What is Internalized Homophobia?

Posted on April 17th, 2023
A teen hugging his knees on some steps

There’s no denying that the world has made great strides in recent years when it comes to promoting the acceptance of those within the LGBTQ+ community. Same-sex marriage is now legal in most ‘first world’ countries, and the celebrated community gay pride events are helping heterosexual people interact, understand, and embrace LGBTQ+ people in a way that they couldn’t before.

That being said, there is still a lot of work to do. Homosexuality is still criminalized in many countries around the world and discrimination, negative attitudes, and social stigma still abound in every society.

LGBTQ+ people are exposed to these negative beliefs on such a frequent scale for such a sustained period that many of them begin to believe they are true. A vast majority of LBTQ+ children and adolescents, and even adults, have been conditioned by society to believe that anything but heterosexual relationships are disgusting, evil, wrong, or immoral.

This mental condition is known as internalized homophobia and it can have a huge impact on a person’s mental health, as well as how they impact society as a whole. Let’s take a closer look at what internalized homophobia is, what it looks like, the negative effects it can have, and how we can work to overcome it.

Explaining Internalized Homophobia

According to The American Psychological Association, homophobia is defined as “dread or fear of gay men and lesbians, associated with prejudice and anger toward them, that leads to discrimination in such areas as employment, housing, and legal rights and sometimes leads to violence.”

So, how could it be that someone that is on the LGBTQ+ spectrum be homophobic? How could homosexuals, bisexuals, transgender people, or anyone that is queer-identifying be angry, prejudiced, or discriminatory towards themselves?

Well, the thing is that internalized homophobia is both a conscious and unconscious state of mind. It’s a reaction to the negative attitudes and actions that someone sees and hears throughout their lifetimes to those within a sexual orientation minority.

In most cases, internalized homophobia is created and nurtured within the formative years of childhood and adolescence.

In fact, a study by Pew Research found that most LGBTQ+ people begin to realize that they might not be heterosexual at the age of 12. However, the average age that they tell others about this is only 20.

So, while many LGBTQ+ people are struggling with and trying to figure out their sexual identities, they are absorbing the beliefs and attitudes of those around them and in society as a whole.

Family members, peers, authorities, and religious organizations are some of the most influential people in a young person’s life. Many are the main drivers for self-image and self-worth for children growing up. Now imagine a young child that suspects they are not heterosexual growing up in a homophobic family, home, or belonging to a homophobic church. The constant opinions and beliefs are bound to be internalized at some stage.

What Does Internalized Homophobia Look Like?

Over the years, researchers have developed a few scales to try and measure homophobia. One of the most renowned is Ross and Rosser’s “Four Dimensions.” The scale takes a closer look at four core areas of a person’s LGBTQ+ identity: public identification as being gay, perception of stigma associated with being gay, degree of social comfort with other gays, and beliefs regarding the religious or moral acceptability of homosexuality.

There are other scales too, but they are only useful on a basic level. Internalized homophobia, the extent to which people suffer from it, and how their suffering impacts themselves and others is hugely varied, complex, and layered.

Below are some of the possible signs of internalized homophobia and its outcomes:

Secrecy and Dishonesty

Shame, secrecy, silence, and keen self-awareness are all rampant when an LGBTQ+ person believes the stigma that surrounds homosexuality and queerness. Some examples of this could be:

  • Complete denial, inwardly and publicly,
  • Lying to oneself or convincing oneself of heterosexuality,
  • Secret relationships,
  • Forcing partners to stay secret or remain in the closet,
  • Lying by omission.

Horizontal Oppression

Perhaps the most harmful aspect of internalized homophobia is when it turns into horizontal oppression. This is when someone either takes a position of power and purposefully goes against the LGBTQ+ community or someone displays public homophobia to people within the community. Some examples of this include:

  • Closeted politicians and “powerful” people that lobby and advocate against the LGBTQ+ community and their rights,
  • Religious leaders using forced conversion therapies on the LGBTQ+ youth in their congregation,
  • Anger and resentment towards people who have ‘come out’,
  • Embarrassment of the people and their differences within the community.

Physical and Mental Health Issues

The human body is hugely impacted by chronic, sustained stress, and those with internalized homophobia can struggle with insomnia, depression, anxiety, heart disease, and increased susceptibility to illness.

Prolonged, insidious stress can lead many LGBTQ+ people to develop more serious health problems – mental health in particular. Unfortunately, most won’t get the medical attention that they need, as they are too scared due to internalized homophobia to seek help, or they are not provided it due to societal homophobia. Without the professional help they need, the self-perpetuating cycle of suffering and health issues simply continues.

Intimacy Issues

Those struggling with internalized homophobia often have either physical or emotional intimacy issues – they can also have both. Here are some examples of how internalized homophobia can impact intimacy in different ways:

  • Low self-esteem can lead to avoidance of meaningful relationships and could even lead to more narcissistic and abusive partners,
  • Secrecy and dishonesty can destroy relationships with partners, friends, and family,
  • Lack of satisfaction in relationships emotionally/physically,
  • Deep shame when giving in to sexual desires,
  • Unable to have intimate sexual encounters,
  • Avoiding sex even when it’s wanted.

The Negative Impacts of Internalized Homophobia

There are a number of negative impacts of internalized homophobia, but they mainly affect three particular areas:

The self: 

Internalized homophobia leads to a life of continual stress, shame, and anxiety. It keeps people from having meaningful relationships and destroying the ones that they have. It can lead people to become angry, bitter, and lonely. It can contribute to long-term health issues, substance abuse, self-harm and even suicide. It prevents people from being loved for who they are.

On Others:

Secrecy and dishonesty can destroy relationships and cause emotional damage to partners, friends, and family. It can lead to judgemental, demeaning outbursts to people that are ‘out’. The behavior of those with internalized homophobia usually has a knock-on effect, nurturing homophobia in society and provoking shame and stress in others.

On the Community:

Internalized homophobia is most dangerous when it finds itself in a place of power. Politicians and other leaders hold the keys to many of the community’s legal and human rights. Someone who hates themselves and hates the community will often go out of their way to ensure that they negatively impact the community.

How to Overcome Internalized Homophobia?

There is no definitive way to overcome internalized homophobia, but instead, a combination of different practices will help people to move closer to acceptance and self-love.

The first of these is getting professional help. This is a deeply ingrained and extremely complicated issue that comes with a whole lot of trauma. It’s important to find a mental health provider or trauma specialist that isn’t tainted by social bias. Seek out a welcoming LGBTQ+ professional hat is affirming of the community that can help you on the long road to discovering your self-worth.

Removing toxic influences is another step that has to be taken. No one is going to want to ‘come out’ or defend their sexuality surrounded by toxic, homophobic family and friends. This is understandably extremely difficult to do. Leaving a homophobic church is another important step. Finding an LGBTQ+ supporting church whose community members welcome everyone will make a world of difference.

Education and a slow but steady pace are also important. This isn’t a sprint and will be more like a marathon to make it out on the other side.

Our Trauma Recovery Programs Are For Everyone

At Naked Recovery, we welcome whoever comes to us for help and we are wholehearted supporters of the LGBTQ+ community.

Our Trauma Recovery Programs are built for everyone and whether you’re struggling with PTSD, anxiety, body issues, self-harm, or anything in between, we have the right program to help you.

Contact us for more information.

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