24/02/2022 | Writer: Murat Yüksel

The person who has been stigmatized can develop a more accepting attitude about themselves and their sexual orientation by experiencing a safe environment where they will not be stigmatized.

On internalized homophobia Kaos GL - News Portal for LGBTI+

Growing up in a society where heterosexuality is seen as the norm means growing up with constant exposure to negative judgments, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors about LGBTI+ people. This learning process, which starts in the family, continues in other social institutions (school, work, peer groups, etc.) that are part of socialization. The child who grows up receiving these negative messages about non-heterosexual people goes through a difficult process to understand their different orientation. Because the message they get from the environment is clear: I am bad, wrong, sinful, the world is a dangerous place, I am not safe, and I must hide myself.

Internalized homophobia is a term used to describe one’s understanding their own sexual orientation and their attitude development through internalizing these negative judgments and beliefs in society.  This internalization can happen long before the person begins to realize their own sexual orientation. When a person begins to realize their own desires, a conflict arises between their desires and the message they receive from society that they will be accepted 'only if they are heterosexual'. As a powerful source of stress, this conflict accompanies the development/growth process, which in itself can be challenging and painful. The person who is inside of this conflict may behave in accordance with heterosexual norms, try to hide or change themselves because they believe that others will not accept them as they are, and may avoid being seen and befriended by other LGBTI+ people. Although this conflict seems to be resolved following the ‘coming-out’ process, sometimes internalized homophobia can continue to affect the mental health of the person due to the strength of early childhood experiences and constant exposure to homophobic messages in the society.

Internalized homophobia also bears similarities to other forms of prejudice. According to Gordon Allport's theory, everyone who has been stigmatized either externalizes or internalizes them by reacting defensively to the prejudices they experience. While people with externalizing response may develop an exaggerated and obsessive interest in this stigma, people with internalization response may display behaviors and attitudes that we see in internalized homophobia, such as self-devaluation and identification with and idealization of the aggressor.

The concept of internalized homophobia has also received criticism in the psychology literature. Homophobia, a concept first used by psychologist George Weinberg to describe negative attitudes towards gay, lesbian and bisexual people, has some limitations in itself. Because while phobia implies irrational fear, disgust towards homosexuals, it points to a personal pathology. However, while many people have negative attitudes, beliefs and behaviors towards homosexuality, they may not have an irrational fear of homosexuality. For this reason, the concept of heterosexism is used more widely in the literature. Because, it is also said that the social institutionalization of heterosexism, which only accepts sexuality and relations between the opposite sexes as the norm, is one of the main causes of the problem.

Similarly, while the concept of transphobia is limited to pointing out the irrational fear of trans people, the concept of 'genderism' defines prejudiced attitudes and beliefs towards trans people with its social dimension without reference to a pathology. For this reason, it is recommended to use concepts such as internalized heterosexism, internalized oppression, internalized homonegativity instead of internalized homophobia in the literature. I have used internalized homophobia throughout this article as it is generally recognized. Another criticism of the literature is the very limited number of studies on internalized transphobia.

Internalized homophobia negatively affects the mental and physical health of LGB people. Studies show that internalized homophobia is associated with various mental health difficulties and psychosocial problems and negatively affects identity development. These studies conducted in different countries reveal a strong correlation between internalized homophobia and depression, anxiety disorders, suicidal ideation, domestic violence, intimate partner violence, difficulty in intimate relationships and sexual relationships, and low self-esteem. They found that risky behaviors such as unprotected sexual intercourse, alcoholism and substance use were more common in people with high internalized homophobia. I should emphasize that there is no cause-effect relationship here, and that internalized homophobia is examined as one of the factors that increase the risk of problems. I believe that the concept of minority stress will be more helpful here to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the factors that increase the risk of LGB people to experience mental health difficulties.

Ilan Meyer's concept of minority stress, including internalized homophobia, is a theoretical framework that seeks to understand the relationship between the mental health difficulties LGB people constantly experience with prejudice, discrimination and violence. Minority stress refers to the stress experienced by people in a stigmatized social group because of their minority status. ‘Therefore, minority stress adds to the general stressors because it is chronic and associated with stable social and cultural structures’. Meyer describes the process of minority stress as a continuum from the outside (objective events and conditions) to the center (personal perceptions and evaluations). Accordingly, there are three factors that contribute to the stress experienced by LGB people: a) external, objective stressful events and conditions, b) the possibility of happening of these stressful events and the state of being alerted/triggered, c) internalizing negative social attitudes (internalized homophobia). Studies on coming-out have suggested that hiding one's sexual orientation should be added to this framework as the fourth stress factor.

Coping mechanisms and resistance to these stressors have always been present for LGB people. Meyer points out that it is important for minority groups to distinguish coping mechanisms at both the individual and group level. On a personal level, LGB people try to protect themselves by developing resistance, using many positive or negative coping mechanisms, just like everyone else who copes with general stress. In addition, they say that coping at the group level has a positive effect on mental health. They mention the protective effect of group-level coping styles, such as LGB people's contact with the LGB community and feeling of belonging to the community. The person who has been stigmatized can develop a more accepting attitude about themselves and their sexual orientation by experiencing a safe environment where they will not be stigmatized. The social support and acceptance achieved through contact with the community has a positive effect on mental health. It is also known that the use of support at this group level differs according to personal characteristics and preferences. A person with higher internalized homophobia may not want to come into contact with LGB people or the community they stigmatize. It can be said that the process of coming-out of LGB people has an important role in adding group-level mechanisms to personal coping mechanisms. Studies on internalized homophobia and depression indicate that depression is seen more frequently as age decreases, and this may be related to being at the beginning of the coming-out process. Establishing a relationship with the community has a positive effect on mental health as it facilitates access to accurate and sufficient information. These sources of information, which will accompany the process of discovering and recognizing one's self and others, may also be a vital importance.

When personal coping mechanisms are not sufficient and/or adequate social support cannot be obtained, help from a mental health professional can be sought.

On the other hand, in clinical practice the therapist/counselor, when working with LGB people, can focus on how they have grown up with messages and beliefs about sexual orientation, gender identity and sexual roles, sometimes by asking directly. Together, they can explore how these messages and beliefs may have been implicitly or explicitly reflected in their thinking and belief system.

In order to cope with internalized homophobia, it can be said that noticing what has been learned in the growth phase, relearning them, establishing positive and supportive relationships, contacting the community and feeling belonging to the community can be seen as key. 

Translation: Aras Örgen


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*This article was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Kaos GL Association and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.


Tags: human rights, health