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My Journey Out of Internalized Homophobia
And into individual—not group—liberation.
One day, when I was a student on a conservative Christian campus, I found myself hurrying to the college therapist’s office fighting back tears. The office felt like the one haven where I could freely talk about my life without judgment. Once I reached her office, I broke down and sobbed. I could not make the tears stop. She sat with me quietly as I wept, a gentle presence who accepted me in a community that felt menacing and unforgiving.
I was sobbing that day in the therapist’s office because the burden of my attraction to other men had become so all-consuming that it was ruining my life. Every waking moment was dedicated to “figuring out” how to live in light of this burden, how to confront my future and my family, and how to navigate my devout Christian faith.
Rather than this moment being my lowest point, it was simply one low point among hundreds over the course of years. Starting in my early teens, I had to commit enormous amounts of energy and cognition to managing my attraction to men. My place in society and eternal salvation depended on it.
This OCD accompanied every stage of my journey as a young gay man. When I was deep in the closet as a teenager, all my energy was put into not seeming “too gay,” not being found out, and desperately trying to make romantic relationships with girls work.
Then, in my late teens, I attempted to change my orientation through the implements of psychic torture provided by the Christian ex-gay movement. I prayed, I attended support groups, and I went through exorcisms.
When I reached my early twenties, I realized the lie of ex-gay therapy and that I would never change my orientation. I was left, therefore, with a life of celibacy. Instead of fixating on transforming my orientation, my obsession shifted to maintaining celibacy for the rest of my life. That is a crushing prospect when you are 22 years old.
Running through all this were the endless theological debates with myself, which consumed almost every waking second of my life. If I found a boyfriend, would I be sinning? If I masturbated or watched porn, is that a greater sin than what straight people experience? What is the theological nature of this disease? Is it something I chose? A disorder I was born with? Is marriage with a woman I might not be attracted to the only path forward? What if I had a celibate relationship with another Christian man?
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I finally came to an affirming theological view of homosexuality, and I entered another stage of obsession: I slept with innumerable men and had to make up the time lost to self-loathing. I went to Gay Pride events, danced at clubs, and spent inordinate amounts of time reading and writing about gay rights. I did some of my best writing during this time, and I’m enormously proud of the work I accomplished, which included exposing the harms of ex-gay therapy. This period was certainly fun, and it was better than what came before, but it was marked by the exact same level of obsessiveness that drove my previous forays into ex-gay practice and conservative Christian celibacy.
The inevitable result of internalized homophobia during my teens and twenties was that I never got a moment’s rest from thinking about it. Every conscious moment—and many dreaming moments—was dedicated to its maintenance. This persistent obsession was accompanied by crushing depression, anxiety, and self-loathing. I self-injured consistently from the ages of 15 to 26, in large part due to the personal anguish I felt over my sexual orientation. (It’s worth noting that my struggle with my homosexuality was not the only cause of my mental anguish and self-injury. I think I also had persistent, untreated mental illness, which was exacerbated by my internalized homophobia.)
My personal, professional, and academic life have been irreparably damaged by these years of fixation. It took me 8 years to graduate from college, and I did so with horrible grades that have effectively blocked me from academically advancing. My professional development has been greatly delayed. My personal development as an adult with financial, spiritual, and emotional responsibilities was put on the back burner. I feel enormous bitterness over all that has been lost to homophobia.
Toni Morrison’s words about the wastefulness of racism apply equally well to homophobia:
The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
It is now, in my mid-thirties, that I feel not only peace with who I am, but joy. I like the person I have become. This joy, though, is individualist in nature. It isn’t found in solidarity with other LGBT people; it’s in finally having access to the same freedoms everyone else shares. It’s in having a loving, decade-long partnership with a gentle, compassionate, and wise man. It’s in having a vast network of friendships built on mutual interests and values. It’s in being able to pursue life, liberty, and happiness in safety. Many of my fellow queers will probably argue that this attitude demonstrates some residual form of internalized homophobia, but I disagree: I am finally free from the OCD of homophobic identitarian oppression.
Freedom from prejudice, for me, means having the freedom to finally think about something else. It means, simply, being able to wake up in the morning, have a cup of coffee, and kiss my partner before going to work and leading a productive life.
It is this conception of freedom—the freedom from identity fixation—that puts me at odds with the rest of queer culture.
In his book The Identity Trap, Yascha Mounk argues that the current cultural obsession with identity is a trap that ultimately works against progressive causes. This trap—what he calls “the identity synthesis”—promises liberation and fulfillment, but ultimately disappoints. He writes,
The identity synthesis is a political trap, making it harder to sustain diverse societies whose citizens trust and respect each other. It is also a personal trap, one that makes misleading promises about how to gain the sense of belonging and social recognition that most humans naturally seek. In a society composed of rigid ethnic, gender, and sexual communities, the pressure for people to define themselves by virtue of the identity group to which they supposedly belong will be enormous. But the promise of recognition will prove illusory for a great number of people.
I am one of those people for whom the promise of recognition is illusory. I don’t experience joy by engagement with LGBT culture. I only feel fatigued at the prospect of thinking about my queerness more than I already have. Instead, I want to finally focus on the vast world beyond the confines of an identity category I did not choose. I want to explore what it means to be human and an individual.
Mounk explores how the culture of the identity synthesis will inevitably feel limiting to some minority people:
Others will chafe under the expectations of such a society because they do not wish to make their membership in some group they did not choose so central to their self-conception. They might, for example, define themselves in terms of their individual tastes and temperaments, their artistic predilections, or their sense of moral duty toward all humanity. People with a wide variety of personal beliefs and religious convictions are likely to feel alienated in a society that most prizes a form of self-conscious identification with some group into which they were born.
Contemporary queer culture, with its obsessiveness over identity categories and iconography, is in direct opposition to my own project of liberation. Rainbows are everywhere, LGBT identities are becoming increasingly esoteric, obsessive, and discreet, and even straight people are getting in on the queer fun. But this doesn’t feel like progress to me. Progress, for me, is finally being able to write fantasy novels, finally being able to live my life in peace, finally being able to have good friendships, run long distances, or watch movies I love. Progress means being just as human—and just as individual—as everyone else. Modern queer culture, with its perseverating over identity categories, feels like an inversion of ex-gay culture. It is just as obsessed, only through the looking glass.
I have spent the first few decades of my life obsessing over orientation. I now choose to practice my liberation by never attending another Pride event or wearing another rainbow flag again in my life. I have made these words by John Waters my rallying cry: “I may be queer but I ain’t this.”
My LGBT siblings are welcome to have their fun. I won’t get in their way. They can cavort and parade and fly their flags. I already know that the response to this article will be rote explanations about how “pride is necessary because we still live in a homophobic society.” That’s fine, but I also don’t care—not for my own short life on this planet, which is already nearly halfway done. I reserve the right to embrace liberation in my own way. Gay rights are nothing without self-determination.
Stephen Bradford Long is the host and writer of Sacred Tension, where this essay was originally published.
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