The monster lurks, often imperceptibly, as an emotional backdrop in the lives of queer folk – and for this reason, it often remains unexamined. Unidentified even.
It acts as our internal editor, vetting and judging our behaviours and mannerisms and it holds us back from truly loving ourselves for who we are.
I’m talking about internalised phobia. And just like the external variety LGBTI people face from others in the broader community, it can eat away at our self-esteem.
I would venture that there is no such thing as an LGBTI person who has not, at some point, struggled with an internalisation of the negative external judgments of our gender identity or sexual orientation. And it’s an understandable reaction.
From day one we’ve been socially conditioned by a society that privileges heterosexuality and cis-genderism, to the exclusion of all other ways of being. We’ve been sold a narrative by parents, teachers, peers, religious and political leaders and the media, which renders us invisible. And not only does the dominant culture fail to see us, it actively ostracises us.
Now tell me: What 13-year-old has the strength and self-conviction to stand against such a tidal wave of cultural proscription and state: “You’re all wrong, I’m happy just the way I am.”?
This is more often a sentiment that comes a good few years down the track, after considerable personal development. In short, it’s almost impossible for us to avoid our internal self-concept being informed by the external forces of homo/bi/transphobia.
Just like external bigotry, our internalised phobias can manifest in subtle ways: Reluctance to associate with other LGBTI people, feeling disgusted by expressions of same-sex affection or sexuality, disapproval of butch women or femme men, or refusal to show affection with a same-sex partner in public. In the extreme, internalised phobia can lead to self-harm and suicidality.
Arguably, much of the in-fighting within LGBTI community can be attributed to internalised phobias. As human beings, when we feel dominated and oppressed, we sometimes instinctively seek out someone to oppress in turn, to alleviate feelings of disempowerment. It is far more difficult to break the chain of abuse and instead confront the source of our oppression. Imagine how powerful a lobby we would be if we stood together as one LGBTI family to insist on an end to cultural and institutional denigration of our community.
But such proactivity requires that we start with ourselves. Working through feelings of internalised judgment with a counsellor who is experienced in such matters can be one way to gradually examine the distorted views of our sexuality or gender, that have been written into our evolving self-concept. In time, and with patience, it is possible for us to rewrite the internal narratives, freeing us to truly be the authors of proud new chapters in our story.