by Michael Raitt -
SGN Contributing Writer
We are all too aware of the battle being waged against us by others who hate the GLBTQ community - certain religious, community, and political leaders who vilify us in many ways. Their disdain for us generates a secondary battle. This is a battle that grows within us. It is the battle we have internally about being GLBTQ. We call it 'internalized homophobia' and it is self-loathing for being a GLBTQ person. It is much more common than you think, and very destructive to individuals and our community.
I have not met one GLBTQ individual who says they hate themselves for being what they are just because they hate it. Every one of them says they hate being GLBTQ because they've been told by family, church, or some other segment of society that it is despicable, perverted, and horrible. These messages run so deep that eventually people feel intrinsically bad and un-loveable. They can no longer separate their own feelings from the messages they've been receiving; it seems like one and the same thing. These feelings can seem inescapable. After years of these messages, too many GLBTQ men and women suffer from depression, anxiety, double lives, addictions, hurtful behaviors, and - tragically - sometimes suicide. This constant din of self-hatred can become so familiar that individuals are no longer even aware of it. Yet it shows up in their lives by the way they are acting and living.
Every one of us has images of ourselves (and usually more than one image). When I'm in my office, I have the image of a therapist. When I'm with my family, I see myself as brother and uncle. When I volunteer in the community, I have the image of an involved community member. I behave somewhat differently in each of these areas. The context that we are in - work, family, friends - influences which image is presented. Sometimes these images overlap, which makes it hard to differentiate one image from another. Sometimes the images are very distinct and how one shows up (acts) in one context may be very different than in another context.
It is this process that underpins the workings of internalized homophobia. In certain areas of their lives, some individuals are high-functioning and seem very happy - they are indentifying with an image. Out of sight of friends, family, and work, these individuals are very unhappy because of being GLBTQ and act accordingly by abusing drugs or sex or themselves. They hate themselves and the 'Gay lifestyle.' These individuals keep secret lives and become horrified at the idea that they will be found out.
Fighting this battle is equally important because how one feels about being GLBTQ will influence how they act and how healthy the community is.
How do we combat internalized homophobia? Remember what it is: self-hatred that has been created by years of external negative messages. First, there comes a time when we realize that we are no longer defined by others. We are in complete control of how we see ourselves and the value we give to ourselves as GLBTQ. We may need help in doing that, but it is entirely possible to see and experience ourselves differently. We have to start thinking about ourselves differently, which will affect how we feel about ourselves.
In conjunction with thinking and feeling differently about ourselves, we have to engage in life in ways that reflect how we feel about ourselves. If we are drinking/drugging/sexing too much because deep down we feel bad about ourselves, we need to get help and get healthy through new friendships, therapy, or 12-step. We need to connect with peers (Gay and straight) and establish healthy relationships where our burgeoning healthy self-image is reinforced.
If you have been negatively impacted by a history of religious hatred, work with someone who will help you deal with those issues so you can develop a healthy image of yourself and, if it is appropriate for you, re-engage in a religious/spiritual community and practice. Still, despite what has happened in too many religious organizations, GLBTQ men and women still want, and benefit greatly from, a spiritual/religious practice and community. Done with respect and acceptance, these communities can contribute greatly to reinforcing and supporting a healthy, positive self-image of GLBTQ individuals.
In my opinion, addressing the internalized homophobia has to be an ongoing priority in creating healthy individuals and a healthy community. How we see ourselves is a cornerstone for how we show up in the world. Self-perception directly effects hope and hope creates strength and where there are strong individuals, there is a strong community.
Michael Raitt, MA LMHC, is a therapist and a contributing writer to the SGN. He writes a bi-monthly column in the SGN. If you would like to comment on this column, ask a question you'd like him to write about, or suggest another topic of interest, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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