Sunday, June 20, 2010

Internalized Homophobia - Why Measure it?

Recently I saw an article that suggested that measuring internalized homophobia might be a waste of time.

I was intrigued. I have to admit, I've never been a big fan of internalized homophobia. Measuring it, I mean. But I never stopped to think out why the idea made me a bit queasy.

Maybe I should back up a bit. One of the leading theories about how homophobia affects people is that homophobia operates simultaneously at multiple levels: societally, institutionally, interpersonally, and internally.

Multiple levels of homophobia
At the societal level, homophobia (often called heteronormativity in this context), is the shared set of beliefs and assumptions about who ought to be porking whom. But more than that, it is a nexus of assumptions about what family structure and kinship should look like, about what gendered identities are possible and how they should be expressed. That's one reason why the debate over same sex marriage has been so contentious within the gay community - one the one hand it is about equality of opportunity, on the other, marriage is practically the very definition of heteronormative values.

Institutionally, homophobia can be expressed in official policy, or less official actions that intentionally treat sexual minorities differently than heterosexuals, or that result indirectly in the same effect.

Interpersonal homophobia is probably what most people think of when they hear "homophobia" - it's the disparaging words, the punch in the nose (then the gut, the groin, the kick when you're already on the ground, need I go on?). Interpersonal homophobia is the expression of prejudice from one person directed at another.

Internalized homophobia can mean a couple different things depending on who you're asking. Usually it refers to a form of self-loathing among gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals, the internal application of societal views on homosexuality on oneself. Sometimes people talk about internalized homophobia in anyone, including heterosexuals, as the result of internalizing the societal homophobia as being what one believes about homosexual and bisexual people.

So all these levels are in constant interaction with each other as well. A person is unlikely to let off a string of interpersonally homophobic slurs unless they have internalized societal views about homosexuality. They are unlikely to internalize these assumptions unless there is a shared ethos of homophobia in which that person lives, or grew up, and so on.

And all these can be in conflict with one another. For instance, one may live in a relatively non-homophobic society (like Rhode Island) with relatively few institutional policies that hinder people with same sex desire, but be in a more homophobic institution within this (such as a Catholic school), which nonetheless has a strong tradition of supporting individuals within the institution, and exposing them to very little interpersonal homophobia, so long as they maintain an internalized sense that their homosexuality is wrong.

So what's wrong with measuring internalized homophobia?
Based on the above, I obviously think that internalized homophobia is an important part of how homophobia/heteronormativity affect people. If nobody internalized homophobic assumptions, then it could not survive at a societal level either.
So why not measure it?

The article I read said that measures of internalized homophobia had very little predictive value for why some gay men get HIV and others don't. Not only that, but what predictive capacity it once had is rapidly diminishing. So, their argument was that it doesn't predict much, so measuring internalized homophobia may be a bit of a futile exercise.

But that wasn't entirely satisfying to me as a reason to avoid measuring it. So what if internalized homophobia has relatively little impact on HIV transmission - maybe it still plays a big role in some other health issue, like depression.

No, what I've decided bugs me about measuring internalized homophobia is the "internalized" part. I mean, describing "internalized homophobia" as a major health risk may in some sense be an important mechanism, but what sort of intervention does it lead to? How does one use that information to try to prevent disease, or better yet, promote health?

By describing "internalized homophobia" as a major health threat to sexual minority populations, the implication is that there are some of us who are in trouble (those of us who have internalized societal degradation as just), and others of us who are fine (we've coughed up the furball of societal hatred). Then what? Either the people who have internalized societal homophobia need some sort of intervention (which is paternalizing if that person is not actively seeking help), or they have some how brought these problems on themselves, failed to do what they need to do to take care of themselves.

The problem, as I see it, is that a focus on "internalized homophobia" focuses the potential for interventions internally, and doesn't take into account the full spectrum of the levels at which homophobia operates. Focusing on identifying and intervening with individuals who have internalized homophobia in no way explicitly challenges the broader social context within which these internalization processes occur.


Michael E. Newcomb, Brian Mustanski. (2009). Moderators of the relationship between internalized homophobia and risky sexual behavior in men who have sex with men: a meta-analysis. Archives of Sexual Behavior Epub aread of print 04 Nov 2009.

Michael W. Ross, B. R. Simon Rosser, Derek Smolenski. (2010). The importance of measuring internalized homophobia/homonegativity. Archives of Sexual Behavior Epub ahead of print 12 May 2010.


  1. Who said we shouldn't bother measuring it? My fave research methodology of all time, Wilson & Yoshikawa (2004), suggested that minorities all face discrimination and what matters is the style of our response to it, with men who took an avoidant or self-attributive approach showing higher risk than men who took more social responses. I'm sending you the double trouble report that I finally finished writing!

    PS. Love, love, love the 'furball' metaphor.

  2. Hey Daniel, I'm looking forward to reading yours - I've added the reference that inspired the piece, and a commentary refuting it.

  3. Thanks Bill! I tried to use Ross and Rosser in the report (sent btw) and IIRC the effects they described in most cases didn't survive once variations in sexual risk-taking were included in the model. I think the same thing happened in the stress and seroconversion article (Burchell et al, 2010) that AIDSMap reported.

  4. Love this "we've coughed up the furball of societal hatred"