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February 10, 2010

Unlearning homophobia (Part 1)

Do you use birth control?
No.

Are you sexually active?
Yes.

(Pause)

So why don’t you use birth control?

Awkward! You’d think the gynecologist’s office would be a safe enough place to disclose the intricacies of my sexuality, but this situation proved to be more challenging than I expected. The doctor was basically a stranger, and I had no idea if she was cool with the gay. What if she disagreed with my “lifestyle” and refused to continue with our appointment? What if she saw homosexuality as a sickness? What if she tried to cure me? What if she kicked me out of her office while a crowd formed around me, holding torches and screaming, “Diagnosis lesbian!”

Although I live proudly as an out lesbian and have done so for most of my adult life, I realized that my own internalized homophobia had a way of popping into my head and making situations like this more uncomfortable than they need to be. Internalized homophobia can bring up fear, prejudice and negative feelings toward oneself. It can cause extreme repression of homosexual desires leading to clinical depression, or, like in my case, anxious insecurity during routine activities. The stigma causes conflicting disapproval of one’s own sexuality, consciously or unconsciously, and can affect people who have been out for a while, as well as people who are just coming out or struggling with same-sex desires. Internalized homophobia can creep into life events that could otherwise be joyous pursuits of happiness, like getting married, getting a new job, buying a home, going to church, or visiting with family. Or, simple social situations can be affected, like meeting a friend’s parent or being asked out on a date by the opposite sex.

While internalized homophobia is internal, its causes are mostly powerful and external, coming from values we are taught through society, religion, upbringing and culture. Anytime there is systemic, institutionalized oppression against a group of people, there is some level of self-hate within that group. Everywhere we look we see something that tells us how we should be, and LGBT is not it.

The cultural influence on homosexuality and internalized homophobia was explored last week at a screening of “Unlearning Homophobia,” a three-part series presented by the Fairness Campaign through a partnership with Kentucky Health Justice Network. The first film in the series exposed the struggles of LGBT members of Latino communities through interviews. The personal stories in the documentary revealed the prejudices of some Latino families against homosexuality when one mother explained she was brought up to believe homosexuality is a sin. But it also offered the story of healing as parents and siblings came to accept their LGBT loved ones. “I have two daughters,” the mother explained, “and I want the same laws for both of them … the same happiness.”

During the discussion following the screening, I realized I had forgotten that homophobia exists, both in the world and within myself. A young man told me he learned to accept himself when he was simply able to say the words, “I am gay.” A 40-something lesbian explained that she dealt with internalized homophobia by getting angry rather than scared and by becoming a political activist. Out of the 25 people who participated, most of us agreed that internalized homophobia can be a lifelong struggle and is best dealt with through communication and self-acceptance.

The second part of the series, entitled “Straight from the Heart,” will be screened Thursday, Feb. 11, at the Fairness Campaign Office (2263 Frankfort Ave.). The third and final portion of the documentary will be shown on Friday, Feb. 19, at U of L’s Red Barn as part of their Black History Month Gala, and will take us into African-American communities that have learned to understand and struggled to overcome homophobia. Both screenings will further explore where homophobia comes from and how some have learned to “unlearn” it.

So, how did I deal with my internalized homophobia while sitting in a robe at the gynecologist’s office? Well, I didn’t lie and pretend to be a sexually active heterosexual who needs birth control. But I also didn’t stand up on the hospital bed and preach to the doctor about how I shouldn’t have to feel bad about my sexual preference. I just looked her in the eye, smiled, and said, “Well, we lesbians aren’t reproducing like we used to.” And she was cool with that.