Understanding internalized homophobia is important for the emotional well-being of all queer people. Twenty-five years of listening to the stories of gay men has convinced me that few, if any of us, are able to grow up in our culture without internalizing at least some of the negative messages we hear about ourselves. Sadly, the issue is too frequently trivialized. All too often, itâ€™s only raised in our community as an accusation or an expression of contempt toward those among us whose ideas are unpopular, such as gay conservatives. When we use the concept of internalized homophobia as a weapon, we are really using effects of our own oppression against one another. Understanding how this issue develops can help all of us respond to it, in ourselves and others, with more compassion.
Being different is hard enough for adults to handle, but it can be positively traumatic for children, whose fragile sense of self requires the safety of a sense of belonging to nurture it. Itâ€™s amazing how early in life queer people realize that theyâ€™re different, even if they canâ€™t quite say how. Many of us know that weâ€™re attracted to our own sex by age five or six; virtually all of us have realized it by early adolescence. Most of also know, even when never told directly, that what weâ€™re feeling isnâ€™t safe to express openly, and is considered wrong and strange. So gay people typically live with the burden of carrying a shameful secret from an early age.
As time goes on, we experience many wounds: getting caught in sex play with another boy and being severely punished for it; being taunted by other kids at school while receiving no protection from parents or teachers; seeing the pain in a fatherâ€™s face as he realizes weâ€™re not the kind of boy he wanted to have; being ridiculed for preferring â€śgirlâ€ť activities to â€śboyâ€ť activities, and on and on.
Adults often look back on these experiences and minimize their impact. All kids get teased and made fun of. Whatâ€™s the big deal. But often the long term effects tell a different storyâ€”post traumatic stress, chronic depression or anxiety, isolation, inability to trust others, drug and alcohol abuse, and so on.
The lasting damage of these events comes in large part from the conclusions we draw from them. With tragic naivete, children almost always assume that they deserve whatever happens to them. If theyâ€™re well-treated they grow up believing that they deserve to be treated with respect. But if theyâ€™re mistreated they usually assume that theyâ€™re the ones at fault, and develop ideas of their own defectiveness which justify the abuse. â€śIâ€™m weak,â€ť â€śIâ€™m unlovableâ€ť â€śIâ€™m not masculine enough,â€ť â€śI am a disappointment and an embarrassment to othersâ€ť are typical conclusions that queer boys draw from their mistreatment.
Ideas learned early are difficult to dislodge. They become like the air we breathe, background assumptions about ourselves that we rarely question or think about. They become so familiar that they start to seem self-evident.
Fortunately, later corrective experiences can do much to free us. Coming out, learning an ideology which challenges what weâ€™ve been taught, becoming part of a community which celebrates and defends who we are, and developing a family of choice of other gay people who can love us as we areâ€”all these experiences help to disconfirm internalized negative ideas about ourselves. But too often the grim beliefs lurk in the background, stay unconscious the way breathing is unconscious, and continue to mold our perceptions of ourselves even after weâ€™ve consciously repudiated them.
The inner task in overcoming internalized homophobia is to re-visit those places in ourselves that weâ€™ve learned to judge as weak, wrong, shameful, ridiculous, pathetic, etc.â€”and to learn to see them through the eyes of a mature and compassionate adult instead of through the anguish of a shamed and frightened child. The task requires that we learn to replace self-criticism and harshness with self-directed compassion.
A number of psychotherapeutic techniques can help accomplish this. Iâ€™ve found that the technique of EMDR (Eye Movement Desenitization Reprocessing), a procedure for healing traumatic wounds, is very useful in speeding up the process of unlearning grim beliefs. There are many other techniques as well. Psychotherapy isnâ€™t necessary for most of us, but itâ€™s also true that self-directed compassion is impossible to learn in a vacuum. Itâ€™s hard to offer it to ourselves until weâ€™ve first received it from others. This is the primary reason that remaining in the closet can be so damaging to our emotional health. As long as we conceal who we are, we cut ourselves off from potential sources of love and support. And as long as we act on our shame, we reinforce the idea that we have something to be ashamed of. Unlearning homophobia requires community, supportive friends, lovers, and mentors. To succeed at this task, we need each other.
Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco.