think piece

Navigating My Sexuality & Internalised Homophobia

This year has been a lot. For everyone. For me personally, and I’m sure for many millions of people, it has been a time that has encouraged reflection. Although I have always been a naturally introspective person—often to a fault—with all this empty time to fill I have found myself engaged more deeply in my own contemplation than, perhaps, ever before. Rumination has, in fact, been the main theme of my 2020 (alongside general despair at the world and everyone in it). And it has led me to a few quite poignant revelations, specifically on both my racial identity and race in general—initially provoked by the George Floyd murder and subsequent international race protests—and, maybe even more intensely, my sexual identity, which is what I’ll be discussing in this piece. I’ll likely write about my racial identity, racial experiences and thoughts on race/racism in general in another piece, when I have my thoughts together more cohesively and don’t feel quite so infuriated. So, for now, let’s delve into my sexual shame. Strap in (or on); this’ll be a long one.

For as I long as I’ve felt any kind of attraction, which, like almost everyone else, developed at around the age of 4-5, I have been attracted to people of my own gender. The first woman I ever had a crush on—my first crush at all, in fact—was the narrator from Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Little me thought she was remarkably beautiful. Yes, there was her adorable blonde pixie cut and the way she moved her hips (dearie me) but I’d say it was her confidence that really got me. Looking back, I think one of the reasons I watched that movie so often as a child wasn’t only because of the costumes, the characters, and the catchy songs which appealed to my inner musical theatre nerd, but, perhaps primarily, because of her. Although I didn’t begin to develop crushes on the girls in my real life until later, I still remember how beautiful I found women. Being the age I was, it wasn’t yet a sexual attraction but more of budding admiration. Honestly, I didn’t think too much of it at the time, when I was very young, probably because I didn’t register it for what it was. Besides, my struggles with being biracial and my ever-deepening depression took precedent over those I had with my sexuality for most of my childhood, though it was always in the background.

Growing up in a Christian family, albeit not one so strictly religious that you are susceptible to intense indoctrination, there was a definite underlying expectation to be a certain way. Or, more accurately, to not be a certain way. And being gay was one of those ways not to be. Growing up, perhaps from being raised in a female-only household, I am privileged to have never felt disempowerment in regard to being a girl or woman; I never felt there was anything I couldn’t do simply because I happened to be female. But when it came to sexuality, though it was a mostly unspoken topic, there was an expectation that I would grow into a woman who would want to be with men, and only men. It wasn’t stressed with such vitriol as it is in some Christian families, but it was true that, ultimately, homosexuality in my family—my immediate family and the maternal side of my larger family—was seen as something “wrong”, something to hide, something to be embarrassed or even ashamed of. While I know it is purely speculative, I nonetheless whole-heartedly believe there are two people in my larger family who are gay. I believe they have been hiding it, and guess I can’t speak to the specifics of their reasoning, as while fear is the common denominator, what someone is exactly fearful of differs from person to person.

I remember being told by the person who raised me that if she found out I was gay she would “disown” me. By this time, I was in my teen years and was fully aware of the fact I was not straight, so hearing this was quite disconcerting. Maybe a year or so later, this same person found me out after reading my diary, in which I had written—badly—about a girl I had feelings for at the time. Like many young teenagers, straight, bisexual or gay, who first experience infatuation, I had mistaken it for love. (I experienced a few big crushes on girls around that time, all of which were unrequited.) Though the earlier message turned out not to be prophetic – the person did not disown me, she did, however, express her deep disapproval, and tell me that I had to choose between men and women; that I couldn’t like both. At the time this confused me, and still confuses me, though I think she was hoping that I would say I would choose men, which was never going to happen. Being the defiant person I always have been, I refused to “choose” (which is only funny in hindsight; at the time it was infuriating, not to mention a classic case of biphobia) and the tension between us grew evermore taut.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to come across as if my experiences with homophobia have been utterly traumatic or disastrous to my own health and well-being, as I don’t believe that’s my cross to bear. To this day there are people, often underage, being thrown out of their homes after being discovered to be homosexual or bisexual, and millions who have experienced violence because of their sexual orientation, and I don’t want to compare or lump my experiences in with theirs. The homophobia I have experienced, from childhood to the present day, has been much more subtle (similarly to many of my experiences with racism as a biracial person) but nonetheless, in hindsight, affecting. That being said, I have never been one to believe in something for the mere fact that it’s what I’m being told or what most people believe. I’m grateful then that, at least in my conscious brain, growing up amongst underlying, and sometimes, when the subject was breached, blatant homophobia, it was never something that I fully bought into, the idea that being gay was an inherently bad thing. I want to stress that this was always the belief of my conscious brain; the story with my subconscious, I have since come to realise, is quite different. It is only this year, maybe even only in the past few months, that I have recognised the existence and extent of my internalised homophobia, which I will discuss further in this article. Any critical thinking I employed to prevent homophobia from penetrating into my conscious beliefs did not, regardless, lessen its inevitable blight on my subconscious feelings and my life going forward.

. . .

I came out as bisexual when I was 13. My coming out story, like a lot of post-millennium coming out stories, was entirely uneventful, much less a story than just a conversation. Even less than that, maybe. Believe it or not, I had never heard the term for what I felt before, and when one of my friends brought up the term “bisexual”, I merely replied, “Oh, that’s what I am then.” I think she just replied “okay,” and we went on with whatever we’d been doing or talking about a moment ago. And at the time it’s what I truly believed, that I was one born rooting for both teams, with my feet in both camps and a door that swung both ways.

There was no denying my attraction to women—going to an all-girls senior school didn’t help—but I still felt I had an attraction towards men. Though for the most part they were often shorter and less consuming than my female crushes, I did have crushes on boys, one of which was significant. For a short while I had a boyfriend even, which I did not enjoy. Skipping ahead a few years, I was for a time in a problematic situationship with a 22-year-old guy, and I remember our first kiss with vivid clarity. Not for the reason most people remember a first kiss, because fireworks went off, but because it was memorably bad… Bad’s not even the right word. I just remember feeling this overwhelming nothingness, an almost guttural disillusionment, and the feelings I thought I’d had for him vanished within an instant. I can also remember feeling a lot of underlying jealousy towards heterosexual/bisexual boys, to the point where I brought into question my own gender identity. It’s obvious to me now, recalling some of my quite embarrassing drunken speeches at house parties, that I was jealous of the fact that boys could openly express their attraction to girls, and to their girlfriends. I was jealous that they had girlfriends. This manifested into a temporary desire to be a boy; though in my case it legitimately was a phase (I’m very secure in my gender identity and have been for a long time), I think it speaks volumes to how much internalised shame I had about being a girl who wanted to be with other girls.

Thankfully, I grew up in the I-kissed-a-girl-and-I-liked-it era, and there was little homophobia amongst my specific peer group; being gay was mostly regarded as just another way to be. If anything, bisexuality as a way to be was seen as something cool and interesting of its own accord, almost like the desired sexual orientation. In the friendship group I had at one time, about 1/3 of the people in it identified as bisexual, with about 1/2 of the girls identifying as bisexual. That’s not to invalidate bisexuality but instead to say, an opinion echoed in Dan Howell’s coming out video, coming out as bisexual in the late 2000s/early 2010s was much less of a social risk than coming out as gay. When I moved on to college, the atmosphere wasn’t any less accepting of the LGBT community. There was even an after-college club for those in the LGBT community (which I went to one session of and then never went again). Although I hated the experience of sixth form college with all my heart on the basis of my own loneliness and solitude, there is absolutely nothing I could say about any degree of anti-gay rhetoric. It was all very alternative, very liberal. The same goes for my experience at University. So where was my gayness in all this? Where was my desire to be with women, to enact my natural attraction for women, to be truly myself within all of these environments where it would have only, as far as I’m aware, been accepted, or even encouraged?

There is a misconception, I believe, that minority people will have little reason to feel disenfranchised if they are currently in an environment where the majority accepts them. It’s a misconception that I myself bought into, but it’s ultimately dismissive. It’s our culture’s way of blaming the disadvantaged and telling them they should be happy with the bare minimum; that if they are still dissatisfied with their own treatment it is their own issue, or the fault of a mere victim mentality. (I actually think victim mentalities are very real but should be brought up in order to open an empathic discussion, not to close one.) But the sad reality is that once you’ve learned to think badly of an unalterable part of yourself, even if you don’t even realise it, that will continue to affect you regardless of the current environment you are in. That is to say, for example, if you have grown up amongst racist ideologies which affected you, even if you reject and disagree with those ideologies on a surface level and have since immersed yourself in diverse environments, chances are that those negative ideologies are still affecting you.

Unconscious biases happen to both the marginalised group and of those outside of it. It is entirely possible (and common) to, on the outside, seem entirely accepting of yourself or a certain group and adamantly protest against your/their negative treatment, whilst also experiencing subconscious bias and prejudice, which sometimes pop up into your conscious as unwanted and unwarranted thoughts or quick comments which surprise you as soon as you’ve said them. It’s like biting into the ripest, sweetest apple only to find something rotten inside – entirely unexpected. Until you recognise and accept that you have an unconscious bias or an internalised prejudice, especially when it goes against what you actually believe (which it often will), it can be very hard to dismantle. This is why so many gay people who have experienced homophobia and then go on to finally accept themselves as they are may still struggle with unreasonable feelings of shame and guilt. This is why many black and biracial people may learn to shrink themselves and their “blackness”/“biracial-ness” and may not even realise at the time that they are doing it, as it ingrained in them that their ethnicity is an inherent inferiority.

Internalised homophobia is, of course, not some new concept. Alongside the population’s general ignorance and non-acceptance, it is something that caused so many gays of earlier generations to enter into heterosexual marriages and live lives that were completely incongruous with their innate nature. Even those who would otherwise have fully accepted themselves couldn’t act on their romance, as to do so would often be dangerous, even life-threatening, to be found out to be a human who loved harmlessly, but just differently. To not be able to live how you are and be who you are is a struggle that straight people, at least on the basis of their sexuality, have never had to suffer. They will never have to experience the unreasonable shame that you can be made to feel by something as simple and innocuous as holding your partner’s hand in public (with interracial heterosexual couples being the exception). It should be a basic human right, and yet it was and still is denied to so many. There is a reason why Gay Conversion Camps don’t work, and that’s because being gay isn’t something you can choose or lose, nor something you can “pray away”.

. . .

Even when I began identifying as bisexual, I always knew that my attraction to women was greater than that of my attraction to men. Although bisexuality is infinitely more complex than a percentage split, speaking as an ex-bisexual (spoiler alert), you may hear a bisexual describe the intensity of their male/female attraction in terms of percentages. It’s a simplified way of describing which gender you are more attracted to—if you are attracted to one over the other—and to what degree. Mine started as something like a 40%/60% split, that being a 40% attraction to men and 60% to women, and the numbers would only grow further apart as the years went on – 35%/65% then 30%/70% then 25%/75% (I think this was just as much a case of me becoming more accepting off my gayness through time, as I don’t think my attraction to men was ever close to being equal to my attraction to women).

And yet for the next few years I would continually find myself in the throes of heterosexual dating, with no exception. Men, men, men. A few of my experiences with dating men were not only bad but, I would go as far as to say, mildly traumatic. As much I tried to force it, I was entirely incapable of developing any kind of connection past the physical or surface-level with any of them. Again, not to overdramatize things – the actual men themselves were pretty benign and decent, it’s more that the experiences of being with any man in a romantic or sexual capacity was not good for my spirit. It very negatively affected my emotional and spiritual health, I believe now because I was living against my intrinsic nature, which I believe one can only do for so long. That being said, it wasn’t all bad. As mentioned, they were okay guys and I had a few good dates and got a few interesting stories out of my experiences. One guy in particular meant quite a lot to me in the year when we were in each other’s lives. It was not a relationship; more an intense friendship, and not a healthy one. But I really liked him as a person.

Looking back, believing myself bisexual at the time—and therefore having “options”—I was trying so so hard to essentially dismiss the gay side of myself. I see now that I desperately wanted to enter into a relationship with a man, not because I actually wanted to be with a man, but because if I entered a heterosexual relationship then I could continue to label myself a bisexual, and thus appeal to my ostensible “self-acceptance”, while simultaneously not having to act on my attraction to women because I’d be in a committed relationship with a man. Again, to stress, this wasn’t a calculated or even conscious approach I was utilising; I’m sure if you’d ask me at the time, I would’ve said that I was just fed up of being single. And that was even true. But, having reflected on it a lot, there is no doubt in my mind that the reason I kept dating men exclusively was because I was actively avoiding my gayness. I would be on Tinder and, despite finding the women significantly more attractive and swiping on about 1 in every 10 girls, 1 in every 50 guys, I would only reply to men. I think this was also due to the impact of living in a society which tells all women that their ability to be found attractive by men is one of the most important things about them. I wanted to be validated by men; I thought that meant something. It doesn’t.

I also think I was unconsciously living out what I had been told once my sexuality had been exposed years ago, something that is often preached by the modern Christian community as a kind of faux-empathy or -acceptance, which is that while you may not choose to be gay (and let’s be honest, they rarely concede that), you can choose not to act on it. That is to say, the “sin” is to act on it. So I hadn’t. (This is a sentiment reflected in the highly-rated Christian book ‘Gay Girl, Good God’ in which a “former” lesbian explains that her same-sex attraction, while she admits it felt natural and not something she could necessarily control, was a temptation, and acting on it was to sin and give in to the Devil. Through God, she was able to find a path not necessarily out of her attraction to women but out of giving in to it, in order to live the way God wants her to, and she now has a husband. The only thing she’s giving in to now is her own self-loathing.)

For as much as I’m talking about my homophobia being below the surface, there was a toxicity that had reached the surface, something I would have openly admitted and saw little issue with then, and that was the fact that I wanted to fall in love with a man over a woman. Despite being completely—overwhelmingly, at this point—aware of my feelings towards women, I was open with myself about the fact that, given the choice, I would definitely want to end up with a man. In my mind, being with a man would be easier, and I wouldn’t have to face discrimination. And while that is unfortunately true (due to the prevalence of homophobia even in the modern day, and also, I have to say, in terms of procreation), it is kind of crazy and sad to me now that I was almost eager to reject a whole side of my sexuality.

Because I wasn’t expressing my gayness through dating, it only manifested in other areas of my life. For example, and this again is quite funny to me in hindsight, the first time I watched ‘Blue Is The Warmest Colour’ (a French film telling a story of lesbian love) I remember that it was something of an awakening for me. I swear I must have watched that film a few times a week at one point. After discovering BITWC, I went on to actively seek out other films depicting lesbian romance, lesbian YouTubers (hooray for Rose and Rosie), and started listening to a lot of good, wholesome LGBT music, such as ‘Pussy Is God’ by King Princess. Gotta love that wholesome sentiment. Despite the fact that there is only a short roster of lesbian films and TV shows (because there isn’t enough LGBT representation in mainstream media!), I can honestly say I’ve seen a hell of a lot of them. Jokes aside, in truth what my soul was seeking out were positive depictions of female romantic love—something we seldom get to see—to let me know that what I was feeling was okay.

. . .

You may have already guessed, but I now identify as gay. I came out about 2 months ago, and it’s been good. It hasn’t been utterly life-changing, and to be honest I still struggle a little with my sexuality and sometimes even doubt if “gay” is the correct label. As I said in the very first paragraph, introspective to a fault. The truth is, and I’ve thought long and hard about this, believe me—this conclusion is 24 years in the making—I don’t believe I am entirely gay or bisexual. What a revelation, right? (/s) I’ve thought about simply not putting a label on it or just calling myself “queer”, but ultimately, I don’t even think that would stop my brain from doing what it clearly loves to do: probe me about everything, even my established identity. I labelled myself as a bisexual for a whole decade of my life, and though it is not a label that resonates with me anymore (and I was doubting it and questioning it for a number of years near the end), it’s still a part of my history. The truth is that while my attraction to women has been an unfaltering constant throughout my life, my attraction to men is significantly more nebulous and confusing, and thus the cause of the ever-confusing state of my sexuality. I do believe at one time that I felt some level of attraction to men, and having acted on that attraction, with every man I dated my attraction either dwindled or it simply become more and more evident that it was hardly there in the first place. I think men are awesome; there will be no man-bashing here, but in practice they simply don’t do it for me romantically. I realised that with every guy I dated I didn’t actually experience a romantic attraction to them. I was only attracted to the idea of them, the idea of an “easier”, perfect heterosexual relationship that society has dictated for centuries is the superior kind of relationship.

Easier isn’t always better; that was such an important truth to realise.

To speak briefly on the closing year of my bisexuality, that being this year, it was difficult. Unbeknown to those around me, I was seriously questioning my own sexuality on a daily basis. I went back and forth in my head between bisexuality and lesbianism again and again, always landing on the former in the acknowledgement of my previous dating experiences, all of which had been with men. But nearer the end, whenever I commented on a guy’s attractiveness in any sort of significant way, it often felt so forced that I sometimes cringed at myself as soon as the words left my mouth. Ironically, I actually found myself commenting more, almost as if by saying these things I was trying to convince myself of their truth. I think I was desperately trying to cling onto my identity as a bisexual person. Bisexuality, in my mind, still carried that teenage perception of intrigue and mystery; homosexuality, on the other hand, was quite terrifying. It meant that I had to embrace myself, expose myself, and have nothing left to hide behind. So, I convinced myself I liked this guy and this guy and this guy when in reality I just thought they were nice people. Not to get too explicit, but the last guy I slept with, the experience was awful. It felt good physically, but I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, I felt emotionally and spiritually broken afterwards. It was like a lie I was telling with my body. And I knew so. The last date with a guy I ever had—the last date I’ll ever have with a guy—was back in August, and it was the worst date of my life. Absolutely no connection. The entire time he was on his phone, and the entire time I was staring at the butts of the girls at the bar. The evidence was mounting up, and within a month I’d relinquished my bisexual label.

It was confusing to come to terms with the fact that, after realising I was gay, I still find some men physically attractive. But that was silly, because to think like that is to think in absolutes. Unlike some gay—or straight—people who legitimately do not experience any kind of attraction whatsoever to the same/opposite sex, I can definitely see and appreciate the physical beauty in men. Not most men, mind you. But every now and then I’ll see a guy (like pudgy Chris Pratt in Parks and Recreation), and just think, wow, he’s very attractive. I just don’t want to do anything more with that information. And the fact is that for every guy I think that about, there are 100 women I think that about, and more. While sexuality is absolutely not something you can control—that is a fact, not an opinion—I do think it can ebb and flow to some degree, and I do believe it is something of a spectrum. I think I have a ways to go with dismantling my own internalised homophobia, —when I initially came out to my friend, I remember saying, “Who wants to be gay?”—but realising it was within me in the first place, and accepting myself as someone who actively wants to “live their truth”, as corny as that sounds, has been a positive and welcome revelation.

I think, as little as even a month ago, I was quite naive in my views on internalised homophobia. I thought there had to be some significant traumatic experience that someone had to have endured in order for their shame to be valid, —otherwise, I supposed, it didn’t make sense in the “progressive” modern day—but there doesn’t. Because, yes, we have made a lot of progress, but homophobia is still an undercurrent of modern society. For God’s sake, gay marriage only became legal in this country 6 years ago! Until we create an equal society where homosexual, bisexual and asexual people all experience the same treatment and validation of their personal sexual orientation as has been afforded to heterosexuals for millennia, there will always be the existence of internalised homophobia.

Although, as I said, I don’t see myself as completely gay, whatever that means, it is the term that makes by far the most sense to me. To have continued to label myself as a bisexual is almost laughable to me now; it would feel like a complete denial of myself. My attraction to women is almost bursting at the seams at this point, whereas my attraction to men is like a dying star. I think the most important thing is, while I don’t doubt I’ll keep questioning myself as that seems to ironically be as much a part of my nature as my gayness, this is definitely the happiest I’ve ever been in my own sexuality. I know I’m meant to be with a woman. Maybe that makes my life harder in a practical sense, but it’s a small price to pay for being yourself.

2 comments on “Navigating My Sexuality & Internalised Homophobia

  1. Beautiful.

    Like

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