photo by Kevin Tuchman

photo by Kevin Tuchman

The other day I was talking with a client, a well-adjusted gay man, who told me, “I don’t think I’m homophobic anymore. I think I’ve worked all that through.”

My response was, “Really? Do you think that’s possible?”

He was pretty surprised to hear me say that. And that led us to a discussion of what homophobia really is. Internalized homophobia is based on fear. A fear that who we are is not okay and that if we allowed how we feel inside to show outside, we’d never fit in.

Ironically, for many of us, this fear encourages us to act as if we are superior to others. It combines – unfortunately – with racism, misogyny and ageism to manifest in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways in our community: men feel superior to women; white people feel superior to people of color; gay men and lesbians feel superior to bisexual and transgender men and women; young people feel superior to older people, wealthy people feel superior to poorer people…and young, middle-class gay white men feel superior to everyone else in the LGBT community (but still feel inferior to their straight counterparts).

Yes, dear reader, I hear you saying that generalizations like this aren’t always true. Granted. But, in all-too-many cases, our fears encourage us to believe – often subconsciously – that people like us are better than people who appear to be different from us, and it goes unexamined.

Until now.

To me, internalized homophobia is the process of how we take negative stereotypes, beliefs and prejudice about being lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender and use them against ourselves.

The intensity of our internalized homophobia depends on how much self-hatred we have consciously and subconsciously internalized. Growing up in a conservative, Republican family in a small Ohio farm-town, I was filled to the brim with internalized homophobia. I had so few allies and so little support that I didn’t come out until my early thirties when – in a men’s support group in NYC – I burst out with: “I don’t want to be gay, but I am. I am.” I did so not want to be gay that I struggled hard for years not to be. Or, more accurately, not to admit it to myself.

Internalized homophobia also applies to the things we do and the ways we act (or try to act) to conform to heteronormativity. Have you ever seen profiles on Grindr or OK Cupid that stress how “masculine” the guy is? Or all those “No femmes, no fats, no old guys” statements? No internalized homophobia there, right?

Let’s be clear: there is a difference between having preferences and internalized homophobia. You can prefer to be with a certain type of partner, and that’s all good, as long as you don’t feel a need to condemn people who don’t match your preference.

Behind most internalized homophobia is fear: we want to fit in and be accepted. It’s too scary to be alone, isolated and “weird”. So we hide the parts of ourselves that may not be acceptable to our circle of friends/community and promote the parts that everybody seems to like.

The psychological term “ego-dystonic homophobia” refers to a sexual orientation that is at odds with your idealized self-image: who you are is a bad fit with who you want to be.

The result is depression, fear, shame and – in the most extreme cases – suicide.

I can honestly say that in my early twenties, I felt such self-hatred for my same-sex attractions that I occasionally thought about suicide. Luckily, it never went further than that. But not every young LGBT person is so fortunate. Internalized homophobia is strongly correlated with suicidal thoughts and acts among LGBT youth.

What can we do? We can start by telling ourselves the truth about the parts of ourselves as LGBT people that we hide and are ashamed of and getting support to address them. We can tell the truth to our friends, counselors, mentors and lovers. We can notice when we feel shame and ask ourselves, “What is going on with me right now?” and “Where does that come from?”

This is the first step on the path to freedom: we stop fooling ourselves. Even if we convince others we’re cool, what really matters is what we say to ourselves. Our own self-opinion is much more powerful than what others think of us. This is why our own unspoken internalized homophobia has great destructive power to mess with us. If you feel bad about your sexual orientation, you probably find lots of ways to subconsciously sabotage yourself. No surprise there.

To be really free and happy, I invite you to explore the parts of your personality that have long been “missing” or embarrass you. How will you recognize them? Just notice the types of people in our community that make you uncomfortable…and be grateful to them: they are truly your best teachers.