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Article No. 128

Internalised homophobia

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This weekend the press is full of the story of the Chief Executive of BP - Lord Browne - who has resigned following problems arising out of his relationship with a young man he was introduced to after consulting a gay website.

There have been articles in the daily press and on the television news, but this Sunday I have read an article by Andrew Sullivan in the Sunday Times. I have to say that this article is one of his best and is most insightful on the whole subject. In it he tries to understand the thinking of Lord Browne by reflecting on his own experience.

On the face of it, people generally find it hard to understand why such an intelligent and high powered man should lie to a court about how, years previously he met another man with whom he went on to have a gay relationship lasting for four years. It seems to be a minor point (although I have no idea whether the obtaining of the desired injunction to stop publication of the offending article would have been inhibited if the court had known the truth about how they met). Yet lie he did, and persisted in the lie for a little time, only later admitting it to the court.

So why would such an intelligent man do such a thing? Well, we can all panic in extreme circumstances! But is there a deeper cause for this fear of the publicity?

In the article in the Sunday Times Andrew Sullivan recalls his own experiences in an endeavour to understand why the perjury happened - noting that Lord Browne who is nearly sixty is one generation older than he is. The man involved with Lord Browne is about one generation younger than Andrew Sullivan. We are thus dealing with three men born around approximately in the forties, sixties and eighties. Sullivan points up the immense changes in both law and general attitude that has taken place in that span of time.

For a gay man, born in the forties and coming into his teenage years in the fifties, 'homosexuality' was indeed a dirty word. In fact, homosexuality was a subject that was not even thought about or referred to in ordinary conversation. At that time being homosexual could lead you into doing time in prison. Being homosexual could lead to your being beaten up - even killed. Being gay would almost certainly prevent you from reaching the top jobs in all but a few lines of work. In that era you learned, as a gay man, to hide your gayness and to conform to the general run of things. There were, of course, some gay men around. Some were 'bachelors', others were in the priesthood. Later in the period there were gay comics - Larry Grayson springs to mind. But you could be amused by him without even understanding that he was making gay references in his patter. Even as late as the nineties, Morecambe and Wise, in some of their very funny sketches, shared a double bed without there being any inference in the minds of most people that they were gay.

In the five decades since 1960 the whole atmosphere and attitude of people generally towards homosexuality has completely changed - so much so that today young gay people can have the luxury of pondering whether or not to seal their relationship by a legal ceremony. They can prosper in most jobs and can even be accepted in the more open and sensible churches.

There were - and are still - strains and tensions for anyone born before the fifties that are unknown to later generations of gay people - and the earlier in the last century that they were born, the greater can be the stresses.

If Andrew Sullivan can himself feel certain stresses from his teenage years that today's gay people don't face, how much more would someone like Lord Browne feel, being two generations away from today's easy going gay community?

If, you are a gay teenager growing up in the period before say, 1970, the very idea of a homosexual person being accepted into society is anathema. In that era you learned to be a very private person and to keep yourself under strict control. In those days conventional society did not recognise homosexuality as other than a depraved and unacceptable practice. Anyone who chose to act like that was beyond the bounds of acceptable society. There was no question as to whether homosexuality was right or wrong - it was assumed by everyone to be obviously wrong, although of course there were a few gay people who broke through the barrier.

More than that - the subject of homosexuality just never arose in ordinary conversation, because it was so far outside the general view of what was right and proper. It is very difficult for today's generation to even conceive of a society being so blind to homosexuality and so completely condemnatory of it.

As I read him, Andrew Sullivan then uses the fact that, back in the fifties (and earlier) there was such a social embargo on homosexuality that gay teenagers who grew up then inevitably acquired a form of internalised homophobia, to explain Lord Browne's attitude. He sees Lord Browne's desire to preserve his 'privacy' - even though he went out and about socially with his male partner - as a form of this internalised homophobia. I agree with him. I also think that internalised homophobia still troubles many gay people today, and especially for those of us who are old enough to have experienced the pre-gay period - say prior to 1970.

This however is not just a struggle for those born before 1970! Internalised homophobia is still alive and relevant today and we all need to thoroughly understand what it is we are talking about, how it shows itself, and what can be done about it.

So what exactly are we talking about? As I see it, internalised homophobia is the name we give to the deeply rooted inner attitudes and tendencies that condemn not only what gay people do, but also the very fact of gayness itself. In gay people internalised homophobia is when we feel guilty about what we do and what we are as gay people.

In a culture where many religious people make an outright condemnation of homosexuality (often through not understanding it) gay people can feel targeted and accused of evil.

The older you are the more likely it is that you have deeply rooted internal homophobia. You may not even know that you are struggling with it in your psyche, but it will show in all sorts of ways and we need to be alert to notice when these signs show themselves. Indeed, you may think yourself the most liberated of people - but you may still be struggling with a part of your personality that has not yet fully accepted what and who you are.

What are the signs of this internalised homophobia? There are a hundred ways in which this will show itself. For example, you may feel guilty - and turn to some prop (for example eating or alcohol) as a comfort. Or you may feel unworthy to be with other (heterosexual) Christians - or even just uncomfortable to be in, for example, a worship service with an ordinary Christian congregation. Is this one reason why we have churches especially for gay people springing up? Or you may find yourself battling with addictions - for example internet pornography - which you can indulge in secret and so, you feel, without critical comments or condemnation by others.

There are a hundred and one ways in which internalised homophobia can show itself. You may be excessively protective of your privacy. Or you may adopt an 'in your face' attitude about your sexuality to other people - or to certain types of people. You may prefer to only be with another gay person in private, rather than be in public. You may feel inhibited in your prayer life. You may feel distant from a God who, some other people tell you, judges and condemns you.

It is not easy for gay Christians to walk completely free from the condemnation heaped upon them by many other Christians. The fact that some African Bishops and Archbishops are so condemnatory - and, indeed, so abusive (suggesting gay people are worse than dogs), explains why sometimes feelings of guilt naturally arise within our hearts. We wonder whether we have got it right - after all, they are bishops and archbishops! Maybe we have got it wrong!

The best way to know whether you are suffering from internalised homophobia is to examine your life - especially your attitudes, likes and dislikes to see whether you think they are 'normal' or whether they could have originated from internalised homophobia. If you are continuously anxious or afraid then it may be that you are battling deep fears and guilt within.

What can be done, if you suspect that deep down you are suffering from internalised homophobia? That is, that at some period in your life - possibly in you teenage years - you have taken into your inner self the criticism and condemnations of homosexuality that you have heard, and you have accepted that you are guilty.

The way out of internalised homophobia is to realise that you are accepted by God whatever you have done, whatever you are like now, whatever you fall prey to in all the years ahead. That God loves you totally just as you are and that he refuses to let anything come between him and you.

In other words what we need first, in order to overcome internalised self hate, to recognise what internalised homophobia really is - and then to experience the grace of God. Christ died for all your past sins, your present sins and all your future sins. It is only God's love that can totally clear us of self hate. It is only when we realise that Gods love has a purpose for us - yes for each of us - even you and me. And that he will bring these purposes to pass alongside us if we will yield up our hearts to him day by day. God is love and compassion and forgiveness - we can trust ourselves into his hands. And of course from time to time when we forget, or renege on our decision, we will then feel even more guilty. And then we have to realise that the grace of God covers even those setbacks and that his purpose will not be defeated just by a few backslidings by us.

What I am talking about is what some Christians call an experience of the cross. Only when we realise that Jesus hung on that cross for us - for you and for me - only then can we begin to realise how much God values our lives. Until that moment we are just another person among six billion people on earth - but at that moment it becomes personal and we realise that we are loved personally by God. That Jesus died for me. And for everyone else too - but he died for me.

I have deep sympathy for the situation that Lord Browne finds himself in. I am delighted that leading figures from arts, business and political establishments have joined forces to praise Lord Browne as a person, recognising his immense and unique contributions to business, the economy and to art, culture and the environment. I hope that a lenient view will be taken of his perjury and I wish him well. There but for the grace of God go I.

Tony Cross

May 2007






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