You might have heard of heterosexism. And you’ve almost surely heard of homophobia. Well, how about ‘internalised homophobia?’ Are you familiar with this term?

You should be as it may be impacting on your life in significant ways. Before you proceed with the article try and answer the following questions for yourself:

    1. Do you feel the need to hide your sexual orientation from your friends and family?

    2. Do you feel the need to hide your sexual orientation at work?

    3. Do you feel that being gay is not an important part of you?

    4. Do you cringe when you see two other men kissing, hugging or holding hands in public?

    5. Do you feel the need to be “straight acting”?

    6. Do you sometimes feel ashamed of who you are?

    7. Do you feel that being heterosexual is more fulfilling than being gay?

    8. Do you feel the need to drink alcohol every time you go out?

    9. Do you feel annoyed or embarrassed when people identify you as being gay?

    10. Do you compare yourself to other men and sometimes feel that you are not masculine enough?

    11. Would you feel embarrassed about taking a same-sex partner with you to a heterosexual wedding or event?

    12. Do you often feel the need to use drugs or drink alcohol before having sex with another man?

    13. Do you sometimes feel that you are a sinner because of your sexual orientation?

    14. Do you constantly feel the need to prove yourself?

    15. Do you sometimes resent being gay?

If you answer yes to any of the above questions then it may be a sign of internalised homophobia. The more questions you answered yes, the greater the presence and impact that internalised homophobia/homo-negativity is having on multiple areas of your life.

The aim of this article is to draw your attention to the possibility of internalised homophobia/homo-negativity in your life in the hopes that you can start challenging this directly; thereby giving yourself the opportunity to live your best life possible.

It known that as a result of growing up and living in a heterosexist society (where heterosexuality is viewed as the only valid form of human sexuality and where homosexuality is seen as unnatural, immoral, deviant, and inferior) most gay and lesbian people are likely to adopt this heterosexist view of the world, other gay people, and of themselves, to varying degrees. It is experienced largely as a discomfort towards the self and others who are gay.

According to most writers, this is an inevitable consequence of being brought up and exposed to heterosexist norms’; from family members, friends, neighbours, school, television, the church, media etc, which we adopt early in our developmental histories. A metaphor of swimming might be useful to illustrate this inescapable point: one cannot go for a swim without getting wet – it is just not possible.

Similarly, one cannot live in a certain context and remain unaffected. These heterosexist norms, assumptions and biases, which are instilled in us as children, are repeatedly reinforced throughout adolescence and adulthood by numerous forms of direct and indirect discrimination, ranging from subtle discrimination (e.g., threatening stares, exclusion from conversations, comments or derogatory jokes) to more blatant forms of discrimination (e.g., being victimised, bullied, and harassed).

These forms of discrimination, whether intended or not, can occur within the family, friendship circles, at school or at work. They persist despite various laws (including Constitutional protection) ensuring the rights of gay people in South Africa. The expectation of social rejection and anti-gay harassment or hostility may compel many gay and lesbian individuals to adjust their behaviour, conceal their sexuality, fit in more or even ‘act’ straight.

“Overcoming internalised homophobia/homo-negativity is seen as essential to the development of a healthy self-concept for all gay and lesbian people….”

This may seem like an immediate solution but it ultimately comes at a cost. It limits the degree to which one can lead an authentic life and is likely to interfere with the formation of a positive gay or lesbian identity. The formation of a positive gay identity is seen by the majority of mental health professionals as being an important developmental process.

The effect of ongoing subtle and blatant forms of discrimination can have a significantly negative impact on the majority of gay and lesbian people. For example, it has been found that anti-homosexual attitudes and the internalisation of these attitudes (also known as internalised homophobia/homo-negativity) is related to the following among gay men:

  • Poorer relationship satisfaction (more intense short term-relationships, where intimacy, emotionality, trust, security, accommodation, and investment are lacking);
  • Guilt and shame (feeling unworthy and unlovable);
  • Sexual problems (difficulties with erections or ejaculation, difficulties engaging in sex without the use of alcohol or drugs);
  • Low self-esteem (poor self evaluation);
  • Depression (persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness, and never feeling satisfied),
  • Anxiety (persistent feelings of tension, with a range of physical symptoms like an ulcer or persistent headaches);
  • Alcoholism and drug abuse (increased likelihood of using substances to numb feelings and escape reality);
  • Increased sexual risk taking (in an attempt to feel temporarily connected with another no matter what the cost);
  • Suicide (complete hopelessness and emotional desperation).

Please note that this shopping list of negative health outcomes does not reflect an attempt on my part to buy into the heterosexist and homophobic/homo-negative notion that gay men are inherently sick: if not their sexual orientation per se, then as a consequence of their sexual orientation.

This is absolute nonsense. There is no scientific basis for this prejudice. I am merely trying to alert you to the fact that as a result of trying to live and love in a world that does not accommodate intimacy between men, gay men are vulnerable to the insidious effects off internalised homophobia/homo-negativity.

Having said that I must note that internalised homophobia/homo-negativity can vary in its intensity and impact among gay men. Although most mental health professionals agree that internalised homophobia/homo-negativity may never be completely overcome, thus affecting gay and lesbian individuals even after coming out, most agree that not all gay men will experience and exhibit internalised homophobia/homo-negativity in the same way.

Many gay men have successfully navigated their way through these attitudes, thereby reducing the intensity and impact of internalised homophobia/homo-negativity, and have developed a positive gay identity and affirmative social support structure as a result. But there are still a many gay men who continue to battle against these internal attitudes.

Overcoming internalised homophobia/homo-negativity is seen as essential to the development of a healthy self-concept for all gay and lesbian people. This can be a considerable challenge for many gay men as they must continue to participate in a heterosexist system that consistently de-values them.

But all is not lost. There is light at the end of the tunnel. You are not a victim here but rather ironically an unwitting accomplice to these suppressive social forces. There is a lo

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