Times have changed for young guys who like guys, right? It gets better, doesn’t it? In a lot of ways, yes. For many of us life is better than it was 10 or 20 years ago. But we’ve still got a long way to go as individuals and in our communities. Those of us who live in large metropolitan cities like Toronto are fortunate to live relatively free of homophobia most of the time – but many of us may still carry the pain and trauma of being bullied or abused in our youth, or struggle with heterosexism today. All the progress and acceptance that we’ve experienced can mask issues that may persist outside of our awareness.
Internalized homophobia is one such issue. Defined as “the involuntary belief” by gay people that the homophobic stereotypes about them are true, it has many negative consequences for guys who like guys. Research shows that internalized homophobia can affect many parts of a guy’s life, from his mental health and body image to his sexual behaviors and relationships. To raise awareness about this issue and to encourage positive change, OurSpace held a workshop to discuss the ways in which internalized homophobia might hijack our health, and how we can overcome it to lead happier, healthier lives. George Georgievski, a graduate student from the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, facilitated our discussion.
A creative exercise that had us pondering what our bodies symbolize or define for us, and whom or what they may belong to helped to start our discussion. From there we identified heterosexism as a key factor in internalized homophobia. Because we form our identities in relation to society, it’s important to recognize that almost all of the institutions and communities that govern us privilege heterosexuality. When the world constantly sends us messages that we are “less than” because we’re not heterosexual, we can internalize these messages and come to believe them on a certain level, even if only subconsciously.
We also talked about how racism and sexism contribute to internalized homophobia. Some guys stated that being Black and gay seemed impossible to some people, due to the overwhelming focus on white men in gay media. This can lead queer people of colour to feel invisible, even in queer communities.
Sexist ideas that devalue femininity in men can encourage hyper-masculinity as a self-defensive mechanism. This can lead to self- or community-policing around gender, so that we make sure our clothes, mannerisms, or friends aren’t “too fem.” “Masc for masc” on Grindr is a prime example. The fetishization of masculinity – even by more feminine guys – is another.
Research shows that this internalized homophobia can lead to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders, as well as eating disorders or substance abuse issues. It can also lead guys to engage in riskier sex (because “aggressive tops don’t wear condoms”), or severely inhibit our ability to build healthy, intimate relationships with other guys.
What are some of the ways we can avoid these negative outcomes? Taking the time to get to know your real self is one powerful strategy to overcome internalized homophobia. The guys acknowledged that it’s a challenging, evolving, life-long process, but the rewards are worth it. When you know yourself, you don’t allow others to tell you who you are. Living authentically can also be “everyday activism” – it makes space for others to live outside of the restrictive gender and sexual norms that society places upon us. Celebrating all body types – sculpted or not – also encourages more diversity.
Many of us find our true selves by surrounding ourselves with the friends, groups, and communities that support and empower us. Research shows that being proud of your gay, bisexual, or queer identity can be powerful protection against the harmful effects of internalized homophobia. Looking outside of the bar to find the diversity of queer communities out there can help us find ourselves and our tribes. Undergoing counselling or therapy might also be a factor, as homophobia and heterosexism can damage your mental health.
OurSpace celebrates the power of discussions like these to produce positive change in our communities, and we’re happy to see so many guys come out to talk about internalized homophobia, an important but often unacknowledged issue. The guys at our workshop appreciated the opportunity to have this discussion outside of a bar or academic setting. It allowed them to recognize how far they’ve come in their lives, and to consider what role they could play in building community for themselves and others.
We hope to see you at our next workshop happening tonight, February 10, at the 519 Community Centre from 6pm to 8pm. We’ll be busting the top/bottom binary and discussing why it’s assumed that bottoms can’t play with other bottoms. Hope to see you there!