The words stung even though they weren’t directed at me. They stung even though they were only in a Facebook post about someone I did not know, existing only in ones and zeros. They stung even though the person who typed those ones and zeros has never been anything but really nice to me, and again, they were not directed at me.
But, you know what? Everything’s about me. The words stung.
The post’s author noted that he got blocked on Facebook a lot by “old white men suffering from much internalized homophobia.”
And then someone replied, “So no real loss.”
Ouch. Those couple of phrases divorced themselves from the larger context of the thread, which, again, had nothing to do with me. The second those words hit my optic nerve, my brain separated them out and transmogrified them into a Broadway marquee dripping with flashing, chasing incandescent bulbs. How could I not? I may not be sure of a lot of things about myself, but one thing I do know is that I AM AN OLD WHITE GUY SUFFERING FROM MUCH INTERNALIZED HOMOPHOBIA.
At first, I tried to slough it off. It’s just ones and zeros. That didn’t work; still lodged in my brain. Then I tried to laugh along with it. I typed back something to the effect of “I’m a quivering, sentient mass of internalized homophobia, and I still like ya.” Ha ha… way to internalize a comment about internalization, Chris!
Nope, still stings. Then I decided to really use my words and write about it. After all, I’ve been blocked lately and was looking for something to cattle prod the muse. I thought about latching on to the word “old,” focusing on the all-too-typical and typically boring ageism rampant among the homosexual element. Everyone two or more years older than you is “old,” and everyone two or more years younger than you is “a baby.” I could go full Gen-X Cranky on it with something along the lines of a listicle titled “Eight Ways Millennials are Ruining Internalized Homophobia.”
That still didn’t scratch that itch because the ageism really didn’t trigger me. One gets inured to it. Turn, turn, turn. Sands through the hourglass. Blah blah blah. No, it was the phrase “internalized homophobia” and the way it was just tossed off like a random salad.
The seventh time typing “internalized homophobia” seems a good place to throw a bone to the uninitiated/straight and paste in the first sentence from the Wikipedia entry about internalized homophobia: “Internalized homophobia refers to negative stereotypes, beliefs, stigma, and prejudice about homosexuality and LGBT people that a person with same-sex attraction turns inward on themselves.” There. Now you know. Internalized homophobia really sucks.
Every “Hey, faggot!”
Every punch and bruise.
Every “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
They stuck to my Mobius Strip of a brain, multiplied, and bent me into some serious self-loathing, which bent into some serious self-harm.
I’m still un-bending and trying.
To see “internalized homophobia” just hanging there with no context, practically a slur, hurt. Remember kids, good and woke gays shun the internally homophobed. You might as well start sewing a scarlet “I” onto your chest, but make it a crappier, clashier color. What’s the opposite of pink? That’s the message I’m running with from those few words.
“Internalized homophobia” as a slur has dogged me since my earliest days of being an official homosexual. It was 2000, I was 33, and had just broken up with my fiancée because of the gay. I was a mess, and no books I read about coming out really catered to me. They seemed aimed squarely at teens. What was I supposed to do with “Join the LBGT group at your school”? I was 33, and coming out at 33 is vastly different than coming out at 18 or 19 or 13. I felt I needed something a little more individual and hands-on, so I joined an 8-week “Coming Out Discussion Group” at the local Austin LGBT counseling concern.
At the first meeting I was relieved to see that I was pretty much smack dabs in the middle of the age range. Better yet, everyone’s experience seemed to be different. There was the church organist from a small town in the Hill Country. There were the two dudes who discovered their mutual attraction after visiting strip clubs together for years. There was the guy with the scratchy voice and the scar on his neck. Myself, I had just spent six months in a mental hospital in Massachusetts being ripped apart by shame.
Then there was, let’s call him Brad.
Brad was a big, brassy, Skittle-farting sparkly unicorn of a queen. Where the rest of us mumbled and looked at the floor, Brad Z-snapped and made eye contact. Eye contact! You don’t make eye contact in the closet. Bless his heart, but Brad didn’t strike me as anyone who ever hid anything. He was the president of the gay and lesbian alliance at Austin’s IBM facility. It was on his business card.
The more Brad spoke, the more it became apparent his presence in this room had more to do with him being a support-group junkie than him needing to come out. First of all, facilitator welcomed him back. He knew all the lingo, flinging around words like “actualize” and “enabler” like Rip Taylor flings confetti. And when we talked about who it would be the hardest to come out to, we shared our anguish about parents and children and wives. Brad’s difficulty centered around coming out as gay to “new people.” He had already come out his friends, family, and, obviously, co-workers. “I just don’t know when to broach the subject,” said the guy with a business card declaring himself president of the gays.
And the lesbians.
I’m awful at having my face hide disbelief and mild contempt. Upon seeing me, Brad shot back, “Coming out is a process!”
Still, I attended group, committing to “doing the work.” (See, I can toss around the lingo, too.) About the third or fourth week in, the subject of drag queens came up. It got around to me, and I looked at the carpet and mumbled something along the lines about not particularly liking drag queens. Before I could elaborate, Brad swung his body and his seat towards me in two separate, distinct motions. He wagged his finger. “That’s internalized homophobia!” he growled. Then he looked over to the facilitator, seeking approval for using some lingo that I certainly had never heard before. “That’s just internalized homophobia, right?”
The facilitator nodded. And we moved on to the guy with the neck scar, leaving me to wrestle with the moniker alone. You drop a three-dollar phrase like “internalized homophobia” on me without even explaining what the term means? And you precede it with the modifier “just” to signify that it is beneath notice, something not worth discussing. From there, it’s a few twists of the Mobius Strip to get to “Fuck you, Chris. You don’t matter. Why don’t you go back to muttering to the closet-floor carpet, bad gay?”
Perhaps, if what I had muttered was soooo bad, we should have spent a moment or two exploring my attitude towards drag. I’m sure it could’ve come in handy seventeen years later, now that I live in Columbus, a city in which every single gay bar features a drag show. There are around fifteen gay bars in Columbus. Do you have any idea what a fifteenth-string drag show is like? Trust me, it’s not quality entertainment. At that level, far below competent lip-syncing and make-up skills, all that’s left is a general unpleasantness consisting of othering people for “humor” and saying “bitch”* seventeen times in a row.
*(Seriously dude, cut the misogynistic crap.)
Had the group bothered to explore, they could have found out that my antipathy was not directed at all drag performers. Rather, it was (and is) towards those whose act consists of primarily singling out people for derision. I would love to walk in on a drag show in progress and not be body-shamed. “Hey, bitches! There’s a bear here. Hide the mayonnaise.” I’ve have been reduced to tears on more than a few occasions by nasty performers. Lip-sync your heart out, but leave me out of it. Especially if your material is hackneyed crap. You’re nothing more than a bully who tucks.
But that is all superficial. I wish I had had the wherewithal to press the issue in that group, but I sensed that “internalized homophobia” was meant to silence me. So, I’ve had to grapple with the secret shame of not liking drag for years. Admit it dear reader, you now sort of hate me because I dared speak ill of drag. I’m working on it, and I hope one day I’ll be able to sit through a drag performance or yet another post about “RuPaul’s Drag Race” without stiffening and waiting to be triggered.
And then waiting to be shamed for being triggered.
But, on a positive note, the Facebook comment that set off this whole essay forced me to grapple some more with the roots of my particular brand of internalized homophobia. It’s not that I’m triggered specifically by gender-fluid performances. I am triggered by the bullying. It brings me back to middle school and high school. Being bullied, being belittled, being beaten: These were the only ways I could get the popular boys to pay attention to me.
And to have a performer bully me when I’m in a supposedly safe space like a gay bar, and to have the crowd heartily guffaw along with her and stare at me waiting for a reaction, brings me back to those days when I would get off the school bus and break down sobbing. I can’t even bring myself to look at the stage because all I see are former bullies. Except they’re in a dress and platform heels. And that’s a psycho-sexual bouillabaisse I’d rather not pay a cover charge to sample.
So that’s my internalized homophobia. It’s not pretty. It’s nothing I’m proud of. But it’s there, and if I hide it, it just becomes even more internalized. Super-internalized super-homophobia. If you come across me, and I’m doing or saying something that you think smacks of internalized homophobia, by all means confront me. Don’t let it slide. I need your help to get over it.
Don’t just dismiss it by just stamping me with “internalized homophobia” and moving on to something easier and shinier. Dismissing internalized homophobia is negating my experience and forcing me to construct a tiny closet in which to hide parts of me that the community finds unacceptable. No one anywhere had an ideal coming out experience, and anyone who tells you otherwise needs to be challenged on that. The closet and coming out of it leaves scars that we constantly are working around. A wise man once said, “Coming out is a process.”
When you see someone openly grappling with their internalized homophobia or engaging in behavior that smacks of internalized homophobia, it is your responsibility to call them on it and then, here’s the hard part, help them get over it.
Don’t dismiss internalized homophobia. Don’t let it become a slur we hurl at each other when we’re frustrated.