We live in a world where everyone is assumed to be heterosexual unless they explicitly state otherwise.
But more than that, we live in a world where heterosexuality is thought to be the superior sexuality.
This messaging, which is both explicit and implicit, can be incredibly damaging to queer people. It often leads to something called internalized homophobia.
First time hearing that phrase? Fear not, here you’ll learn exactly what it is.
“Internalized homophobia encompasses the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that arise from the belief that queerness is bad, wrong, sinful, or inferior to being straight,” explains Casey Tanner, queer-affirming sex therapist and expert for pleasure product company LELO.
By definition, internalized homophobia can only be experienced by someone who is not heterosexual, according to queer-inclusive clinical psychologist Dr. Bethany Cook.
Internalized “phobias” happen when someone in a minority group has internalized society’s hatred toward them, she explains.
Internalized homophobia, specifically, is what happens when sexual minorities (people who aren’t heterosexual) have begun to direct the hatred that the sexual majority (people who are heterosexual) has directed toward them, toward themselves.
In short, “a straight person can’t have internalized homophobia,” says Cook. “It just doesn’t fit the definition.”
Going with that answer, it’s still important to remember a few things:
- You don’t know someone’s sexuality unless they tell you.
- Internalized homophobia could prevent someone from exploring their sexuality.
- A person’s sexuality is allowed to evolve throughout their lifetime.
“Straight, cisgender people can certainly have homophobic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors,” says Tanner. “When a straight, cisgender person experiences negative thoughts about queerness or behaves in a homophobic way, that is just homophobia.”
“Internalized biphobia, internalized queerphobia, and internalized transphobia are other related terms that refer to the specific experiences of bisexual, queer, and trans folks around internalized negative thoughts about their identity,” says Tanner.
“Essentially, all forms of these phobias entail diminishing the validity of one’s experience,” she says.
The above aren’t the only phrases that hint at something similar.
There’s also internalized heterosexism.
“Heterosexism names the fact that it’s considered the ‘norm’ for humans to be heterosexual, and that anyone else who isn’t heterosexual is inferior or abnormal,” explains Cook.
Internalized heterosexism is what happens when those beliefs have infiltrated your thoughts, leading you to believe explicitly or implicitly that heterosexuality is best.
Other forms of homophobia include interpersonal homophobia (usually just called homophobia) and systemic homophobia.
“Interpersonal homophobia occurs between two or more people, when one or more people isolates, discriminates against or oppresses another due to their queer identity or because of behaviors that they perceive as queer,” explains Tanner.
This can look like calling someone “gay” (as an insult) because they’re expressive about their emotions. Or, it could look like choosing not to get close to a queer person for fear that you’ll then be perceived as queer.
“Systemic homophobia occurs on a more macro level when organizations, cultures, religions, businesses, and governments discriminate against the LGBTQIA+ community,” says Tanner.
“It also occurs when these systems don’t take the necessary steps to keep queer individuals safe or provide access to the same privileges as straight, cisgender people.”
This might look like not having a gender-neutral bathroom, refusing to serve a patron who is (or “seems”) queer, or voting for laws that make it legal to leave queer history and identity out of sex education.
“Internalized homophobia often leads someone to punish themselves for having queer thoughts and feelings,” says Tanner.
In practice, this could lead someone to isolate themselves from the queer people in their life or people in general.
“In many instances, it leads someone to deny their queerness altogether,” says Tanner. “Someone might attempt to change their attraction or gender, or engage in addictive behaviors that distract from queer thoughts and feelings.”
On a darker front, sometimes internalized homophobia leads to external homophobia.
“Internalized homophobia is what a lot of homophobic hate crimes stem from,” explains gender and sexuality educator Suzannah Weiss.
“The perpetrators experience same-sex attraction and are not able to accept themselves for that, so they direct hatred and violence toward people who are out as LBGTQ.”
This does *not* mean that all perpetrators of LGBTQIA+ hate crimes are queer. It does, however, mean that internalized homophobia can have some really heart-wrenching side effects for individuals, as well as society as a whole.
The sad truth is that in a world where homophobia is built into almost every legal, medical, religious, and social structure, internalized homophobia is inevitable.
After all, all of us are implicitly and explicitly taught that being LGBTQIA+ is bad. How?
To name a few examples:
- The exclusion of queer people from history textbooks
- The enactment of laws that keep non-reproductive sex from being taught in sex education
- Doctors making false assumptions about a patient’s gender and/or sexuality
- The presence of religions that refuse to hire, promote, or marry queer people
If you’re taught in nearly every avenue in your life that queer people are inferior, it makes sense that those teachings will make their way into your brain. Sigh.
Everyone is different, so how internalized homophobia manifests will vary.
“It’s essential to remember that any mental illness arising from internalized homophobia is not due to one’s queerness, but rather because of discrimination against queer people,” says Tanner.
Internalized homophobia can also influence things like the careers a person chooses, the people they choose to date, and what their romantic and sexual life looks like.
In more extreme cases, “a gay man might choose to pursue a career in ministry speaking out against gay people,” explains Tanner.
Someone can experience internalized homophobia even if they’re in a queer relationship, notes Cook.
Holding a similar-gender partner to the standards and stereotypes of a heterosexual relationship is one way internalized homophobia can manifest in a queer relationship, she says.
“It can also lead someone to tell others in the LGBTQIA+ community that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong ways of being on the spectrum,” adds Cook.
It is possible to overcome internalized homophobia, but it has to be an ongoing practice.
The first step is acknowledging that internalized homophobia is real. (Congrats! Reading this article is a great first step).
Next, do some introspection to figure out where it may have appeared in your life.
You might ask yourself:
- Do I ever feel embarrassed about who I’m attracted to? How does that manifest?
- How do I feel about other LGBTQIA+ people? Does this change based on how “loud and proud” someone is?
- Do people know my sexuality? Who does or doesn’t? Why haven’t I shared it with certain people?
- How do I feel after partnered sexual activity? Does the feeling change based on the gender of the other person(s)? If I’m not engaging in sexual activity, why not?
A queer-informed therapist can help you answer these questions for yourself. They can also help you navigate being queer in a homophobic world in a way that brings you pride, joy, security, and peace.
It can be really painful to watch someone you love enact hatred against themselves because of who they have the capacity to love.
To help them combat this, you can:
- Assure them through your words and actions that you accept people of all gender and sexual identities.
- Speak out against anti-gay sentiments and legislation.
- Believe what they tell you about their lived experience.
- Create space for the LGBTQIA+ in your life.
- Continue to educate yourself about people who are different than you.
To learn more about internalized homophobia and the way it can manifest, consume content from queer creators who speak on this.
Some A+ resources include:
- QUEERY with Cameron Esposito
- Two Bi Guys with Rob Cohen and Alex Boyd
- We’re Having Gay Sex with Ashley Gavin
- “We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation” by Matthew Riemer Leighton Brown
- “Queer Love In Color” by Jamal Jordan
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. She’s become a morning person, tested over 200 vibrators, and eaten, drunk, and brushed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books and romance novels, bench-pressing, or pole dancing. Follow her on Instagram.