Understanding internalised homophobia

Homosexuality was only decriminalised in Ireland in 1993. Throughout Irish history, the LGBTQ+ community has mainly been portrayed in a negative light. Today, even if you believe in LGBTQ+ rights, you likely carry some deep-seeded biases.

Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International Ireland and founder of One in Four (for survivors of clerical abuse) says internalised homophobia exists in all of us – even within members of the LGBTQ+ community – and it’s something we all have to address within ourselves.

“Be a little bit gentle on yourself – it’s not possible to grow up in a society that is homophobic at a cultural level and not take on board some of those biases,” he explains. “We (the LGBTQ+ community) have had to battle past those biases – we grew up with [internalised homophobia], too. Forgive yourself for the fact that you carry these biases, but also maybe think what that’s about.”

What to do if you’re struggling with a loved one’s sexual orientation

It’s normal to worry about our loved ones’ futures – especially our children’s. If someone you love has recently come out as LGBTQ+ and you are struggling, it is important to express that the problems you’re having are not about the person you love. Coming out may have been the most difficult thing they have ever had to do – it’s important not to make this about you.

“Tell your loved one that you love them,” Colm says. “If you’re struggling, say, ‘I’m struggling with this, but that’s my struggle – you don’t have to help me deal with that. I need to think about why I am struggling, because I shouldn’t be. I love you and all I want is for you to be happy. Just know I love you and I will do what I need to do to work this out; you don’t have to fix this for me.’”

Thankfully, we have moved on a lot as a country

Then, Colm says, you should try to find out why you’re struggling. If you’re worried they won’t be safe, or that they’ll never have a fulfilling life or a family – this is simply not the case anymore.

“Thankfully, we have moved on a lot as a country, and in 2015 we made it really clear that same-sex couples are legally entitled and that we recognise the existence of so many families. I say this as a dad of two adult children who we’ve raised here since 2004. The life of your loved one will be as rich and full of love as anybody else’s. Celebrate that.”

The kids are all right

There has been a huge generational shift in our attitudes toward homophobia and the LGBTQ+ community. Children today can feel safer than ever before in the knowledge that they will not be discriminated against because of their gender identity or sexual preference.

However, LGBTQ+ youth still face challenges; particularly those in rural areas or those in marginalised communities. A recent report from BelongTo Youth Services and the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland says the pandemic has had a negative effect on many LGBTQ+ youths’ mental health as they stayed home – some living within homophobic households, and some who have not yet come out to their families.

Some people are still offended by those who seek to celebrate our commitment to equality, dignity and human rights

“For those who aren’t yet out, with the homophobic culture in their own homes – [the report shows] they struggled with that, and one person in particular talked about how it deepened and triggered their own internalised homophobia. So we’ve come a long way but there’s still a ways to go,” Colm says.

“This is a different Ireland than [the one I grew up in], but homophobic attacks are not gone – we’ve just seen pride flags being burned in Waterford, for example,” he continues. “Some people are still offended by those who seek to celebrate our commitment to equality, dignity and human rights.”

Calling out bigotry

If you have thought or said things about LGBTQ+ people and now realise your behaviour may have impacted an LGBTQ+ loved one, it’s important to take ownership over the things you have said and commit to calling out bigotry in the future.

“It’s OK if you don’t understand what your loved one is going through,” Colm says. “But understanding bigotry where it exists (and it exists everywhere) is important – we need to understand the every-day nature of it. We need to forgive ourselves, provided we own it and challenge it and stop doing it.

“If you recognise that you have been saying things grounded in homophobia and bigotry and you’re appalled by that – tell your loved one,” he continues. “Say, ‘I am struggling with this,’ and if they say that’s OK, say: ‘No – I’m not looking for you to be OK with this. I am appalled and I know this will have hurt you. Do not try to fix this for me. I love you and I’m sorry about how this has impacted you.’

“If you’re able to do that,” he says, “I can tell you: you’re doing something of profound importance to your loved one and to yourself.”

Fly the flag

If you want to support your local LGBTQ+ community but aren’t sure how, there is no better time to start than during Pride celebrations.

“I would say to anyone, anywhere in the country, during Pride – fly the flag, run the colours. Pride is still incredibly important,” Colm explains. “It started as a moment of resistance and it was an important mechanism through which gay people around the world have demanded their existence be acknowledged.

“Pride is now often a parade and a party, but it’s also a moment when we get to stand for something,” he continues. “We celebrate equality and that difference doesn’t mean deviant, and that we are all enriched by living in [this kind of] society. You don’t have to go and hug the ‘local gay’, but celebrate and be part of a local conversation.

“Look at what’s happening in other parts of Europe right now, with anti-LGBT laws being passed – that’s frightening. So fly the flag and understand that [Pride] still matters.”