Homophobia as sexual abuse

Guest writer and Queer Therapist Adam Blum talks to TQ about the damaging effect of homophobia.

TW/CW: Themes around trauma and abuse

When I work with straight men who are recovering from childhood sexual abuse sometimes I find myself thinking, “He sounds like a gay man”.

Commonly, my straight client will be grappling with issues around sexual shame as a result of the abuse, whether his abuser was female or male.

Shame is a nearly universal experience for gay men. Even if a gay man has not been physically sexually abused, his experience growing up in a homophobic culture can be considered a form of sexual abuse.

The culture teaches every gay youth that something essential about their core sexual selves is different, and more commonly, gross and weird. The typical result of this teaching is that gay men believe it, even when they grow up and start to question its validity.

We Minimise What Happened To Us

I’m highlighting this regrettable comparison because gay men often minimize the psychological impact of their experiences growing up gay. There has been so much exciting recent progress in gay rights and acceptance that it feeds a tendency to assume that our childhood exposure to humiliation is no longer an issue.

I often hear, “That happened long ago and I’m over it.”

Decades of psychological research have proven that our experiences growing up make a huge difference in our well-being. And researchers have discovered that brain chemistry is altered in adults who experienced childhood teasing from peers. The neurological impact closely resembles those borne by children who were physically or sexually abused by adults in early childhood.

Research has also shown that the emotional impact of peer victimisation is just as damaging as emotional abuse by parents. Both are now linked to greater levels of depression, anxiety, and low self esteem in adults.

It is abusive to tell young people that their same-sex gender attraction is bad. Like recovery from sexual abuse, the process of healing from these influences takes awareness, diligence, and support.

Adult Impact of Homophobia

The research is clear: gay men have higher rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse than straight men. Is it because of something they ate? No, the cause of these disorders is early exposure to homophobia.

These results are based on research among 94,000 participants in the UK and have been repeated, with similar results, on populations in the United States and the Netherlands.

What hasn’t been researched, but what I see every day in my clinical practice with gay men is a deeply held fear of loneliness. Some men are haunted by this. Due to early experiences of feeling different from their families and classmates, gay men may be especially vulnerable to the worry of being alone.

One of the most enduring societal beliefs about gay men is that they will “grow old alone”. Look even deeper at the culture and you may find a classic stereotype of the gay man: an old, pale, lonely, creepy-looking guy.

The visual of this looks something like Monty Burns, owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant on The Simpsons.

This is dark material. On a conscious level, few gay men believe this stuff anymore. However, on an unconscious level, it may have seeped in more than anyone wants to acknowledge.

Straight men also worry about being accepted in groups. But they have cultural stories and structures that can soften this anxiety. They are supported by the myth of the straight outsider who is cool. Think of Clint Eastwood. Or James Dean. The Marlborough Man.

A gay man who spends a lot of time alone is not considered cool in any movie I’ve seen. In fact, they are usually under suspicion for doing something nasty.

Uncovering and releasing each piece of internalised homophobia requires an ongoing commitment to your own self-observation and re-education. Here are some suggestions that may help you stay on the path to recovery from your early exposure to homophobia:

  • Start to notice when you disparage members of the gay community—or yourself—as being “too feminine”. It is very easy to blindly accept the cultural teaching that femininity in men is bad. But if you take the time to explore this you’ll realise that this is just an arbitrary, manufactured cultural idea that has no basis in truth.
  • Continue searching for a group of gay friends who will validate and mirror your experiences. Avoid bringing homophobic people into your social circle. Their beliefs are toxic to your personal health.
  • All humans want to see themselves reflected in others. That’s why we seek out friendships and lovers. And that’s one reason we watch movies and read books. Make sure you find yourself reflected in some of the art and media you consume. You may not find yourself in most of Hollywood’s romantic comedies, but somewhere out there is a character in a book, play, or movie that is a lot like you.
  • Join gay political groups and read their newsletters to raise your political consciousness and to help invoke your outrage at the injustice still levied at people simply for being gay.

What subtle or not-so-subtle messages about homosexuality did you learn growing up in your community? Healing begins when we truly understand what it felt like to go through those experiences.

FOR INFO: If you feel affected by the topics in this article and need support, please reach out to support helplines.

UK based readers : 116 123 Samaritans from a mobile phone.

Or the UK LGBT+ switchboard: 0300 330 0630 from any phone.

US Based readers: Young people aged up to 24 can reach The Trevor Project: (866) 488-7386

US: The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender National Hotline: (888) 843-4564

Bio: Adam D. Blum, MFT is a licensed psychotherapist and the founder of the Gay Therapy Center, the largest private therapy provider for the LGBTQ community in the US, with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C, and with online services worldwide.


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