A young man sitting on an outdoor wall outdoors looking very happy

Building Positive Queer Identity

Last month, a Netflix favorite Queer Eye welcomed in the summer months with a fresh season bringing us back the vibrant personalities of the “Fab Five” – a group of folks who, if you are not aware, are five queer people assigned to make over specific people’s lives in everything from cooking to mental wellness. Previously, the show focused on the lives of “Straight Guys”, but the 2018 relaunch of the show saw the title drop the specificity to provide a “Queer Eye” for any identity group. One episode in particular tugged on the heart strings of many in the LGBTQ+ community – an episode detailing the life of a lesbian New Orleans Saints aficionado, Stephanie Williams. While the Fab Five tended to various needs inside and out for this woman, one theme that became central to the plot was Stephanie’s view of her own sexuality, feeling the need to hide it from others for fear of perception and judgment. For many viewers, when the Fab Five began to discuss “internalized homophobia”, this was probably the first time they heard the term used. 

Although it would be wonderful if all of us could have five experts barge into our lives one day and redo our entire house, wardrobe, and head (though, as a therapist, I imagine most of these folks still have much work to continue even after the 50 minute mark), for many of us who identify as LGBTQ+, it takes more than a few kind words to combat internalized homophobia and create a more positive view of ourselves and our identities. Today, I’m going to be exploring some strategies you can use for yourself or a loved one to foster positive queer identity.

What is Internalized Homophobia?

Internalized homophobia – sometimes known as internalized homonegativity or internalized queerphobia – is when a queer person either unconscious or consciously comes to accept prejudice regarding their identity. Arguably, all queer people experience internalized homophobia in one way or another – whether it manifests in discomfort we feel when around people who are “too out” or the judgment we feel towards ourselves regarding our level of “queerness”. Internalized homophobia results from growing up in a cisheterosexist society – from birth, we receive messages that cisgender heterosexuality is the “norm” and that everything else is at best “different” and at worst “disordered”. 

Internalized homophobia comes with a heavy cost on mental and physical health for queer folks. Research shows that higher rates of internalized homophobia are associated with higher occurrences of depression, anxiety, risky sexual behavior, and disordered substance use. Internalized homophobia can be especially problematic for young queer folks who are already at risk for negative mental health outcomes and suicidal ideation compared to peers. 

How do I address Internalized Homophobia?

There’s several different ways to address internalized homophobia, most of which focus on fostering a new perspective on one’s identity and community. While there’s no definitive list of do’s and don'ts when it comes developing positive self views, here are some ideas that might be worth starting with:

Name it

Recognize places where you may hold negative views regarding your own or similar identities, or places where you can see the impact of negative views on your confidence. It can be helpful to look backwards at our early life experiences around sexuality and gender, as many of the messages that might have even seemed innocuous at the time can continue to impact us in our adulthood. Some greater questions for reflection could include:

  • How was gender taught to me when I was little? When did I first learn about queer identity? What context did I first learn about queerness? 
  • What were my family’s attitudes towards topics like gay marriage, transgender healthcare, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, bathroom laws, or other “hot button” issues when I was little? What about my neighborhood?
  • Did I see same gender relationships on TV? How were they depicted? 
  • How did my peers talk about LGBTQ+ identity? What about my teachers? Was it even discussed in school?

Building insight regarding the sources of bias helps us to differentiate what is truly our own beliefs versus what has been instilled in us. It also gives an opportunity to question the validity of the takes – if you were an adult and someone told you boys shouldn’t wear dresses, how would you react now? Would you have the same response as when you were a young “boy” wanting to wear a dress?

Seek out queer community

Participation in the LGBTQ+ community is often shown to be linked with positive mental health outcomes for queer folks. Oftentimes, we are quicker to see others similar to us in a more positive light than ourselves, so developing healthy relationships with other queer folks may be a gateway towards being able to turn that positivity inward. For some people, seeking out community can be easier than others and concerns around safety and confidentiality might be important to broach. Many communities have LGBTQ+ centers that host events geared towards the community that can be a great place to start. If you are not in a community where this is accessible, you can also seek out queer spaces on social media on spaces like Reddit, Discord, and Facebook. (Remember, always be careful with sharing personal information online!)

Surround yourself with queer-affirming content.

On the note of social media, social media can often be a hotbed of negative messaging for queer people. We’re often seeing news articles and dialogue relating to our own identity that can become exhausting and discouraging. Seeking out queer voices that spread affirming messages can be really helpful to sprinkle into our timelines. Media representation can also be incredibly impactful – such as shows like our aforementioned Queer Eye that focus not just on queer suffering and trauma but joy and triumph. This month, many streaming services are highlighting their catalogs of LGBTQ+ stories, which can make it a great time to start watching!

Practice self-compassion

Above all else, our queer identity is one piece of our whole self view. Whether it’s relating to sexuality and gender or to other aspects of ourselves, showing ourselves kindness and love can be integral to mental wellness. This is not something as simple as looking in the mirror and deciding you love yourself, unfortunately. Self-compassion is a muscle built up over time. It can start with regularly taking time to recognize your strengths and express gratitude to yourself for what you’re doing. It can be trying to speak to yourself the same way that you speak to friends. Whatever self-compassion might look like for you, make sure you’re especially being compassionate around the fact that it can take a lot of time and effort to build up a positive self view. 

Building a positive view of our identity can sometimes be an uphill battle. It’s important to remind ourselves that the process is a slow one, and that’s okay – it’s not about becoming a perfect beacon of queerhood for those around us, but rather growing at our own pace. Don’t forget that you’ve been exposed to a lot of these negative messages for years; it’s not something that’s just going to disappear overnight because you watched But I’m a Cheerleader or To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything – though, for pride month, it definitely doesn’t hurt to watch a classic or two. 

Resources & Continued Learning

The Queer and Transgender Resilience Workbook by Anneliese Singh

There Are Trans People Here by H. Melt

“Thirty Ways to Deal with Internalized Homophobia for LGBTQ People”

“Self Love Isn’t Easy: 10 Difficult Things I Do To Practice Radical Self Love” by Shannon Weber