In my undergrad career I spent a lot of time deconstructing the gay community with different psycho-social theories. This process was inevitably reflective on myself and my personal experiences as a gay male. The more I tried to understand gay men and the psycho-social mechanisms that influenced our behaviors and perspectives…the more I had to challenge my own preconceptions about other gay men as a gay male myself. With only very few rare exceptions, gay people are not raised by gay people or in a gay society around them. They grow up with the expectation that they are heterosexual and will sexually mature with feelings and intimate relationships for the opposite sex. They also see homosexuality represented around them if not bluntly with homophobia, then with undertones that always see it with indignation “that’s so gay!” With a combination of wanting to earn respect from heterosexual friends upon coming out and wanting to distance oneself from a negative view of homosexuality…gay men often do internalize negative impulses and perceptions of homosexuality. But we have to understand that internalized homophobia isn’t simply blunt homophobia, it’s a spectrum of attitudes, behaviors, and subtle internalized preconceptions about homosexuality itself (either or both in oneself and in others). You can be completely out as a gay man, have supportive and open minded heterosexual friends, and even have a boyfriend and still suffer from internalized homophobia. Or you could be completely closeted and live a double life hooking up with guys while dating a girlfriend and have internalized homophobia.
I am revisiting this subject because I am planning on building on my research from my undergrad years in my up coming graduate school years starting a month from now. It is my experience and belief that most of the barriers to having a positive and affirming experience in the gay community is rooted in our internalized oppression. Many gay men suffer from feeling isolated from others like themselves but don’t even realize so much of that isolation is self-imposed by beliefs, prejudices, and preconceptions they hold against each other. From the monogamous gay that “wants to be just like the straight people” who thinks all gays are any number of negative stereotypes because we don’t want the same things he does. To the free spirited gay that owns his sexuality and explores it uninhibitedly that still has a certain discomfort or aversion with particular kinds of gay people. Its always there, influencing the attitude, behaviors, and preconceptions we bring to the table in our common spaces. We need to bring more awareness to how internalized homophobia and homonegativity influences us in a large spectrum of ways and how we can treat it.
As a growing number of people in mental health, LGBT studies, gender and sexuality studies, and social science fields continue an ongoing discussion about internalized homophobia and it’s effects on homosexuals, more and more studies reveal a large range of ways it can impact us. Substance abuse for instance, risky sexual behaviors, emotional intimacy issues with our lovers, behaviors and prejudices that self-impose isolation from the gay community, and so on. Think about substance abuse for instance. I don’t know about you but my first gay bar experience came with A LOT of anxiety. A place where homosexuality was for the first time in my life, accessible, concentrated, and common place around me. There was a curious and irrational discomfort inside of me because it was so new and unusual. I had been out of the closet for years before my first gay bar experience and even had a boyfriend or two…but I had not previously ever been in a space where I could assume all the men around me were also interested in the same sex and that it was socially acceptable to openly pursue that desire without shame or fear of homophobic response. That anxiety can drive you to seek out intoxication to calm your nerves…and right there in that very moment of internalized homophobia (the discomfort of having sudden access to homosexuality for the first time) leads to a developing alcoholism…something that easily can become a dependency every time you interact with other homosexuals if there is no interventions to change the pattern of behavior. Given that the most accessible and common gay space for us is bars for the most part…its no wonder they are finding LGBTs have high rates of drug and alcohol dependency issues. If there was less general discomfort and anxiety when socializing with other gay men in a gay-normalized space…would there be as much substance abuse in our community? I believe so myself. Some studies suggest that risk factors for substance abuse are reduced when individuals feel connected with positive relationships and live in a quality environment (though they do not go away because other factors can contribute to substance abuse, they are generally reduced and become less common).
Lets also talk about partner selection behaviors. Holding preconceptions against a generalized belief about what the gay community is or is not (that carry undertones of disapproval or dislike) significantly reduces your openness to meeting the diverse people you can encounter in the gay community. It reduces your motivation to go to places where making gay connections are more common and accessible. It also puts out an off-putting attitude to gay people you encounter. If you want a same-sex boyfriend…but the entire gay community is this terrible thing and you say that every time you introduce yourself to other gay people…that comes across a bit negative and stand off-ish. With a changed internalized relationship to how you regard and relate to other gay people. You may find a totally different social experience with them. Mainly that your social network will get significantly larger and you will find gay people are significantly more diverse then you allowed yourself to believe.
Not only does internalized homophobia effect how you perceive others…but it can impact your self-esteem as well. Now we all know the stereotype that gay people have a huge ego and are narcissistic, but again it’s a stereotype that is only sometimes based in truth and we have to differentiate between a healthy sense of “self-esteem” and an unhealthy narcissistically enhanced ego. These are totally different concepts and impact peoples behavior in different ways. Someone with a healthy sense of self-worth is going to feel more worthy of love, respect, integrity, and emotional well being. Someone who has a massively inflated ego is going to be dismissive others, probably compensating for a poor sense of self-worth by replacing it with self-gratification, and little to no empathy for others. Self-esteem is more important then most people realize and the pop discussion on how emphasizing it creates narcissistic “little special snowflakes,” has a poor sense of accuracy is what “healthy” self-esteem is and isn’t. With a strong sense of self-esteem you become less needing of gratification from others. You are less likely to put up with harmful and unhealthy behaviors from a partner just so you can have a boyfriend that says “I love you.” You can handle a rejection in more resilient and positive ways. You also are going to be less likely to settle for something unhealthy to find a false sense of being loved. Internalized homophobia does impact a sense of self-worth both in how gay men treat each other and in the more subliminal messages we internalize from a society that holds homosexuality in contempt. So realize you are worthy of love, respect, dignity, and a life where you are emotionally healthy and happy. Realize other gay people are worthy of that to and we all play a role in the social reality we create with each other that impacts that.
Our sexuality itself is often impacted by what we internalize. As sexually liberated as we seem to be…it’s actually very common for gay men to feel discomfort with sex. Internalized homophobia could manifest in the guy that is perfectly comfortable giving you head, but really uncomfortable getting to know you and your name. Or it can manifest in the gay that is comfortable getting to know you and your name, but struggles to feel comfortable being sexual with you (even when the mutual interest is there). Holding on so tight to being perceived as a model homosexual that makes a heteronormative society comfortable with you can really erase the reality of our sexual desires sometimes. Its dangerous to remind those around you, that you are in fact a sexual being and like having sex with men…and that can internalize into sexual aversion. Or a discomfort with homosexuality as a dirty thing, it can create a cycle of trying to separate personhood from dick. In such cases, it feels a lot easier to get that primal dirty sexual urge scratched then it does see a person with the urge you are releasing. I personally do not like placing a monogamous expectation on gay people, nor do I think it’s fair to discourage traditional monogamy for those that want it. I do think both gays that want traditional monogamy and those that practice ethical non-monogamy do have to examine their sexuality though and try to deconstruct their motivations, discomforts, and behaviors to ensure it comes from an authentic and healthy place. Maybe you might need to challenge yourself to try out a hook-up for once…its not as bad as you think and you may enjoy it (or if you’re in a traditional monogamous relationship…explore outside your sexual comfort zone with your partner). Or maybe you need to challenge your personal barriers to emotional intimacy with gay people. Both issues can come from internal barriers that keep us from our optimum sense of happiness and fulfillment in our gay experience. Wanting to be loved but always denying ourselves the opportunity, or wanting to engage our sexual impulses but never allowing ourselves to enjoy it.
This and so much more makes up the realities of the lives of gay men and our internal struggles. Sometimes we see our identities as so attached to political issues…we neglect that sometimes to live happier lives we have to focus on the things that are less about how society treats and accepts us and more on our relationship to each other exclusively. Granted internalized homophobia does stem from the oppression we face in society, which is why social justice will always be important. However, we cannot erase the damage that’s already been done and that continues to take place (although progressively becoming more contained and reduced) and impacts our internal experience. We must take a moment to think of ourselves as an internal community and work on the problems that take place between us exclusively. We need to interrogate where our feelings of disconnection come from and challenge the internalized mechanisms they come from. What is having the right to marriage equality worth to us…if we all feel isolated from each other?