Conscious or not, internalized homophobia is an obstacle that every queer couple should address.

It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s all too true: homophobia is common within the LGBTQ community. While every queer person’s journey is unique, living in a heteronormative world that can be overtly or covertly homophobic sends harmful messages that you’re unwelcome and unwanted. And while the LGBTQ community does its best to ignore or protest homophobic sentiment, we can easily internalize it — and ultimately allow it to dictate what we understand as desirable and acceptable. This in turn causes us to harbor feelings of homophobic shame that we carry through life, and often into our relationships.

“If you’re a queer person watching TV or movies, or even just looking at advertisements, there are so many unconscious signals about what’s valid, what’s not, and what romance should look like,” says Lighthouse provider Dr. Eric Yarbrough, an LGBTQ-affirming psychiatrist. “It’s impossible to avoid dealing with some level of internalized homophobia in our relationships.”

We sat down with Dr. Yarbrough to discuss how internalized homophobia affects different types of relationships within the LGBTQ community, and what we can do to overcome it.

Internalized Homophobia In Romantic Relationships

Every relationship will have problems — it’s a fact of life. But internalized homophobia adds a variable to queer relationships that can complicate even the most common relationship challenges.

To illustrate this, Dr. Yarbrough describes two hypothetical couples experiencing relationship issues: one is heterosexual and the other is queer. In the heterosexual relationship, the couple may rationalize rough patches as rites of passage that everyone faces, an inevitable part of cultivating, navigating, and sustaining an intimacy that can be strengthened through hard work and improved communication from each partner. This isn’t meant to oversimplify hetereosexual relationships — it’s simply pointing out that, for heterosexual couples, there is often a roadmap in place for how to address and deal with relationship issues. This roadmap has been provided by family, friends, and through media like television and movies.

For the queer couple, however, internalized homophobia adds another piece to the puzzle. Each partner brings along their own personality, quirks, and emotional baggage — just like the heterosexual couple. But feelings of shame, doubt, and alienation — courtesy of a society that still categorizes queerness as otherness — likely affect each partner in a unique way. This can drive a wedge between them, requiring partners to simultaneously manage and ideally overcome their own deep-seated, internalized homophobia while making sure they’re still meaningfully contributing to the relationship. Where the heterosexual couple may chalk up problems to their unique dynamic or personality mismatch, the queer couple may be forced to wonder whether their intimacy is inherently and irreparably flawed because, as members of the LGBTQ community, their love is deemed less valid, less real, and less deserved. When trying to untangle a relationship that’s in trouble, this can be the nail in the coffin for an otherwise healthy partnership that doesn’t necessarily need to end.

Internalized Homophobia In LGBTQ Families

The emotional labor of caring for and worrying about children can be exhausting for couples and result in strain on the relationship. In a queer family — that is, a family with one or more LGBTQ parents — feelings of illegitimacy or self-doubt can become especially pernicious if a child is struggling.

For example, if a child has behavioral or academic difficulties, it’s common for queer parents to attribute any shortcomings to the “non-traditional” family life into which they’ve brought their child. Despite increasing acceptance of LGBTQ families — not to mention research that shows queer parents may in fact raise more successful children than straight parents — our culture still considers heterosexual, nuclear families to be the gold standard. As an LGBTQ parent, it can be hard to face the challenges of raising children without wondering whether your queerness is robbing them of a “normal” childhood. Plus, with perfectionism plaguing the gay community, LGBTQ parents may inherently hold themselves to a higher standard of parenting in an attempt to counteract the potential stigma of growing up in a LGBTQ family.

Read More: 6 Strengths Unique to the LGBTQ Community

Horizontal Oppression and Intercommunity Divisions

Internalized homophobia examples can manifest in countless different ways between romantic partners, friends, and family members. But one of the most surprising — and damaging — ways in which can appear is between different subsets of the queer community itself.

“Something I’ve noticed in many therapy sessions is the overcompensation that takes place because of internalized homophobia,” says Dr. Yarbrough. “People in the community may try to overcompensate for feelings of inadequacy or abnormality by trying to fit a very perfectionist, heteronormative mold. If another queer person comes along and doesn’t fit into that mold, they’re usually attacked or shunned.”

This plays out most obviously on apps where users might specify discriminatory preferences like “no fats or femmes,” or even explicitly state their disinterest in a certain racial group. If anything that could be considered a ‘flaw’ is present, then the person is ignored. As a result, divisions between different queer groups become deeper. “If people don’t fit into a certain category, or are made to feel less-than, it makes sense that they would distance themselves from the group that’s making them feel that way,” says Dr. Yarbrough. “Instead of embracing diversity, we’re just reinforcing what divides us — and we don’t even realize we’re doing it.”

What Can We Do About It?

Try as we might, we can’t just erase internalized homophobia. What we can do is examine it, understand it, and address the impact it may be having on our lives. The first step toward doing so, says Dr. Yarbrough, is finding a mental healthcare provider who can help you identify it. “Whether they’re queer or otherwise, clinicians need to be aware of their own internalized homophobia and transphobia. If they’re not aware of it, they won’t be able to pick it up it in their patient,” he says.

LGBTQ-friendly healthcare professionals are trained to help patients navigate feelings of rejection and alienation that stem from and feed into internalized homophobia. With the right support, we can get that much closer to strengthening our community, deepening our relationships, and becoming more comfortable in our own identities.

Head over to Lighthouse to find an LGBTQ-affirming provider in your area.

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