LGBTQ individuals experience internalised homophobia when they feel shame and self-loathing towards their sexual orientation. It can cause a great deal of stress.

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  • 28 December 2021

What is Internalised Homophobia?

What is internalised homophobia? We are generally familiar with what homophobia means. Homophobia is defined as having prejudice against people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ). These individuals experience anxiety, aversion and discomfort when they think about LGBTQ people and same-sex affection (Spencer & Patrick, 2009). Similarly, LGBTQ individuals experience internalised homophobia when they feel shame and self-loathing towards their own sexual orientation. Meyer and Dean (1998) define internalised homophobia as LGBTQ individuals taking upon negative social attitudes towards their sexual orientation. This causes them to reject their own sexual orientation. They experience a conflict between their attraction to people of the same-sex and the societal expectation to be heterosexual. It can be a great source of stress. Why does this happen? What effect does this have on the lives of LGBTQ people? How can they reconcile these differences?
Internalised homophobia happens when LGBTQ individuals take on negative social attitudes towards homosexuality, and believe that their sexual orientation is unacceptable. One theory about internalised homophobia involves Allport’s theory of victimisation of minority groups (1954). When individuals are stigmatised, they can engage in defensive reactions as a result of the prejudice they experience, such as obsessing over the characteristic that is stigmatised or even having homophobic beliefs towards themselves (Williamson, 2000). For instance, a gay man could place a lot of emphasis on obscuring any stereotypically gay traits he may have. He could also dismiss and resent his sexual preferences. This incites deep emotional and psychological distress.

Heteronormativity

Heteronormativity plays a big role in cultivating an environment that encourages internalised homophobia (van der Toorn, Pliskin & Morgenroth, 2020). Some heteronormative beliefs include the idea that people can only experience attraction to the opposite gender. Others involve the the assumption that a person’s gender is aligned with the sex they were assigned at birth idea.

Mediums such as the media, cultural influences, and even social policies may perpetuate the idea that heterosexuality is the expected norm. As a result, heteronormativity influences how LGBTQ individuals view themselves and their preferences.

With heteronormativity regarded as the standard, internalised homophobia is a common phenomenon in the developmental process of LGBTQ individuals (Davies, 1996). Growing up, LGBTQ individuals have to navigate negative societal perceptions surrounding their sexual orientation.

In a qualitative research piece, gay men interviewed shared about their struggles with identity (Cody & Welch, 1997) that often centres on having to distinguish between their self-identity and the negative stereotypes about gay people. In many cases, this struggle is a precursor to the development of LGBTQ people’s self-identity.

Often, internalised homophobia is not something individuals can completely overcome (Frost & Meyer, 2009). It can continue to have a detrimental impact on LGBTQ individuals even after they come out. This can affect their mental health, self-esteem, and general well-being.

How Can Internalised Homophobia Affect a Person’s Health?

Internalised homophobia

Mental Health

Internalised homophobia can have damaging effects on a person’s health, especially their mental health. LGBTQ individuals who have difficulty accepting their sexual orientation can feel shame and isolation. This is coupled with having reduced access to mental health services due to heteronormativity (Yolaç & Meriç, 2020). Hence, these individuals are prone to experiencing more anxiety and depression (Williamson, 2000). In addition, there is also a strong relationship between bulimic behaviour and having internalised homophobia. An explanation could be an urge to punish the body for same-sex attraction (Williamson, 2000).

Higher Risk of Self-harm

There is a higher risk of self-harm among LGBTQ individuals who discover their sexual orientation during adolescence. These teenagers realised early in their lives that their sexual orientation deviates from the norm. Deeply entrenched in communities that promote heteronormativity (Williamson, 2000) and having limited access to LGBTQ-positive social groups, they can experience feelings of isolation. In some cases, these teenagers may choose to reveal their sexual orientation to others around them. However, if their sexual orientation faces rejection, it can deeply damage their self-esteem. Furthermore, important adult figures in their lives may dismiss their sexual identity as well. Adolescence is a period of discovering and developing self-identity. During this vulnerable period, the struggles LGBTQ teenagers face regarding identity and acceptance are significant. Moreover, they have fewer resources to cope with emotional difficulties. In especially severe cases, this can lead to self-harm and suicide ideation.

Less Access to Safe Sex Information and Resources

Internalised homophobia also impacts a person’s physical health in many different ways. This pertains especially to sexual behaviour. When a LGBTQ individual has internalised homophobia, they are likely to limit their association with the LGBTQ community. As a result, they have less access to safe sex information and resources. This can expose them to the risk of sexually transmitted disorders.

Internalised homophobia can have a devastating impact on a LGBTQ individual’s health in many different ways.

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Internalised Homophobia and Depression Levels in LGBTQ Individuals

Internalised homophobia is a risk factor for depression in LGBTQ individuals. Compared to heterosexual individuals, people who identify as LGBTQ are more likely to develop depression (McLaren, 2014). Many studies have identified a link between internalized homophobia and depressive symptoms (Igartua, Gill & Montoro, 2003Szymanski, Chung & Balsam, 2001). More specifically, the attitudes one had towards their own sexual orientation and disclosing it were associated with depression. This means that LGBTQ people’s negative perceptions of their own sexual identity and their fear of disclosure leads to depressive symptoms. The relationship between internalised homophobia and depression may also be stronger in gays than lesbians (Newcomb & Mustanski, 2010). This could be because gays are more vulnerable to external acts of homophobia. They tend to be at the receiving end of verbal and physical abuse, as well as victimisation. Exposure to these multiple stressors can lead to them experiencing more depressive symptoms. Furthermore, there is a stronger association between internalised homophobia and depression for younger LGBTQ individuals (Newcomb & Mustanski, 2010). It is suggested that internalised homophobia is most prevalent at younger ages. This is due to the process of becoming more aware of one’s sexual identity and coming out. However, these stressors decrease over age as their identities become more stable. It is thus vital to provide support for young LGBTQ people as they undergo crucial developmental transitions in life.

One's Living Environment

Another factor that can affect internalised homophobia and hence, risk of depression, is one’s living environment. Specifically, this is in the experience of LGBTQ people living in rural areas in comparison to urban environments. In rural environments, there is usually a lack of visibility of the LGBTQ individuals. The local community may also be disapproving of sexual  and gender diversity. In USA, more residents in rural areas than urban areas oppose LGBTQ rights (Snively, Kreuger, Stretch, Watt, & Chandha, 2004). Residents living in these areas typically adhere to traditional values and gender roles. As a result, LGBTQ individuals who live in rural areas feel victimised. They may face more internalised homophobia and hence, experience more depressive symptoms.

Internalised Homophobia and Relationship Quality among Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals

Internalised Homophobia among Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals
Internalised homophobia can affect relationship quality for LGBTQ individuals as well. One means in which this can occur is in terms of communication between partners (Li & Samp, 2018). For partners, having open and honest conversations to manage conflicts is important for a successful relationship. However, LGBTQ individuals who feel negatively about their own sexual identity can be more defensive when experiencing interpersonal conflicts. Also, having less confidence in themselves, partners may find it difficult to share their perspectives openly. When same-sex couples are more guarded in their communication, there is lower relationship satisfaction.

Another explanation is that internalised homophobia impedes LGBTQ individuals from coming out. Same-sex couples experience difficulties attending shared social activities where they feel the need to conceal their sexual identity. This can deprive same-sex couples of quality time at family gatherings and work functions. When this concealment is prolonged, there is an emotional cost for both partners (Hatzenbueler, 2009) as their relationship quality is undermined.

If you are in a same-sex relationship, it can be helpful to examine your relationship with your sexual identity. If you find yourself struggling with internalised homophobia, it may be wise to seek professional assistance. Besides supporting your well-being, this would be helpful for your relationship as well. There are therapists who specialise in couple-counselling for LGBTQ individuals. They will be provide you with more knowledge and resources that are specific to your relationship.

Internalised homophobia in LGBTQ

Shame and Internalised Homophobia in Gay Men

Internalised homophobia can occur together with shame for many LGBTQ individuals. Shame has been suggested to result in problems in identity formation for LGBTQ people (Brown & Trevethan, 2010). This may be amplified in gay men as they tend to face more external backlash for their sexual orientation. Early on in their lives, these men may encounter rejections in their interpersonal relationships. Parents and friends may reject their sexual identity. As they enter larger society, they may experience repeated incidents of rejection. For gay men, this may reinforce both their feelings of shame and internalised homophobia. Studies also show that the experience of shame can prevent gay men from coming out to their family members as well (Brown & Trevethan, 2010). Coming out can be an important cumulation of identity formation in LGBTQ individuals. The process of coming out to family members is especially emphasised upon, and shame can potentially hamper the achievement of developmental milestones for LGBTQ people. The effects of shame too permeate various other aspects of life for LGBTQ individuals. The ability to form a stable self-identity influences one’s capacity to forge meaningful intimate relationships. As a result of shame, LGBTQ individuals may experience inhibitions in forming any type of relationships with others. This may potentially reinforce the feelings of rejection and internalised homophobia. There are a host of deleterious consequences associated with internalised homophobia. You may feel worried if you find that a loved one is struggling with internalised homophobia. Here are a few ways you can help alleviate their struggle (Frost & Meyer, 2009):

Support Them as They Form Social Circles

  • Surrounding themselves with other LGBTQ individuals can help them establish healthier self-perception. This prompts them to form more positive self-identities. 
  • Moreover, this allows them to attain the right knowledge and resources that can be beneficial for them. This includes specific information such as preventive measures they can take to ensure safe sex with other LGBTQ people.

Encourage Them to Go for Therapy if They Need It

  • LGBTQ individuals are constantly exposed to social pressures surrounding their minority status. Therapy provides them with a safe environment to share their thoughts and process their emotions. It also gives them an opportunity to develop more self-confidence and self-compassion. Furthermore, the therapist can assist them in identifying and addressing any potential mental health conditions or symptoms.

If you find yourself struggling with internalised homophobia, you may find therapy to be a beneficial outlet for you as well. While it may not be severely impacting your everyday life, it can be helpful to speak with a professional and expand on your repertoire of coping skills. The experience of being part of a minority group can be a difficult experience, but sources of support are within reach.

References

Allport, G. (1954) The Nature of Prejudice. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.

Brown, J. & Trevethan, R. (2010). Shame, internalized homophobia, identity formation, attachment style, and the connection to relationship status in Gay Men. American Journal of Men’s Health, 4(3), 267–276. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1557988309342002

Cody, P. & Welch, R. (1997). Rural gay men in northern New England. Journal of Homosexuality, 33, 51–67. Retrieved from https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Rural-gay-men-in-northern-New-England%3A-life-and-Cody-Welch/48b8160bdcc231c931fce6d19747f97215a4d9bb

Davies, D. (1996) Homophobia and heterosexism. In Davies, D. and Neal, C. (eds), Pink Therapy. Open University Press, Buckingham, pp. 41–65.

Frost, D. M. & Meyer, I. H. (2009). Internalized Homophobia and Relationship Quality among Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals, Journal of Counselling Psychology, 56 (1), 97-109. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2678796/

Hatzenbuehler, M. L. (2009). How does sexual minority stigma “get under the skin”? A psychological mediation framework. Psychological bulletin, 135(5), 707-730. doi: 10.1037/a0016441

Igartua, K., Gill, K., & Montoro, R. (2003). Internalized homophobia: A factor in depression, anxiety, and suicide in the gay and lesbian population. Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, 22(2), 15–30. https://doi.org/10.7870/cjcmh-2003-0011

Li, Y. & Samp, J. A. (2018). Internalized Homophobia, Language Use, and Relationship Quality in Same-sex Romantic Relationships. Communication Reports, 00, 1-14. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08934215.2018.1545859?journalCode=rcrs20

McLaren, S. (2014). Gender, Age, and Place of Residence as Moderators of the Internalized Homophobia- Depressive Symptoms Relation Among Australian Gay Men and Lesbians. Journal of Homosexuality, 62(4), 463-480. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/10.1080/00918369.2014.983376

Meyer, I.H. & Dean L. Internalized homophobia, intimacy, and sexual behavior among gay and bisexual men. In: Herek GM, editor. Stigma and sexual orientation: Understanding prejudice against lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. (pp. 160–186.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications; 1998.

Newcomb, M. E., & Mustanski, B. (2010). Internalized homophobia and internalizing mental health problems: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(8), 1019–1029. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.07.003

Snively, C. A., Kreuger, L., Stretch, J. J., Watt, J. W., & Chadha, J. (2004). Understanding homophobia: Preparing for practice realities in urban and rural settings. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 17, 59-81. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J041v17n01_05

Spencer, S. M., & Patrick, J. H. (2009). Social support and personal mastery as protective resources during emerging adulthood. Journal of Adult Development, 16, 191–198. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10804-009-9064-0

Szymanski, D. M., Chung, Y. B., & Balsam, K. F. (2001). Psychosocial correlates of internalized homophobia in lesbians. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, 34(1), 27–38. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481756.2001.12069020

van der Toorn, J. Pliskin, R. & Morgenroth, T. (2020). Not quite over the rainbow: the unrelenting and insidious nature of heteronormative ideology. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 34, 160-165. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352154620300383

Williamson, I. R. (2000). Internalized homophobia and health issues affecting lesbians and gay men. Health Education Research, 15 (1), 97-107. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/her/article/15/1/97/775710

Yolaç, E. & Meriç, M. (2020). Internalized homophobia and depression levels in LGBT individuals. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 57, 304-310. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/ppc.12564