Dear Dr Ren,
I’m a young gay woman in my mid-20s dealing with a lot of feelings, which I’ve recently recognized as “internalized homophobia.” My therapist pointed this out to me, and since then I have been realizing how warped some of my views and expectations are, not only of myself but of others as well.
I have been “out and proud” (or so I thought) since I was 13. But even though I pretend to be extremely comfortable with who I am, part of me sometimes beats myself up for being a lesbian. I have all these ridiculously warped views and feelings about how “it’s only okay to be gay as long as you look and dress like a feminine woman. No one should be able to tell you’re gay just by looking at you.”
I’m pretty feminine and strictly date only feminine women. I’ve even felt extreme shame for being attracted to women that were on the “butchier” side. I’m not sure if I’ve adopted a survival instinct of trying to blend in to appear more socially acceptable out of fear of judgment or if I just hate who I am so much that I judge others for being able to be out and proud.
I have trouble even saying the word lesbian because the stereotypical image scares me so much that I try to detach myself from it. Could you shed some light on these feelings? I don’t want them anymore. Any knowledge you have here would be greatly appreciated.—Help
Thank you for your poignant and eloquent letter. You express beautifully a universal struggle: there’s always another closet door to kick open.
Internalized homophobia is not a sign of your failings. We grow up learning that we are outliers, problems, perverts even. Though we do our personal work and find our community, those larger societal messages still surround us. We learn, accept, forgive and then do it again, over and over. It’s ongoing, part of growing up.
Speaking of which, you are still in your mid-20s. You’ve been “out and proud” since you were 13. You’re asking sensitive questions of yourself. You’ll be asking different questions in your 40s and your 80s, but the introspection doesn’t stop.
Now you are doing exactly what you should be doing at your stage in life, figuring out how to be the least flawed human possible. It sounds like you’re doing just fine.
Still, you struggle with some issues, one of which is safety. Nobody wants to be at risk. Femmes have the luxury (and the burden) of flying beneath the radar. Though we are safe behind enemy lines, we remain invisible within our own community.
That invisibility brings with it an extra, albeit optional, responsibility. If we want to make a difference politically, we must lead with our voices. Butches, effeminate gay men and others who can be “read” automatically, bravely provide a vanguard for the rest of us. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.
Then there’s that presentation issue. You say that you “felt extreme shame for being attracted to women that were on the ‘butchier’ side” and that you (consequently?) date only other femmes.
First of all, you need to give yourself a break. A lot of what you are going through will unfold over time. You don’t need to have all the answers right now.
But where is this shame coming from? Is it that butchier women symbolize “real” lesbians to you? (And if so, you needn’t be ashamed.) Is it that you feel like you should be as “out there” with your sexuality? (Ditto.)
Is it that you feel like you’ve taken the easy route by dating only femme women? (Ditto again.) You simply needn’t feel ashamed about your attractions. You’ll learn what’s right for you as you go along.
What to do? The next time you are attracted to a butchier woman, identify yourself. She might not know you’re a lesbian either — it just means you have to be vocal. Flirt, and see how it goes.
Confidence and self-esteem are hard for everyone to come by, and it’s a process, rather than a destination, in any case. Some days are better than others.
It sounds like you’ve found a therapist courageous enough to challenge and support you while you explore this period of introspection and opportunity. Another smart move.
Most of all, don’t expect to get completely comfortable. No one does, regardless of how “normal” they are (and you are). We travel through so many different groups in the course of our lives that some will undoubtedly fit better than others.
You have no reason to feel guilty for being a feminine lesbian, any more than any other type of gay person deserves to feel shame for being who they are. All that rhetoric about inclusion, diversity and 15 letters in our name really, truly has meaning. You are as necessary and valuable to us, just as you are, as the most flamboyant “readable” queer imaginable.
The problem exists only when we fail to stretch to our limits, wherever they are.