Internalized Homophobia and Mental Health
Most of us recognize the idea of homophobia-a fear or dislike of homosexuals; what might be a little less understood is the concept of internalized homophobia. This occurs when a gay person believes the negative stereotypes and beliefs some people hold about homosexuals, as true about themselves. This can have a profound effect on their mental health often resulting in depression, substance abuse and suicide-at much higher rates than straight people.
This inner self-hatred is typically the result of living in a society/community/family that is not accepting of LGBTQ people. Even with the passing of Marriage Equality and increased representation of gay people on TV and in films, there is still a stigma around being a part of the LGBTQ community. What is said in homes and workplaces have a much higher impact on an individual than what “society” says. Studies show that LGBTQ youth growing up in homosexual rejecting homes still have higher rates of suicide and homelessness-even with mainstream TV shows depicting gay and lesbian characters and families. The representation is wonderful, but it doesn’t undo the damage caused by loved ones who may tell gay jokes, use anti-gay slurs or outright condemn gay and lesbian people.
This internalization often looks different throughout someone’s life cycle. Depending on how accepting someone’s environment is to homosexuality it can initially manifest as “trying” to be attracted to the opposite sex, denying who they’re attracted to or isolation when their peers start dating. Even if a lesbian or gay person is raised in an accepting household-they may still wish they were straight, simply because of the knowledge that being gay is seen as being “different”. At other points in someone’s life they may start compartmentalizing aspects of themselves. Not introducing significant others to family or even feeling uncomfortable talking about who their dating are also signs of internalized homophobia. Even if the person is “out” to family and friends, they may still have discomfort about bringing up dates they’ve been going on or any aspect of their romantic relationships. The idea that their dating life isn’t “normal” or makes others uncomfortable is a strong fear that leads to this isolating behavior.
So, what can you do to help? As an ally, you can start by looking within yourself to evaluate how you feel about homosexuality. Are you just “ok” with it or do you view it as a valid and healthy sexual orientation? Do you see people who are LGBTQ as somehow damaged or believe they’d be happier or better off if they were straight? By being honest with yourself about how you feel, you’re less likely to say or do something to reinforce the idea that being gay isn’t “normal”. For those of us that are gay, I think it’s important to continually look within and combat those ideas that we’re “different” or “bad” because of who we love. They can come up subtly, but with introspection we can usually recognize it.
I was recently watching a TV show where the main characters were speaking with a doctor. The doctor, a man, said, “My husband and I have a teenage son”. I immediately assumed this would be a punchline of some sort. I waited for the main characters to say something funny about it or give each other strange looks that would cue the laugh track. Or that it would lead to a joke later in the episode. But there was nothing. It was treated as normally as if he had said, “My wife and I have a teenage son”. It wasn’t “a thing” and it was incredibly refreshing. This assumption that sexual orientation can or would be a punchline is an excellent example of how internalized homophobia occurs and the effect something as simple as a television show can have on people.
Are you struggling with internalized homophobia or your sexual orientation in general? Do you have a loved one that is LGBTQ and you aren’t sure how to be an effective and helpful ally? A licensed Orlando mental health professional can help. Please call Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to make an appointment with one of our LGBTQ friendly and experienced counselors.