Turns Out The L Word Didn’t Cure Me of My Internalised Homophobia
By Annie Parker
It’s eleven-thirty at night and I’m on a train speeding away from Circular Quay, sobbing quietly and pathetically into a packet of chocolates. I’ve just come to the realisation that, despite many years of immersion in progressive culture, queer literature, and six seasons of ‘The L Word’, my inner self-critic is a raging homophobe. This realisation arrived sometime in the middle of watching Hannah Gadsby’s show, Nanette at the Opera House. Now, if you’ve had the chance to experience the pure brilliance of this show, you’ll know what I mean when I say that it left me feeling a little like I’d been hit by a freight train. It’s a powerful demonstration of emotional truth wrapped in the guise of a comedy show. Hannah Gadsby speaks, among other things, of her experience with homophobia and shame.
Now, mid train meltdown, I’m finding it hard to tell whether I am crying from the always-emotional experience of watching another queer woman step into her power, or because my own tangled web of internalised homophobia has just bluntly announced itself to me. In any case, I didn’t see this coming. Unlike Hannah, I did not grow up in rural Tasmania. I also did not grow up in the 80s, but about two decades later, when overt homophobia was not quite the fashion. In so many ways, our experiences are wildly different. Yet as she spoke about the feeling of growing up in a state of shame, I recognised myself. I knew that experience.
I came out as gay to my friends and family at the age of sixteen. I had spent about two years secretly immersed in a world of queer advice blogs, and it seemed like the next logical step. My coming out went well. My parents said that they loved me no matter what, and for years we hardly spoke another word about it. My friends, too, were loving and unbothered. Seeing as there was no one to date in my Sutherland Shire high school, it was almost a non-issue. Years went by. I continued to immerse myself in queer and feminist media. I studied some queer theory. I had relationships. My friend groups remained largely cis and straight, but these were just the people I knew, the spaces I had always existed in.
Now, in light of my newly-discovered, long-denied homophobia, I am beginning to rethink my own experience. At the age of 16 when I announced my queerness, I also rapidly engaged in the process of not appearing ‘too gay’. I would be the gay good girl. The gay who you forget is gay. The gay who doesn’t make you feel bad about your own unacknowledged prejudice. This took a lot of energy. It felt like walking a very fine line. Maybe one day I would slip and accidentally turn straight. I pointedly avoided sexuality-related conversation topics, and dressed in overtly feminine clothing. As a child, I had collated the concepts of gender identity and sexuality, believing for years that a lesbian was really someone who wanted to be a man, seeing as every relationship needed, in some way, to contain a man and a woman. At the realisation of my own queerness, I embarked on something of a crusade to prove myself wrong on that point. I might be gay, but look how feminine I can be! Just you wait and see how many floral prints I can wear at once!
The social researcher Brené Brown describes shame as the belief “that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging”. I was lucky enough not to grow up surrounded by explicit homophobia. But neither was I surrounded by explicit acceptance or celebration of queer folk. In the absence of any real message on this point, I soaked in the subliminal messages of society. These were not affirming. Everyone I knew was straight. Everyone on TV was straight. The first queer people I knew were my primary school best friend’s mothers, who (understandably) hid their relationship from our conservative community for fear that their kids would be bullied at school. Queerness was something to be hidden. At best, the consensus was that we accepted queer people because they couldn’t help it. So, when I heard that I was loved “no matter what”, I took this to mean that I was loved in spite of this one, glaring character flaw. I sculpted my existence as an apology for my own queerness. Subconsciously, I began engaging in trade-offs. If I was going to be gay, I’d better not put another toe out of line. I would be the perfect daughter. The perfect student. The perfect woman: likeable and nice to a fault. I’d go to any lengths to secure my right to love and belonging.
Intellectually, I am so far away from this thinking. Nothing fills my soul as much as witnessing the beauty and strength of queer folk. Still, I am unable to have this conversation with most of my extended family. Still, I perpetually find myself ‘too busy’ to make it down to the UTS queer space. I regularly wish I were more connected to the queer community. I believe some secretly self-aware part of myself has been worried about carrying my own shame into those spaces. I am scared of inadvertently projecting that shame onto other people. Yet I do believe that community is the key. Perhaps, in this society, we are all host to our own inner homophobe, transphobe, queerphobe. Perhaps we need each other to move out of our separate states of shame. To remind each other, over the voices of the normative culture, that there is so much beauty in being queer.