internalised homophobia.
Last week, a close friend of mine went to a party with her girlfriend. They had a great time, she told me, drinking and talking and taking photos and doing general party-esque things. But they didn't dance. Or at least, they didn't dance like you'd expect a couple to dance, pressing into each other and swaying. Instead, they stayed two feet apart, not even holding hands, dancing at each other as opposed to with each other.
If you're queer, it's pretty likely that you recognise this scenario, symbolically if not literally. And if you're straight and thinking "Why didn't they just dance together? Nothing would've happened!”, you've missed the point (even though you're probably right). My friend, like many queer people, was experiencing the insidious and largely-unavoidable beast that is internalised homophobia.
What is internalised homophobia?
We've all heard of and/or experienced homophobia and its ugly cousin transphobia, but what are their internalised counterparts? Well, when the phrase was first coined in 1998, internalised homophobia referred to "the gay person's direction of negative social attitudes towards the self". Taking into account the rainbow of gender and sexual orientations we now know to exist, a more appropriate definition is "the act of being uncomfortable in some way with your own queerness, regardless of how outwardly comfortable you seem with your sexuality or gender."
(Quick note here: although internalised transphobia is similar to internalised homophobia, I focus on the latter in this article. This is not to say that internalised transphobia isn't worthy of discussion – that couldn't be more incorrect – but it's important that you learn about it from trans writers like Rachel Anne Williams, not cis people like myself.)
Interestingly, some groups argue that straight people can experience internalised homophobia too, for instance, if they're outwardly and tangibly supportive of queer rights but still squirm at the sight of two men kissing. I disagree, because that just sounds like homophobia lite to me, but that's all I'm going to say about it – god knows the straights have been centred enough.
Internalised homophobia manifests differently in different people, and the degree to which a queer person will experience it depends on their individual situation. For some people, it will mean being uncomfortable with public PDAs or going back into the closet at university, work or school. For other people, internalised homophobia means active self-hatred, denying their sexuality or gender, or even self-admitting to conversion camps or similar. However, the one commonality is that most, if not all, queer people will experience internalised homophobia at some point in their lives.
Other names for internalised homophobia include heterosexism, self-prejudice and homonegativity. These came about due to a critique of the original phrase, specifically, the realisation that using the word 'internalised' puts the blame on LGBTQIA+ people instead of on the societal prejudices and oppression that cause the internal turmoil. So, on that note ...
What causes internalised homophobia?
Put simply, internalised homophobia stems from recognising the 'norms' in your society, family, church etc., and incorrectly deducing that because you are not reflected in these norms, you're in some way broken and therefore should be uncomfortable with who you are. It's the same thing that causes regular homophobia – a fear of the 'other', whether that 'other' is someone else or yourself.
This is where the different degrees of internalised homophobia are created. If a queer person grows up surrounded by actively anti-queer messages, as opposed to just general societal ambivalence, it's likely (although not definite!) that they'll struggle more with their identity. On the other hand, if you were lucky enough to find acceptance from a young age, you'll likely have missed the worst of it, although it's still common and indeed valid to experience some form of self-prejudice – after all, heterosexuality is still rampant in our society.
How can I deal with internalised homophobia?
If you're a queer person, the cliché rings true – step one in dealing with internalised homophobia is admitting that you experience it. It's easier said than done, of course, so reach out to trusted friends or a therapist to help you out.
The rest of the process will again differ depending on your situation, but WikiHow has a helpful list of suggestions to guide you on your journey (I was today years old when I realised WikiHow isn't just a meme). I'll include the abridged version here:
Set goals for yourself, focusing on things you haven't done before due to your sexuality or gender.
Learn to love yourself (another unfortunately true cliché – take this one on board with the awareness that it'll be a life-long mission).
Eliminate the sources of homophobia in your life as best you can.
Steer clear of homophobic people.
Call out people who make homophobic remarks, if it's safe to do so.
Seek out other queers, whether this be online or through your uni queer collective. Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to like every other LGBTQIA+ person, but it's a pretty safe bet that you'll meet one or two people you get along with.
Talk to a professional, especially those who specialise in LGBTQIA+ issues.
Seeing proper representation will also help to quell your internal critics, so try to fill your social feeds with cute queer content from people like Florence Given, Laverne Cox, MakeDaisyChains, GGGGrimes and Stevie Boebi. Plus, check out triple j's The Hook Up. They regularly discuss queer issues, and even have a whole episode dedicated to battling internalised homophobia.
If you're a straight person, you need to not add to queer people's self-consciousness. This can be done by not staring at queer couples or individuals in public, standing up for us when we're not around, and regularly reminding your queer friends that they're loved, in whatever way you deem appropriate.
Just remember to take it one step at a time. Every time you express yourself as who you truly are, wear a pride pin, hold hands with your partner and introduce them as your significant other, you will beat back internalised homophobia just a little bit.
As always, the number one rule is to be kind to yourself – you're not going to change years of hardwired self-hatred in a day. But just cast your mind back five or ten years, and I'm sure you can already see how far you've come. It won't be too long before we can all dance in peace.
Grace is a second-year Communications/International Studies student, who majors in Creative Writing because she wants to be a barista for the rest of her life. She's probably the only uni student alive who'd rather wake up at 5:30 am than still be awake at 10:30 pm - an early bedtime each day keeps the doctor away