Internalized Homophobia Oppresses LGBTQ People—Here's What to Know
Even if you haven’t experienced homophobia yourself, you’ve probably witnessed it—at school or college, in the workplace, or on social media. Merriam-Webster defines it as “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals.”
But homophobia isn’t always directed at other people. If someone is influenced by the homophobic attitudes of family, friends, or society at large, they may suffer from internalized homophobia, also known as internalized homonegativity or internalized homonegativism.
Internalized homophobia occurs when someone who is LGBTQ "absorbs those negative cultural and institutionalized heterosexist messages and stereotypes from society and then puts those same biases onto themselves,” Jo Eckler, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist based in Texas and author of I Can't Fix You—Because You're Not Broken, tells Health.
Internalized homophobia can often result in feelings of shame, self-hatred, disgust, anxiety, and/or depression, especially when the person isn’t aware of what is happening.
“Many LGBTQIA people can tell stories of trying really hard—and failing—to be heterosexual because of this internalized negative bias and the way society treats LGBTQIA people,” Eckler explains. (LGBTQIA stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual.)
“Seeing yourself in the same judgmental way that our heteronormative, homophobic, patriarchal culture sees you is another way to think of internalized homophobia,” Kristen Martinez, an LGBTQ+ affirmative counselor at Pacific NorthWell in Seattle, tells Health. “We can all identify instances of outward homophobia directed toward others, but internalized homophobia often manifests in our internal self-talk and how we anticipate that others view us.”
It’s not difficult to see how internalized homophobia manifests. While we’re making progress toward equality all the time, we still live in a society where the overriding assumption is that being heterosexual is “normal” and anything else is a deviation.
“Not only is being LGBTQIA treated as ‘abnormal,’ it often comes with discrimination, stereotypes, negative assumptions, bias, and even violence and hate crimes,” Eckler says. “We might hear negative comments or even disgust from the people around us. The media doesn’t help either—it can be very challenging for LGBTQIA people to find positive, realistic portrayals of themselves in movies or TV.”
If you think you suffer from internalized homophobia, don’t be too hard on yourself. Eckler believes it’s impossible not to take in those messages, especially at a young age. “If you get enough messages that you’re disgusting and don’t belong in society, you can start to believe it on some level, whether or not you’re aware of it,” she says.
The first step toward dealing with internalized homophobia is talking about it. “This helps us to name and identify it, which changes our relationship to it,” Martinez says. “We become more aware of our cultural conditioning and can begin to realize we have a choice in how we treat ourselves—and it doesn't have to be the way that our flawed, oppressive culture treats us.”
Eckler agrees that talking about internalized homophobia moves a person from feeling shame to a more realistic recognition that these messages are coming from external rather than internal sources. If it goes unrecognized and unchecked, it can influence not only how we treat ourselves, but how we treat other people.
“This can show up as members of the LGBTQIA community having negative biases about or discriminating against other members of that community,” Eckler says. “The more we can recognize and reduce our internalized homophobia, the better we can support one another.”
Self-love and self-care are tools that can help a person unlearn internalized homophobia. “When we can learn to treat ourselves with inherent respect, value, and worth, simply because we are human and therefore deserving of it, we can begin to heal the wounds of internalized homophobia,” Martinez says.
Eckler suggests looking at media portrayals with a more critical eye to recognize internal homophobia. “There are more positive roles in TV and movies now, but stereotypes still show up frequently,” she says. A good starting point is GLADD’s annual report covering portrayals of LGBTQIA people on television. Laverne Cox’s documentary Disclosure, about portrayals of transgender people in media over the past century, is another resource and is now streaming on Netflix.
Setting healthy boundaries with people can also help dismantle homophobic attitudes; if you won't allow yourself to talk to yourself in dehumanizing ways, you won't allow anyone else to, either. “Find safe, affirming spaces for being queer, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, trans, or non-binary,” Martinez says. “Read up on queer authors. Remember that it’s a practice of unlearning and healing. Internalized homophobia and other systems of domination and oppression are all around us.”
“Remember that you are a whole person, not just a stereotype, and that you deserve the same rights as anyone else,” Eckler says. “When those feelings of shame or disgust come up, find someone you trust who you can talk to, someone who can meet you with empathy and support you. Being in a welcoming and diverse community, whether in person or online, is another way to feel less alone and feel connected.”