Healthy Mind

Unpacking the Internalized Homophobia That’s Kept Me From Celebrating My Bisexuality

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In a 2017 episode of comedy series Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Latinx American character Rosa Diaz (played by Stephanie Beatriz) comes out to her colleagues as bisexual. She then says she will field questions about it from the coworkers, whom she’s known for years, for “exactly one minute and zero seconds.” The first to ask Rosa a question is her Cuban American colleague Amy Santiago (played by Melissa Fumero). Amy asks Rosa how long she’s known she’s bisexual, to which Rosa responds: “Since the seventh grade. I was watching Saved by the Bell and I thought, ‘Zack Morris is hot. And then I thought, Lisa Turtle—also hot.”

I'm a first-generation, cisgender, Mexican American, and I'm also bisexual; I'm openly bisexual with friends (including my little sister), my roommates, at work, and on dating apps—but I have yet to come out to my parents, because I'm scared they'll love me less. Growing up in my family, which has been firmly Catholic for generations, meant that heteronormativity—or the idea that a “normal” sexual identity is being attracted only to the “opposite” gender—was the status quo in my household. (It would be years before I learned that there are a number of gender identities and forms of sexuality.) 

So, you can imagine my confusion when I had an eerily similar experience to Rosa’s as I watched Lizzie McGuire on the Disney Channel as an 8 year old. I thought, Gordo? Cute. Miranda? Also cute! Frankly, those feelings scared the living crap out of me out at the time.

Nancy Paloma Collins, LMFT, a therapist and first-generation Mexican American, says many Latinx people like me grow up in households where the expectation is one of heteronormativity. But to someone whose sense of identity doesn't fit into that mold, feeling the need to live up to those expectations can be crushing and lead to feelings of inadequacy and failure. That was certainly the case for me, as I came to understand my own identity as a bisexual woman.

For so long, I was afraid to accept—let alone celebrate—my sexuality out of worry for how my immediate family and greater Mexican American family would react.

For most of my life, I lived with my mom's younger brother, who's been openly gay ever since I can remember. Though there's no shortage of love for him in my family, my parents would often say that they "didn't agree with his 'lifestyle.'" Comments like that are what made me tremble for years at the thought of coming out to them. For so long, I was afraid to accept—let alone celebrate—my sexuality out of worry for how my immediate family and greater Mexican American family would react. I haven't yet found out what that might look like, because I'm still scared of what my parents will say when I come out to them. This fear may be attributed to my internalized homophobia, and at age 28—as a mostly-out bisexual woman—I finally decided to unpack that.

What is internalized homophobia?

As is often the case with implicit biases, many of us aren't even aware that we’ve internalized homophobic attitudes. You might think that you’re progressive (and you might actually be), but it’s also likely that you harbor at least some homophobic attitudes because of the heteronormative presumption in mainstream society. We’re bombarded with messaging that tells us being straight is the only right way to be—which is reinforced through the lack of queer representation in media, including movies, music, commercials, and television. (Examples like the aforementioned scene in Brooklyn Nine-Nine should be normal, not noteworthy.) Ultimately, in order to unpack and overcome internalized homophobia, introspection and reflection are key.

Community organizer and clinical social worker Ronnie Véliz, MSW, says that someone who has internalized homophobia has learned negative stereotypes or myths about queer people (though not necessarily intentionally) and holds them to be true. This misinformation—which can affect anyone, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation—can come from their family, neighborhood, policies, news, and pop-culture.

Someone who has internalized homophobia has learned negative stereotypes or myths about queer people (though not necessarily intentionally) and holds them to be true.

Furthermore, it can mean different things. While many folks might boil down homophobia to a “fear of gay people,” that definition is missing critical nuance and texture. Encyclopædia Britannica gets to that variance more clearly in its definition of the term: "culturally produced fear of or prejudice against homosexuals.... Although the suffix phobia generally designates an irrational fear, in the case of homophobia, the word instead refers to an attitudinal disposition ranging from mild dislike to abhorrence of people who are sexually or romantically attracted to individuals of the same sex."

When you know there are people out there who might "abhor" your very existence because of your identity, it can make coming out pretty damn scary. Realizing that my internalized homophobia as a bisexual woman is likely the guiding reason for my reticence to come out to my parents, I sought out the help of experts to figure out strategies for me to unpack that.

3 strategies for unpacking my internalized homophobia and celebrating my bisexual identity

1. Create a timeline that details what I’ve heard about people who are bisexual

This timeline-creating exercise, Véliz says, can help me figure out when I started developing internalized homophobia—which, in turn, can help me dismantle the hold it has on my life. That's because the process allows me to replace the sentiments with new, real-life experiences.

Though from a young age I found myself attracted to others regardless of where they fell on the sexuality and gender spectrum (bisexuality is often incorrectly subject to the gender binary), I often thought to myself, But I could never be in a relationship with anyone who isn't male. That’s because of what I’d heard about bisexual people: “It’s a phase!” “You’ll end up with a man, though!” “You’re just trying to be edgy!”

I realized that the more I heard those things, the more I started believing them for myself. Part of letting go of deep-seated untruths required me to remind myself that those are not my beliefs—they were just imposed on me.

2. Outline a family tree to recall what your family members have said about people who are bisexual

Growing up, I'd often heard my parents' disapproval of my uncle's "lifestyle," and this led me to believe that my bisexuality would also be less than ideal in my parents' eyes. In the rare instance that we'd see a gay couple in a telenovela, my parents would look away or say something like, "Ay, porque tienen que enseñar eso?" ("Why do they have to show that?") That didn't necessarily make me feel like they'd be proud of me for being bisexual.

When my younger sister came out as bisexual before me, though, I started to realize that it was okay to not be straight. Before my sister came out, I still saw myself as heterosexual and sometimes, when I was comfortable enough with those around me, I’d say I was “bi-curious,” but for so long, I wasn't comfortable admitting to myself or others that I’m, in fact, bisexual. “All of us who are in the community, at some point—we question ourselves,” says Collins. “We might carry some internalized homophobia, but that comes from the outside and not really from within—because of society, because of so much that we go through, because we are pushed aside, and because we are not provided with equal rights.”

As I identify the attitudes my family members hold toward people who aren’t straight, I'm sorting out the messages that make me feel like there’s something wrong with me for being attracted to more than one gender, says Véliz. From there, I can unpack those statements to remind myself that what others think or feel has nothing to do with me being my most authentic self.

3. Find people you look up to who share your sexuality

The key to using this strategy to combat your internalized homophobia, Véliz says, is to find someone whose interests or career are aligned with your own. For me, Véliz suggests finding a bisexual person who shares some other components of my identity with me, like being Latinx, a woman, and someone who works in media.

"To know that someone out there has paved the pathway for you to be who you are, or at least to have the guts to fight for your understanding of your own self, is very empowering for a lot of people,” says Véliz. To that end, I identified Cuban American writer, reporter, and self-proclaimed “ethereal bisexual” (per her former Instagram bio) Suzy Exposito as top of my list.

Formerly a Latin music writer at Rolling Stone and now a music reporter at The Los Angeles Times, Exposito—who is openly bisexual—is a guiding light for me as a Latinx, bisexual writer. I've been following Exposito since May 2020, the same month her Rolling Stone cover story on reggeatón superstar Bad Bunny was published. During that time, I hadn't been able to get a full-time writing job, and simply seeing Exposito, a bisexual Latina like me, gave me hope that there was place for me in this industry.

I'm still working on externally celebrating my sexuality with everyone in my life. But personally accepting it is becoming easier as I unravel the internalized homophobia I've clung to for so long. Though I haven't yet come out to my mom, dad, or uncle, my ultimate goal as I unpack my internalized homophobia is reminding myself that my bisexuality won't make them love me less when I do fine the strength to have that conversation.

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