Today I want to talk about internalized homophobia. I made it through two M.A. degrees, one in education and my second, in Clinical Psychology from the Aliento program at Pepperdine without ever hearing the words “internalized homophobia.” Maybe it wasn’t spoken or maybe I blocked it out.
As I’ve grown to understand it from my friends, fellow LGBTQ community members, colleagues, and clinicians, internalized homophobia is what happens when we take the biases, prejudices, and hatred towards gay folks reinforced by society (aka homophobia) and turn them inward back on ourselves. It shows up in the form of self-hatred, shame, fear, anxiety, and depression for many gay clients, whether we are out of the closet or not.
It’s important to understand because as clinicians, we need to help our clients work through these damaging messages and gently guide our clients to reprogram to messages of self-acceptance, compassion, tolerance, and understanding. Many queer folks I know have gone through periods before coming out where we ourselves participated in homophobic remarks or belonged to homophobic spaces.
I was blind to internalized homophobia because it affected me, deeply. I lived my years at Pepperdine and throughout graduate school closeted. I am now an openly out lesbian, socialized as a woman, and transgender/non-binary person. While no longer practicing as a clincian, I teach and write about LGBTQ psychology and mental health.
Here’s what I want to get across about internalized homophobia: it touches all of us in one way or another, whether or not we’re conscious of it. Dismantling deeply entrenched systemic homophobia is a complicated undertaking, one I can’t pretend to break down and eradicate through a short post. But dismantling systemically starts with us, being aware of ourselves, by acknowledging homophobia exists in all of us, to one extent or another, gay or straight and across racial and socioeconomic lines. Even us gay folks — especially us gay folks — are prone to it. I had a dear gay friend who is very much an outspoken champion of gay rights, male identified and mixed race POC, say to me once, “No one likes lesbians” and then chuckle, “You know what I mean Whit.” Ouch.
As we think about LGBTQ+ mental health and we consider the needs of our clients that fall along the LGBTQ+ spectrum, I encourage you to pause and take a moment to look inside. Notice how you’re feeling while you read my words. What comes up? Are you open and curious or perhaps, tense and defensive? It’s all okay, just notice.
Our ability to help our clients, whether we share their sexual orientation or not, rests in our ability to first tap into our own biases and prejudices, those nooks and crannies of our psyches waiting for us to explore.
So before you run off and change the world (which I know you are committed to, dear Aliento students), I encourage you to pause and take a few moments, write down some reflections, or strike up a conversation with your classmates about homophobia in your communities, your families, your own hearts and minds. From there, I can promise you it will be easier when, inevitably, a client’s internalized messages of shame show up in the therapy space and they need your help to untangle them. Who knows, maybe you’ll even have the privilege to watch your first client walk out of shame — the dreaded closet — and into self acceptance and peace with who they are.
By Whit Eaton, MA
Whit Easton graduated from the Pepperdine M.A. program in Clinical Psychology with a Latinx emphasis in 2016. They are working as a professional writer, advocate of LGBTQ+ mental health, lifelong educator, and an Associate Editor for Psychology Today. They hope to get their column idea, “Queering Psychology,” placed on the Internet in 2020. Stay tuned!
(**Note: The following piece was written based on the writer’s personal opinion and self-conclusion of the topic.)