June is Pride Month, and many of us are gearing up to celebrate, and also to remember the pioneers who got us where we are today. But what does “pride” mean to you? Is it something you feel to the deepest core of your being? Or is it still a personal goal you are working toward? Maybe you are still struggling to find it. If so, you’re not alone. In this article, I will examine the concept of internalized stigma, explore its causes and effects, and suggest some ways you can work to overcome it. Some of this information may be difficult to read about, and could even be triggering if your struggle has been particularly difficult. If that is the case, I’d advise skipping to the last section of this piece, “How to Overcome Internalized Stigma.”
What is Internalized Stigma?
Internalized stigma is a form of self-hatred experienced by individuals in marginalized communities who internalize society’s negative stereotypes and perceptions of those communities. For people in the LGBT community, it takes the form of internalized homophobia, bi-phobia, transphobia, etc.
Causes of Internalized Stigma in the LGBT Community
What causes an LGBT person to experience internalized stigma? A wide variety of experiences, including rejection by peers and family, bullying, messages from the media, religious intolerance, pathologizing by medical and mental health professionals, hate crimes, and criminalization.
For some of us, our earliest experiences with stigmatization involved our nuclear and extended family members. Maybe our siblings and cousins teased us for behaviors that didn’t conform to the hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine demands of the gender binary (e.g., “You throw like a girl,” or “It’s time to stop acting like a tomboy”). Maybe our parents expressed similar disapproval: “We’re not buying you this toy, and you can’t have anything else from the pink aisle.” Sometimes the disapproval was less overt. We learned to interpret our parents’ body language from very early on, and even disapproving looks tended to be loud and clear: “You shouldn’t be doing this/acting this way/embarrassing me like this, etc.”
You don’t have to tell most of us how cruel kids can be, especially during the middle school years, when subgroups and pecking orders begin to emerge. In second grade, everyone seemed to be equal, but by sixth grade, we learned that kids who “acted gay” were not accepted, and were fair game for any and all bullies. We knew we were different, so we did our best to comport ourselves in ways that wouldn’t end up getting us ostracized, but there were always a few kids who never seemed to be fooled, and who made it their mission to intimidate and humiliate us as often as possible. This went on for years for many of us, and over time we may have even said to ourselves: “You know what? They’re right. I am this awful thing they are saying.”
Those of us who grew up in religious families learned that our sexual orientation or gender identity was “sinful.” We heard that we were “an abomination in the eyes of the Lord,” and that we were destined for abandonment by God and eternal damnation in hell. And most of us in that situation believed it, to one degree or another. Especially if we were forced to participate in “prayer circles,” or to attend “pray the gay away” camps.
Until 1973, “homosexuality” was defined as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The same was true of “gender identity disorder” until 2013. For most of the history of psychiatry, LGBT people were looked upon as being mentally ill, and the unsuccessful “treatments” usually left us much worse off than before. And while the consensus of the broader medical and psychiatric communities has changed drastically over the years, there are still individual healthcare professionals who hold deeply hostile views against us, and that can be manifest by from denial of care in emergency rooms to outright physical abuse in nursing homes.
One of the more insidious causes of internalized stigma is mass media: television, movies, radio, etc. Most LGBT characters in films have been portrayed as mentally ill, objects of ridicule, destined to die young and tragically, or all of the above. We’ve been fair game for comedians for as long as we can remember, and we’ve heard every tired “gay joke” that’s ever been told.
We’ve been physically assaulted, and we’ve known countless friends who’ve gotten bashed. We’ve heard the stories of our brothers and sisters who have been murdered for being like us. And after the deep sorrow and rage we feel over these murders comes the sobering realization: “That could have been me.”
Some of us have been criminalized. Consensual gay sex between adults was not acknowledged as a constitutional right until 2003, and countless people were arrested and jailed over the years, even for appearing to be gay (holding hands in public sometimes resulted in arrests for “obstructing the sidewalk”). People living with HIV are still subject to worse criminal penalties than other people, and trans folks are still living in fear of being taken to jail simply for using the bathroom.
The Effects of Internalized Stigma on LGBT People
These experiences can potentially have effects in all areas of our lives: physical and mental health, family ties, social life, career, spirituality, romantic and sexual relationships, and even the most basic forms of self-expression. LGBT people are at greater risk for a variety of physical ailments, addictions, mental problems like depression and anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and attempts. Some of us become alienated from family members. We may conceal our sexual orientation and/or gender identity from colleagues at work (and in many places that fear is not irrational; it’s still legal in many places to fire someone for being LGBT). If we grew up belonging to anti-LGBT religious groups, we may now feel incapable of experiencing a healthy spiritual life. Our romantic and sexual relationships, already difficult enough if treated as “abnormal” by society, can become further damaged by fears of emotional and sexual intimacy. We may still find ourselves being self-conscious about the way we walk, talk, sit, stand, dance, etc., etc., etc., because “what if I seem too gay?”
How to Overcome Internalized Stigma
I realize that I may have thoroughly depressed you at this point, but that is not my intention. I believe that the only way to overcome a problem is to acknowledge that it exists, examine it, and then figure out the best way to get beyond it. Below are some suggestions on how you can work to overcome any lingering internalized stigma that you might be experiencing. Not every suggestion will work for everyone. It’s up to each of us to figure out our own path, but I hope some of this will be helpful to you.
Acknowledge and Plan: It may be useful to think about how some experiences from your past are influencing your thoughts and behaviors today. Some examples: Are you drinking that fifth cocktail because it tastes good, or because you still have trouble feeling comfortable in a bar with other LGBT people? Are you not mentioning your spouse or romantic partner because it’s not relevant to the conversation at hand, or are you shielding yourself from the possibility that the person you’re speaking with will judge you in a negative way, just like those kids in middle school did? Those are just a couple of possible examples; this will be different for everyone. The important point is to become conscious of the ways your self-perception may be affecting various areas of your life.
Once you’ve identified the areas you’re struggling with, form an action plan. Ask yourself, “What am I willing to do in order to be relieved of this pain?” Maybe it’s drinking less, overcoming the fear of intimacy, or just practicing self-acceptance (PSA: Your value as a human being has nothing to do with how you look. Let me repeat that: Your value as a human being has NOTHING to do with how you look.) Write down your long- and short-term goals and the steps you will take in order to meet each of them. Keep your written plan somewhere you will see it often: a bathroom mirror, your purse or wallet, your pocket, etc.
Find a group of supportive friends: What better way to overcome the effects of prejudice than to make friends with people who reject it? If the people you’re hanging out with now are bringing you down, it’s time to find some friends who will lift you up and cherish you for who you are. And when it comes to friends, quality always trumps quantity. It’s much better to have a couple of people you can count on than hordes of acquaintances who are nowhere to be found when you need them the most.
Identify your LGBT heroes: Too often, I hear LGBT people complaining about the negative things they perceive among one another. Finding the bad is incredibly easy, but it can ultimately make you feel out of place and more critical of your own identify as an LGBT person. I’ve found many of my greatest LGBT heroes by reading books by or about the people in our community who inspire me the most. One quote from Paul Monette’s Becoming a Man has been permanently carved in my mind: “When you finally come out, there’s a pain that stops, and you know it will never hurt like that again, no matter how much you lose or how bad you die.”
Come out: If you haven’t already done so, come out of the closet to the degree that you are able. Coming out isn’t something that just happens all at once for most people. It’s a journey, not an event. But people who aren’t out tend to have a lot more anxiety about their sexuality or gender identity than those who are. And the more people who come out, the greater the likelihood that future generations won’t have to struggle as much with doing so. Coming out is an act of heroism. If you have done it to any degree, please know that you are part of the reason we have come as far as we have, and that I and others are deeply grateful to you.
Read: One of the most helpful books for me, as a gay man, has been The Velvet Rage, by the psychologist, Alan Downs. But there are other great books that can help improve your sense of self-worth as an LGBT person, including Becoming Gayby Richard Isay, Coming Out of Shame by Gershon Kaufman and Lev Raphael, Making Gay History by Eric Marcus, and countless others.
Get involved: Become an advocate for yourself. It’s not over; we got marriage equality in 2015, but there are still many LGBT people who are being fired, losing their jobs and homes, and facing a variety of other major obstructions and challenges. You don’t have to spend every moment of your life working as an activist to make a difference. But you can make it a point to reach out and voice your opinion to political leaders by email or phone when bills are introduced that will affect our community. You can also make a big difference for yourself and others by volunteering for organizations that support our community.
Find a therapist: If you find yourself struggling with your mental health, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. The important thing is that you find a licensed professional who is either a member of the LGBT community or well-versed in LGBT issues.Ask around for recommendations, or find a listing of LGBT-friendly therapists. NOAGE will soon have a resource guide that includes some of them, but the Louisiana Trans Advocates website has a very helpful list of referrals. Check that out at www.latransadvocates.org/resources.
I’d love to hear from you. If you have other suggestions for people who are struggling with internalized stigma, or if you need help finding a therapist who works with LGBT people, you can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.