Internalized Homophobia and Social Media

Apps and social media contribute to self-hatred in the LGBTQ+ communities.

Posted Dec 14, 2018

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Internalized homophobia is our greatest obstacle as queer people. No one gets to the heart of that better than Rupaul, who asks contestants on his award winning television show, Rupaul’s Drag Race: “If you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?" But when we are queer in a homophobic world, loving ourselves is much more easily said than done. Especially when our primary outlets to social, sexual, and romantic interaction are through apps and other forms of social media that increase our internalized homophobia. (I’ll explain how in a second.)  

But first, what exactly is internalized homophobia — or homophobia itself, for that matter?

In the most extremely visceral sense, homophobia is a reflexive reaction of fear and hatred to everything on which “Rupaul’s Drag Race” shines a spotlight: namely, gay men dressed and behaving like women. As males, we receive implicit messages — from our families, communities, and entertainment — that in order to be men we need to dominate women. And if we fail to do this, either by having sex with other men or by embodying “woman-like” qualities, we are thought to have “given up our maleness,” ergo we disrupt the social order. The stigma surrounding men who are perceived to lower themselves to the status of women, specifically by “submitting” to other men sexually, is what we call homophobia. And when homophobia gets into our heads, we become consumed with shame, and police ourselves to conform to gender stereotypes to extinguish that shame: by presenting according to perceived biological sex as either a dominant, masculine man, or a woman that a dominant, masculine man finds appealing. And then we punish ourselves, or each other, when we fail to do that. This is internalized homophobia (which, as you can see, is inextricable from internalized misogyny.)   

Fortunately, we have people like Rupaul to inspire and encourage us to bust out of the shackles of the gender binary and to celebrate multiple identifications and expressions of self on our own terms. But internalized homophobia lurks in all of our minds, waiting for our shame to waken it, so it can trap us back into binary thinking.  

...And social media doesn’t help.  

Like many a reality competition, apps and social media lure us into the binary of winning vs. losing/ in vs. out in two major ways.  

Social media can make us feel rejected

When we see pictures of how buff our friends are, how comfortable they are being naked in front of the camera, how in love they seem with their significant others, how sexy and confident they seem without needing a significant other, etc. etc. etc... we can feel left out of the party; rejected; not picked. This is true for anyone, but for many of us who are queer, it can stimulate internalized homophobia by triggering memories of childhood when we were rejected and bullied and called “gay” simply for of our lack of gender conformity.  

The traumatic moments when we first felt the deep shame of being singled out as different from the rest of our families, neighbors, or classmates come rushing back to the surface when we get the message that we’re Not. Good. Enough. Or sexy enough, or funny enough, or smart enough to be invited into gaydom. We can so easily be made to feel like the loser gay, as opposed to the super gay, just as we were tormented as children for being (or seeming) “gay”/freakish as opposed to straight/normal.  

This obviously comes up in dating as well, when we see that potential hookups or dates are categorically not interested in us — unless, of course, we can convince them of our airbrushed-quality beauty, or hard bodies, or masterful gender conformity. When we are told we need to fit into categories like masc or femme or top or bottom or racially specific, our shame is restimulated, and we might try to contort or even harm ourselves to fit into the glass slipper, to be chosen by the prince.

There is also a specific feeling of betrayal that can come up when it is other queer people who demand we fit into these rigid categories. It is a double rejection to have accepted ourselves, come out of the closet, and made the effort to seek the company of people like us, only to face rejection all over again from within the community.  

For many of us, this may surface echoes of similar voices of betrayal from some of our most supportive friends and/or family, who have said (perhaps well-intentioned) things to us like:

“You can be gay, just don't act gay or talk gay..."

"You can be gay but I don’t want to hear about it.”

“You can be gay but be discreet.”

In response to such messages, we might contort ourselves to fit in rather than to be cast out.  Or we might be self-destructive to punish ourselves for not being able to do that.  Neither of which allows us the freedom and love that is possible and which we deserve.

Social media invites us to reject each other

The nature of social media ensures that we’re perpetuating the same harmful and alienating behavior towards others. We all want to celebrate our lives through shared pictures from time to time. But how often do we reflect on our intentions when we do this? Do we want to connect with people?  Do we want to encourage other people to be creative or to celebrate love or friendship or body positivity? Or do we want to prove — to ourselves and to the world — that we won. That we are in, while others are out. Do we intend to send the message that It gets better IF you’re exactly like us?...” Or do we want to be part of a multiplicity of various recognized and recognizing selves?

The same thing goes for hookups and dating. In our efforts to “win”/conform/be accepted, we may make categorical demands of our potential lovers that leave no room for curiosity, possibility, exploration, or freedom. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t have preferences or make them known, but only that we should consider the pitfalls of posting our preferences in strict binary terms.  

So, how do we break the vicious cycle of internalized homophobia and social media?

By watching “Rupaul’s Drag Race,” of course. And also by recognizing that our identities, relationships, and social worlds are of our own making. Rather than comparing ourselves to other people, or thinking about what we “should” be like, or waiting passively to be picked by a perceived in-crowd, we can and must actively make meaning of our own highly unique selves.

I often use the metaphor that each of our lives is like a mosaic: It is up to us to arrange our various, diverse fragments of experience into one wildly colorful self that is ours alone. From another perspective, we are like pointillism paintings. When we look up close at each aspect of our lives, it may appear to be one specific colored dot. But when we step back, the collective dots of various colors gradually bring our whole story into focus.  

I often share these images with my clients, especially my gay male clients, who frequently discuss their struggles with the ins and outs of the gay community. Many of my clients, of various races and gender presentations, view the gay community as an exclusive club for young, white “Ken dolls,” who enjoy happy, shame-free bliss together on Fire Island. Some report feeling rejected from this perceived clique because they’re not masculine enough, and some feel equally rejected because they’re not feminine enough. Either way, the split between us vs. them becomes exacerbated, which fans the flames of our collective internalized homophobia.  

And I’m complicit in this as well.  One gay male client recently pointed out that an article I had written, in which I had attempted to reduce shame surrounding anal sex, had actually paradoxically stirred up shame in him. Because I had mentioned in the article talking with friends on Fire Island. This sent my client the implicit message that if he did not have friends on Fire Island, he was not a “real gay.” I validated why he felt that way, and acknowledged my blind spot in including that detail in the article, not having fully considered how it could backfire. I also encouraged him to explore and rethink the paradigm that there is just one gay community that we are either accepted into or rejected from. I also explained that my actual relationship to Fire Island, for example, is through a family member who has had a house there for years — and not at all through a clique of “Ken dolls,” though I do have some friends who could be perceived that way, too. I also shared that, ironically, many of the friends I have brought to my relative’s house over the years, have actually been straight women, some of whom have also brought their little kids — not exactly the exclusive gay club scene he had imagined. I suggested that like me, I’m sure he has various relationships and expressions of self and facets of identity that don’t fit neatly into one category, and that he is the master of his own multifarious queer identity.  

I can only hope he truly heard me and can make use of that idea.  And I hope the same for you too.

Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW-R

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