Others’ opinions can impact our lives, whether we want them to or not. However, the opinions we hold about ourselves can also cut deep – whether we’re conscious of them or not. Indeed, when questioning your sexuality, acceptance from others isn’t the only hurdle. Countless young people struggle with internalized homophobia, which can make self-acceptance feel just as unattainable.

I remember when I first began questioning my own sexuality, halfway through my freshman year of high school. When you’re that young, you want nothing more than acceptance from your peers, and it’s scary to wonder whether they’d accept a “new” you.

Realizing that I had romantic feelings for a girl – that I was bisexual – terrified me. Admitting it to others scared me, as I felt this would change others’ perceptions about me permanently. So, I also found it difficult to admit my identity to myself.

Even though I’d always considered myself a vocal ally, for some reason I felt different about my own identity. I felt like there was something wrong with me. It took an enormous toll on my self-esteem and mental health, and I didn’t learn why until years later.

To be more specific: I didn’t learn why I felt this way, until I learned about internalized homophobia.

What is internalized homophobia?

Internalized homophobia results from an implicit belief that anything other than heterosexuality is somehow wrong. Because society treats heterosexual relationships as “normal,” anything else is implied to be “abnormal.” This heteronormativity can be absorbed and directed negatively toward oneself. That’s internalized homophobia.

We all have some level of internalized homophobia due to the heteronormativity present in pop culture and our society – in fact, the world as a whole. Society constantly perpetuates negative associations with the LGBTQ+ community. This stigma feels “othering” at best, earth-shattering at worst. And when you’ve been exposed to these ideas from birth, it’s hard not to subconsciously believe them.

Internalized homophobia can be conscious or unconscious, and it can impact anyone’s view of themselves. However, internalized homophobia creates special difficulty within those who already struggle with their identity. It can cause a person to react negatively to themselves, and to believe that something is wrong with them.

What does internalized homophobia look like?

Some may get hung up on the second word of ‘internalized homophobia.’ When you think of “homophobia,” you might wonder how it could exist internally within someone who’s not straight.

However, the first word is far more important – internalized.

In many cases, those who struggle with internalized homophobia keep it to themselves. Those negative feelings remain directed at their own identity and self-esteem.

These feelings can manifest in many different ways, such as being unwilling to admit or even acknowledge one’s sexuality (especially publicly), being ashamed of one’s identity, and feeling the need to act heterosexual. I personally struggled with all of these.

Peers and identity

Simple heteronormativity can cause internalized homophobia. However, more nuanced causes also exist.

Teenagers in particular worry a lot about fitting in with their peers. Compounding that worry, many LGBTQ+ people begin questioning in their teenage years. It’s reasonable, then, that they would hide their identity, for fear of being bullied or discriminated against.

Even as our society and country move toward acceptance of people who don’t identify as cisgender and heterosexual, we hardly live in a perfect world. Some people will always belittle those that differ from them. Due to that reality, young people will almost always associate coming out with fear. 

Religion and identity

It’s easy to feel like you need to lie about your identity to feel safe. Especially for those who grow up in an environment where they know their identity wouldn’t be supported, it can feel safer to hide it – even from themselves. But this impulse encourages denial of our feelings and solidifies internalized homophobia.

LGBTQ+ young people who grow up in religiously conservative environments are more likely to experience internalized homophobia. So are those who lack exposure to any non-heterosexual identities as a kid, whether through people in their life or mainstream media.

Mental health and LGBTQ+ youth

Internalized homophobia, by its very nature, causes extreme harm to LGBTQ+ youth mental health. They internalize society’s negative perceptions of the LGBTQ+ community. Their mental health and self esteem both take a severe downturn as a result.

How does this happen?

Since LGBTQ+ young people spend a lot of time surrounded by their peers at school, they may experience bullying or other negative treatment as a result of their identity. They may also see it happen to other students.

Research has found that this type of negative treatment can lead to chronic emotional stress in LGBTQ+ youth. Internalized homophobia results from this type of negative treatment, too.

In this study, 33.7% of LGBTQ+ high school students in Boston reported experiencing perceived discrimination, while only 4.3% of their heterosexual peers did. Signs of depression were also more common in LGBTQ+ students.

The impact

LGBTQ+ young adults are more than twice as likely to suffer from depression. In addition, the community as a whole uses mental health services more than twice as often.

Anxiety, high levels of stress, and strained personal relationships — particularly in a romantic sense — are also common.

Risk of suicide increases dramatically for LGBTQ+ youth. Internalized homophobia contributes to this, and so it must be eradicated.

People struggling with internalized homophobia may avoid coming to terms with their identity and avoid coming out. This has its own negative effect on mental health.

Anticipating the internalized homophobia of society

Kiersten Busch, a rising junior at Franklin & Marshall College, stated that while she didn’t become depressed as a result of questioning her sexuality, it did definitely still take a toll on her mental health because she questioned her entire identity.

“I was afraid of what the reaction would be from people outside of my close friends,” Busch said. “Everybody that I was close with and everybody that I knew supported me, but it was the people on the outside [that I was concerned about]. Obviously they say you never stop coming out once you come out, and… facts. Because that is the damn truth.”

She described coming to terms with her identity as an internal struggle. She said that she wouldn’t call what she experienced internalized homophobia, but it was still really difficult.

“I don’t know if I was ashamed of myself,” Busch said. “I was just afraid to be truthful, is the way I would put it.”

Kiersten accepted herself, but she still struggled with the fact that society as a whole would not accept her.

Taking action: shut down internalized homophobia

So, how can we work toward eliminating internalized homophobia from our society? How do we prevent both ourselves and our allies from falling prey to the beliefs that reinforce heterosexuality as the only acceptable identity?

Gen Z has already made so much progress. A survey performed earlier this year revealed that 1 in 6 Gen Z adults identify as LGBTQ+, and that number only continues to rise as with increasing acceptance.

Data has also found that LGBTQ+ members of Gen Z are significantly more politically active than their cisgender, heterosexual peers.

I believe we will only continue to pave the way in the future as we become adults and bring a new generation into the world, one that will be even more accepting than we already are – learning from and improving upon the past as we have done.

But knowing that the world will, hopefully, continue to slowly evolve is not enough. LGBTQ+ young people suffer now, and we could avoid some of the devastating repercussions that they face as a result of internalized homophobia with taking action.

Things may change eventually, but what can you do now?

If you’re struggling with internalized homophobia, make sure that you give yourself time to accept yourself before you come out to anyone else. It can be difficult not to let the negative way in which society views LGBTQ+ people affect your own view of yourself.

It’s okay to take a while to come to terms with your identity, and it’s okay to talk to people you trust and love about it before you “come out.”

Having a good support system is incredibly crucial for anyone who’s struggling with mental health. Internalized homophobia is no different. Even if you don’t want to talk about why you’re struggling, never hesitate to let others know that you are.

“I’ve been feeling down lately, but I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about it.” Say something that brings up your mental health without getting into specifics and establishing that you aren’t comfortable doing so yet.

And if you don’t feel comfortable opening up to anyone in your life, you can look into the resources available for you, both online and in person. Supportiv provides an anonymous peer support chat, 24/7, on-demand.

Consider speaking to a mental health professional, too, if you want to keep what’s causing your negative mental health a secret from those you know.

Those around you may not understand, but there’s no shame in needing help.

Put things in perspective

If you’ve never questioned your sexuality or gender identity before, considering what mental health issues you do know about may help you understand.

Laura Stravach, Business Manager of the Rainbow Alliance, a student organization at the University of Pittsburgh, pointed this out. The Rainbow Alliance works hard to create a safe space for the college’s LGBTQ+ community.

“A lot of LGBTQ+ mental health struggles are very similar to others, like with body image, but then in the context of maybe being transgender or something like that,” Laura said. “It can be different when you put it an LGBTQ+ context, but it’s still the same, it still can be relatable.”

Laura has struggled with internalized homophobia personally in the past, and they believe that the most important thing to focus on in the future is educating youth about LGBTQ+ issues early on.

Supporting an LGBTQ+ loved one, despite internalized homophobia

Many young people face internalized homophobia when struggling to figure out their identities, but it shouldn’t only be their problem. Most people in the world know someone in the LGBTQ+ community. Even if you don’t, it’s always important to learn about the world that exists outside of your experiences.

If you want to help a loved one who may be struggling with internalized homophobia, or is even just struggling with their sexuality or identity in general, remember to provide clear, unconditional support. 

Let your loved one know that you’re always there for them, and provide a listening ear if they want to talk things out. Ask questions to show that you care and want to learn. If you approach them with a genuine want to understand, they’re more likely to open up.

Educate yourself on the LGBTQ+ community, the diverse spectrum within it and the challenges that those individuals face, not just internalized homophobia. By doing this and staying informed, you can stay mindful of how your behavior affects others. If LGBTQ+ people are the only ones that know the struggles they’ve faced, then a solution is impossible.

You can help the world move on from harmful, heteronormative beliefs. On a smaller and perhaps more important scale, you can also help your loved one with whatever they’re going through. Hurdles to their wellbeing may include internalized homophobia or some other mental health issue related to their identity.

A personal parting note

When I began questioning my sexuality, it scared me to consider what others would think of me. It scared me to think about my own gut reactions to my own identity.

I fought the battle of internalized homophobia in my own head until I realized that I wasn’t alone, a revelation that allowed me to accept myself.

If we make sure that more people know that there’s always someone who understands, then maybe less people will have to struggle with internalized homophobia in the first place.

This article is part of Supportiv’s Amplify article collection.