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“Shame on you!”

A Lifelong Struggle - Caught Between Internalized Homophobia, Shame, and Mental Health



Text by Maximilian-Leonard Leipold (Freie Universität Berlin)


Art by Ziggy Zhu



Maximilian-Leonard Leipold's essay „Shame on You“ delves into the profound impact of internalized homophobia on his life, shaped by relentless discrimination in Eastern Germany. Through autoethnographic analysis, he reflects on systemic oppression in institutions like schools, fueling a spiral of internalized homophobia. Scrutinizing this concept, he reveals the paradox of queer individuals internalizing societal biases. Drawing from psychological anthropology, he elucidates how internalized homophobia manifests in shame, self-hatred, and risky behaviors, exacerbating mental health issues within the queer community. Emphasizing the need for societal awareness and acceptance, he advocates for change within academia and beyond. His journey towards self-acceptance underscores the resilience of the queer community in challenging heteronormative norms.



Introduction


All my life, I have been shaped by the feeling of not belonging. Ever since my childhood, the heteronormative white society in Eastern Germany where I grew up has been telling me that I am not normal and that I must fit in. That my parents must be ashamed of a child like me. In kindergarten, I was not allowed to dress up as a princess because this was a costume for girls, and I was supposed to wear one for boys. My dance club would not let me dance at parties and performances because the organizers did not want boys on their stage, since it was not “normal” – boys played soccer and did not dance on stage.  At school, I was not allowed to change with the other boys in the locker room because they were afraid, I would turn them gay. Instead, I had to change alone in the bathroom or go home in sports clothes.

I was simply abnormal. I was locked in the lockers, I had dirty toilet brushes thrown at me. Not to mention the constant insults like “faggot”, “bumfucker”, “crybaby”, “homosexual”, and so on, the list goes on forever. I remember very clearly how one day in the seventh grade the boy behind me tapped me on the shoulder and told me that Hitler had forgotten me and that I should have also been gassed. In response, I turned around, punched him right in the face, and broke his nose. I got suspended from school afterward. I had to officially apologize to him for my violence, but no one cared about the mental violence I had had to put up with, not only then, but throughout my entire life. This experience has been very formative for me, and it is a perfect example of the systemic oppression of queer people in our society and especially in institutions like schools.

This omnipresent hatred towards me led to a spiral in which I am still trapped today. The result of all the traumatizing experiences I have had to go through is internalized homophobia, which I will explain in more detail below, as well as illustrate with more personal examples. I apply autoethnography because it allows me to analyze my experiences and link them to discoveries about self-identity, precepts, rules, shared meanings, emotions, values, and more significant social, cultural, and political issues (Poulos 2021, 4). Furthermore, I go into detail about the mental health issues resulting from my internalized homophobia. My main goal with this essay is to show the connection between these phenomena and thus work through a piece of my trauma. Through the lens of psychological anthropology, I can address this issue academically and better understand that it is a structural and collective problem.

It's important to recognize that being queer isn't something I chose, nor is it my fault if others treat me differently because of it. Queerness is not a flaw or a mistake; it's simply a part of who I am, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.



Internalized Homophobia


I have long wondered what is going on inside me and why I have this uncomfortable feeling when I see other queer couples in public. Why I sense a certain disgust but also a kind of envy. I have asked myself why I feel this way even though I am exactly like these people. Could I be homophobic as a gay person? Could I hate other people for who I am myself? For years, these thoughts and doubts plagued me until I came across the term internalized homophobia and queer shame while reading the book Allein written by Daniel Schreiber (2023). At first, I got confused because according to the dictionary of psychology of the American Psychological Association (2023), homophobia is the "dread or fear of LGBTQ+ people, often associated with prejudice and bias toward them, that leads to discrimination in such areas as employment, housing, and legal rights.” The dictionary entry goes on to say: “Extreme homophobia may lead to physical violence.” (American Psychological Association 2023), which highlights the extreme form homophobia can take. Additionally, the term internalized made me wonder how I could apply something which has been haunting me all my life to myself. How could I possibly be afraid or fearful of who I am? Could I be prejudiced against queer people even though I am queer myself?

Unfortunately, I must admit to myself that it is possible. It is the exact state of mind the term internalized homophobia refers to and at first glance, it seems like a paradox. According to Ilan Meyer and Laura Dean (1998, 161), this phenomenon is defined as "the gay person's direction of negative social attitudes toward the self." When a queer person is exposed to the prejudice, intolerance, and stigma that society places on those who have same-sex attraction, they can internalize those ideas, believing them to be true, and develop self-hatred as a result of being socially excluded. Anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, can experience internalized homophobia, which occurs when a person accepts homophobic biases and applies those biases to themselves felt (Villines 2021).

It is therefore a conscious as well as an unconscious reaction to the negative attitudes towards queer people expressed by society. In most cases, including mine, internalized homophobia begins in childhood and adolescence and is further developed from then on. According to Heather Lyons (2020), this can have serious effects on a person's mental health. And sadly, I have to agree with the author, because after being subjected to homophobia for years during my childhood, especially during high school, after absorbing the propaganda of the media against queer people, after all of the stigma and fear, and the constantly repeated statements that I was different, I started believing it. I internalized all this hate and pain and started feeling deviant and wrong. And worst of all, internalized homophobia still negatively influences my life to this day in the form of mental health problems which I will focus on in the following chapter.

The German social and cultural anthropologist Birgit Röttger-Rössler, who has dealt primarily with the Anthropology of emotions, more specifically with shame, researched the ways adolescents experience a variety of shame and shaming situations that accompany important processes of social inclusion and exclusion (Wertenbruch and Röttger-Rössler 2011). This research took place in schools, the place where most of my fear and trauma started, and for many other queer people too. I see big potential in taking her research as inspiration and adjusting it to queer shame and internalized homophobia. Taking a new lead on this study with people from the queer community could showcase how much collateral and collective damage homophobia can cause during early childhood and adolescence.



Mental Health Effects


A Study by the Amercian Psychiatric Association (2017) dealt with the topic of internalized homophobia and how it manifests itself in different people. Undoubtedly, the phenomenon significantly impacts the mental health of anyone affected. According to the study queer people use mental health services at a rate that is 2.5 times higher than the rate of the general population (American Psychiatric Association 2017).   People who internalize homophobic views may experience depression, may worry about their own or others' sexual behavior or feelings, and could even experience both of these things at the same time (Villines 2021).

According to the study, queer people are twice as likely to experience a mental health disorder in their lifetimes than non-queer people (American Psychiatric Association 2017).  However, it is important to note that the queer community is diverse and multifaceted, encompassing individuals from various backgrounds, identities, and experiences. Within this diversity, there are also intersecting layers of oppression and discrimination, which affect members differently based on their intersecting identities. The mental health concerns that result from internalized homophobia are frequently layered on top of other mental health issues that are common within the queer community. These higher rates of mental illness are believed to be related to the higher risk these communities face for bullying, discrimination, verbal, and physical abuse, as well as childhood sexual abuse. Gay people are also 2.5 times more likely to experience major depression, anxiety disorder, and substance use disorders, as well as four times as likely to attempt suicide during adolescence and three times more likely to do so as adults (Lyons 2020).

When delving into statistical data and studies concerning the queer community, it's hard not to wonder just how accurate and meaningful these numbers really are. After all, the queer community is incredibly diverse, and there's a whole lot to consider when it comes to who gets diagnosed and who doesn't. But despite the complexities, these figures definitely matter because they're not just numbers on a page; they have a real impact on people's lives. And yeah, I'm definitely not immune to that impact either. I am also affected by it.

I have been in psychological treatment since my early childhood and, in addition to a diagnosed depression, I also have a negative body perception and an attachment disorder. My approach to sexuality is risky and I tend to have hypersexual episodes, especially when I'm under a lot of stress or when things bother me so much that I slip into a loop of procrastination and use sex as a coping mechanism. To me, this feels like an eternal, never-ending cycle. Since my childhood, I was told by society that I was different and that I didn't belong. All I ever wanted was recognition, but I always had to do more than the others to get it. I was never good enough. This feeling has manifested itself so deeply in me that as soon as I have to prove myself in certain situations, I fall into a kind of panic rigidity. It's hard for me to breathe, my heart races and I have unstoppable thoughts that race through my brain like lightning. So, I started early to get this confirmation and recognition from older men on the internet through sexual intimacy because strangely enough, it was mostly the boys in my school days who excluded and tormented me.

These early sexual intimacies disconnected me and my feelings from my body. These sexual episodes made it difficult for me to form emotional bonds with a person, as I always feel ashamed of the real me. It is easier for me to have sex with people instead of building a relationship with them. I think that this has been influenced by the fact that I have always been told that I will never have a relationship like others have. In the past, the media has often portrayed gay men as perverts and sex-driven people who can't commit. I have been criticized and insulted often enough for my sexual behavior. All of this has made me feel even more ashamed of being queer and will probably continue to affect me for the rest of my life.



Concluding words


Writing this essay was not easy for me, since I had to repeatedly relive many of my traumas. Nevertheless, I needed this as a kind of therapy. Reflecting on how internalized homophobia and mental health are connected and why I feel, think, and act the way I do was worth it. Furthermore, the academic perspective on these topics helped me see my situation with different eyes. I realized that all these problems are systemic and societal and not up to me. And it is of utmost importance to understand why the queer community in particular has to live under such adverse circumstances.

It is necessary to understand how society, social institutions, and the media contribute to queer people's struggle with the effects of their internalized homophobia throughout their lives. I see not only a great opportunity in the collaboration between anthropology and psychology to investigate possible consequences of mental health but also a close connection between psychological and queer anthropology.

I would like to say that as a queer person, it is almost mandatory for me to write about this topic since I should use my privileges in academia for such activist and social topics, both as a person affected by that and as an anthropologist to be. I would like to make the heteronormative society in academia aware of how important it is to deal with the topics I have mentioned since the trauma of the queer community was largely caused by this non-queer majority society. I would like to create awareness among these people and in the institutions to make them aware of how tragic and far-reaching their actions can be. I suffer from the consequences to this day and will struggle with them for the rest of my life.

The most tragic effect for me is my alcohol and substance abuse. Due to personal reasons and the sensitivity of this topic, I have decided not to write about it, as I cannot do justice to this topic in this essay. I will be in psychological treatment for a long time to process everything that hating being "different" has done to me and I hope that one day I will no longer have to be ashamed of all this.



References

 

American Psychiatric Association.  2017.  "Mental Health Disparities: LGBTQ" Accessed May 8, 2024. https://www.psychiatry.org/File%20Library/Psychiatrists/Cultural-Competency/Mental-Health-Disparities/Mental-Health-Facts-for-LGBTQ.pdf.


APA Dictionary of Psychology.  2023.  "homophobia", Accessed May 8, 2024. https://dictionary.apa.org/homophobia.

 

Lyons, Heather. 2020. “What Is Internalized Homophobia?” WithTherapy (blog). June 3, 2020. https://withtherapy.com/therapist-insights/what-is-internalized-homophobia/.

 

Meyer, Ilan H., and Laura Dean. 1998. “Stigma and Sexual Orientation: Understanding Prejudice against Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals.” In Stigma and Sexual Orientation: Understanding Prejudice against Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals, 160–86. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781452243818.

 

Poulos, Christopher N. 2021. “Essentials of Autoethnography.” Https://Www.Apa.Org. 2021. https://www.apa.org/pubs/books/essentials-of-autoethnography.


Schreiber, Daniel. 2023. "Allein" Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag.


Villines, Zawn. 2021. “What Is ‘Internalized Homophobia?’” March 15, 2021. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/internalized-homophobia.

 

Wertenbruch, Martin, and Birgitt Röttger-Rössler. 2011. “Emotionsethnologische Untersuchungen zu Scham und Beschämung in der Schule.” Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaft 14 (2): 241–57. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11618-011-0209-0.


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