Growing up can be hard. Being gay or a gender or sexual minority (GSM) on top of regular, awkward teen stuff is still harder. This is because on top of piecing together your identity amid raging hormones, bodily changes, and simply surviving, there is pressure to keep a secret identity.
This secret identity is different from Superman or Batman, because while everyone loves a good superhero, the same is not true of the LGBTQQI community. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
Historically, mainstream society considers GSM identities as deviant and immoral.
Superheroes appeared as early as the 1930’s. However, the first openly gay superhero did not come out until 1992. In fact, for decades there was no positive representation of GSM identities in the mainstream media.
Instead, the public regularly scrutinizes any deviance from the heteronormativity. For instance, Batwoman became a new character in the DC universe to dispel the belief that the dynamic duo, Batman and Robin, were gay.
The need to explain away the gay reveals the stigma around GSM identities.
While there is a lot of support for GSM identities in society today, there is still a lot of work to be done to destigmatize identities that fall outside of the heterosexual, cisgender (when one’s gender identity and expression directly correlates to one’s sex assigned at birth) norm. It is the stigmatizing of these identities that is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of GSM identities.
Internalized homophobia (IH) is when people of gender or sexual minorities turn societal stigma inward and have shame around their own identity and expression.
It is important to recognize that the shame of their identities, of who they are, comes from the stigma of external messaging: from peers, family members, internet, and the media.
The chronic stress of negative messaging is like kryptonite; no matter how strong or immune you think you are, stigma inevitably takes its toll on your health and psyche.
Common phrases such as “That’s so gay” and “that’s queer” continue to stigmatize GSM identities.
Acceptable and unacceptable behavior, our social norms, are communicated through language.
Associating the words gay and queer with bad, wrong or weird perpetuates the idea that identifying as anything other than cisgender and heterosexual is something to hide.
Hiding one’s identity is the crux of internalized homophobia.
Gender or sexual minorities can have varying degrees of internalized homophobia.
The IPH scale is one tool that measures internalized sexual stigma, or the extent that GSM identities feel shame and self-hatred toward their own identities.
The scale consists of various true or false statements to assess the severity of internalized homophobia.
Questions may include:
I wish I was not gay/lesbian.
I prefer to pass as straight.
I am not out or I am only out to my close friends and family.
I am embarrassed of people who cannot pass as straight and seem to flaunt their sexual identity or expression.
The questions focus on the degree to which a person wants to be “normalized” (or heterosexual) with the assumption that to do so is easier than the life they are currently living.
Although this mode of thinking is problematic in that it perpetuates self-deprecating thoughts and attitudes, it is also a product of self-preservation.
A person who is harassed at school or work or threatened by bodily harm is perfectly legitimate in developing ways to feel safe. The problem is that repressing one’s secret identity also has a price.
Internalized homophobia affects the mental and physical health of gender and sexual minorities.
Stigma around being different or other makes it difficult to come out, to embrace one’s own identity and share it with others. Fear of discrimination and violence is one reason not to come out, but there is also risk in losing one’s friends, family and community.
The inability to be out, or the social stigma around being out, creates chronic stress.
According to the CDC, LGBT youth are at an increased risk of substance abuse, suicide, and HIV exposure due to the stigma of being a gender or sexual minority. Without the love and support of family and friends, LGBT youth are isolated and lack the support networks necessary to keep them healthy and safe.
Horizontal oppression is another symptom of internalized homophobia.
Horizontal oppression happens when members of the gender or sexual minority discriminate against others in their community.
Examples may include:
- Feeling anger or embarrassment toward pride events/parades that are “too gay”
- Feeling anger or embarrassment toward the gender expression of others in the community that is counter to the heteronormative norm (effeminate men, butch women, drag queens, etc.)
- Subscribing to the belief that certain gender or sexual minorities should be housed under the LGBT umbrella while excluding others
- Supporting legislation that targets GSM identities
- Advocating for some LGBT issues and not others, especially if they apply to a different marginalized identity (marriage equality, gay adoption, LGBT identities in the military, gender equality, transgender health, racism, etc.)
A prime example is the number of politicians and religious leaders whose anti-gay policies are later overshadowed by their own homosexual scandals, leading the New York Times to write the article, “Homophobic? Maybe You’re Gay” in 2012.
Horizontal oppression hurts the community by adopting heteronormative thought to marginalize one another. Such thought undermines the progress for equality and serves to strengthen oppositional and destructive thoughts. Unfortunately, destructive behaviors are also the result of internalized homophobia.
Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a prevalent product of internalized homophobia.
A 2016 study linked internalized homophobia to IPV in men who have sex with men (MSM), suggesting that the internalized stress makes them more likely to physically lash out. The study also found that MSM who reported IPV were more likely to be unsupported during their coming out processes at home.
How do we support gender and sexual minorities and combat internalized homophobia?
In order to reverse internalize homophobia, we need to destigmatize gender and sexual minorities. Avoid using gay, lesbian or queer derogatorily, and challenge others around you to do the same.
The more we can associate these words with positive things, the better. Positive messaging is intricately linked to internalized feelings of self-worth.
Seek out and support positive representation. Comic books is one medium that is becoming more diverse by embracing gender and sexual minorities.
Superheroes are also morphing over to television with Batwoman representing the first openly gay superhero onscreen. Even young adult novels are continuing to add depth and substance to GSM identities.
Offer hope and support
One of the most important things you can do is support gender and sexual minorities and remind them that others share their experiences. Provide a safe space for them to talk about themselves and their journey without fear of judgement.
Use visible means to communicate that you are a safe space both at work and at home. This may include displaying equality stickers, literature on LGBT experiences, and using inclusive language.
It is important for GSM identities to know they are not alone, and most importantly, that they are beautiful just the way they are.