What associations do you have with the word “homophobia?” Any particular feelings, thoughts, or images? Any discomfort? Do you feel tense, open, curious, or defensive? It’s fine to feel one or more of any of these things. When we come to reexamine shame and internalized homophobia, removing judgment from the equation is the first step.
As we look at our own biases, we realize there are quite a few stones left unturned. For gay men, internalized homophobia is when the prejudice and bias society reinforces toward them is turned inward. It can manifest as depression, anxiety, fear, shame, and even self-loathing. It’s anger turned inward. Gay men feel inadequate and defective.
Homophobia Erodes Self-Esteem
A pioneering study explored the relationship between shame and internalized homophobia in gay men as well as the relationship between self-esteem and internalized homophobia. A demographic survey and several questionnaires were distributed to 100 gay men with different backgrounds. There was a statistically significant inverse relationship between self-esteem and internalized homophobia. There was a directly proportional one between internalized homophobia and shame, which was also statistically significant.
Gay men and members of the LGBTQIA community in general internalize the negative depictions they hear and see of people with their orientation. This can mean significant mental distress for some because a positive view of orientation and a general sense of personal self-worth are crucial when it comes to mental health.
A study cited by the Rainbow Project showed that on average, boys understand what their sexual orientation is when they are 12. Again on average, those who confided in someone that they were gay did so five years later. This five-year span is formative and it’s then that internalized homophobia can really impact a person. Acknowledging your orientation in a safe and supportive environment is key at this point.
Examples of Internalized Homophobia
The ways, in which internalized homophobia manifests itself are entwined with mental health. Examples include trying to change or alter your orientation, denying it to yourself and others, having feelings of inferiority, looking for acceptance through under- or overachievement, compulsive behavior, obsessive thoughts, and poor body image.
Contempt and Denial
Internalized homophobia can involve feeling or demonstrating contempt for people at earlier stages of coming out or for obviously or openly gay men. There is denial that heterosexism and homophobia are serious social issues. There can be contempt for men who seem gay or who seem or are like the person suffering from homophobia.
Abusive and Homophobic Behavior
Sometimes gay men with internalized homophobia will engage in homophobic behavior like attacking other gay men verbally or physically or ridiculing or harassing them. They might become abusive or a victim of abuse. They will stay in an abusive relationship. Efforts to appear straight are not uncommon; a gay man might marry a woman in the hope of ‘curing’ himself or obtaining the approval of society.
Misconceptions and Shaming by Association
Shaming, anger, depression, bitterness, or defensiveness are common. Homophobia can extend to shaming people for using sex toys and engaging in practices typically associated with gay men, such as a strap-on for pegging. Regrettably, stigma is attached even if the people taking part in this act are straight.
Shaming people for using such toys runs parallel to deeply entrenched myths, such as that pegging is painful. If that’s a concern, you must invest in quality lubricant, especially considering there’s no natural lubrication there.
Another common misconception, and one closely linked to internalized homophobia, is that all men who enjoy pegging are gay. Most men will experience intense pleasure that way because there’s a sensitive erogenous zone there called the p-spot (p for prostate, prostate stimulation, prostate massage, etc.). In practice, many men who are curious will be afraid to try it because their partner will think they’re gay. Those who are open to trying new things, free of prejudice, fully comfortable with their sexuality, and want to enjoy mind-blowing orgasms will derive a benefit from pegging.
Talking about Internalized Homophobia
If you recognize the thoughts and behaviors typical of internalized homophobia in yourself, therapy should be your first port of call. It’s important to realize that therapists can play a crucial role in helping gay men work through their emotional baggage. A therapist can guide you to embrace compassion, understanding, and tolerance, but especially self-acceptance.
Unfortunately, therapists themselves may harbor prejudice without being aware of it, even therapists who are gay men themselves. Internalized homophobia is so conniving and treacherous that it can sabotage even the most compassionate therapist’s efforts to help and support his gay male client.
Internalized homophobia is hard to eradicate because it has been building up and taking hold of the psyche for decades, ever since one’s childhood. Children pick up the message that being gay is different from the norm in a bad way and being straight is good and right. Boys who are attracted to the same gender feel bad, wrong, and unsafe.
Compassionate, but Aware
It’s far from easy to dismantle systemic, entrenched internalized homophobia, but it starts with the individual. We must recognize that homophobia exists in everyone, more or less, not only in gay men. It transcends socioeconomic borders. There is conflict even within the LGBTQIA community. Again, the right therapist can play a pivotal role.
The therapist’s ability to help gay male clients, regardless of whether he himself is gay or not, will be augmented or limited by his ability to tap into his own prejudices and biases.
As one considers a client’s needs, it’s important to pause and take a moment to look inside. Go back to the beginning of this post. What associations do you have with the word “homophobia?” Take the time to reflect if anything has changed. Write down any new thoughts you have. If you’re a therapist or researcher, talk to colleagues about homophobia – homophobia in your mind, heart, family, and society in general. When a client’s internalized homophobia emerges during therapy, it will be far easier to explore and untangle. You can be sure of it.
QUEERGURU Correspondent PETER MINKOFF is a gay health and lifestyle writer at QUEER VOICES magazine. Besides writing, he worked as a freelance fashion stylist in Europe and Australia. A true craft beer and soy latte aficionado, he loves spending his days at the beach and visiting second hand stores on a daily basis. Follow Peter on TWITTER for more tips.