The anatomy of self-loathing: Understanding homophobia and internalised homophobia

Ask around about homophobia, “What does it mean and how does it best manifest?”

If you chance upon a cis-heterosexual person who isn’t defensive – the way many a Nigerian cis-hetero person is wont to be and for the good reason that they are complicit in the criminalisation of queer humanity, they are likely to define it simply as, ‘violence towards the LGBT+.’

If you chance upon a defensive cis-heterosexual their answer is likely to be any iteration of, “It is not everyone that doesn’t agree with your lifestyle that is homophobic,” or, “You keep throwing that word around to shut people up from criticising your lifestyle.”

The American Psychological Association defines the term homophobia as “dread or fear of gay men and lesbians, associated with prejudice and anger toward them, that leads to discrimination in such areas as employment, housing, and legal rights and sometimes to violence.”

A vast majority of people understand the aspect of homophobia involving discrimination in the area of legal rights – most Nigerians are aware of the existence of the laws criminalising LGBT+ Nigerians; at least even if they may not know the content of said laws.

From the most recent and most vile – the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which not only criminalises LGBT+ love but also allies and organisation seeking to offer assistance or support to the LGBT+. To the archaic colonial relic that still persists in the Penal Code. And the laws that exist in Shariah practicing Northern Nigeria.

Many do not however know what internalised homophobia is, even among the affected – the LGBT+ community.

By the aforementioned definition of homophobia, to say internalised homophobia might come off like an oxymoron. How could someone dread or fear themself? How could a person be prejudiced and harbour anger toward themself? How could anyone discriminate against themself in employment, housing, and legal rights? And how on earth is it possible for a human being to be violent towards themself or their kind?

These are valid queries with lived experiences whose horrendous outcomes we sometimes read about in the news. Like the continuing extortion of queer people whose only crime is seeking human companionship the only way nature has allowed them to. Or the physical, emotional and in some cases sexual assault – particularly with queer women but certainly not limited to them – of the LGBT+. Or the outright murder of the LGBT+, with many cases reported as some random act of violence and swept under the carpet to avoid the shame of being outed in death.

A lot of times the perpetrators of these acts of violence are non-homosexual homophobes.

Homophobe – A person with a dislike of or prejudice against gay people. 

oxford dictionary

Yet, not very infrequently, these acts are perpetrated by other LGBT+ persons who are dealing with internalised homophobia, or are simply criminals intent on taking advantage of the legal and social isolation of the LGBT+.

This is how LGBT+ people absorb homophobia and internalise it to the point of hurting themselves and others:

According to a 2013 study by Pew Research, the average age LGBTQ people begin to realize they aren’t heterosexual is 12. Yet, the average age they share that vital information with others is 20. This is a US research, but it is not far off mark from the personal experience of this writer and a host of their acquaintances and friends. Coming out for LGBT+ Nigerians still remains something that rarely happens, and when it does it is either because someone is outed or they choose at an often much later age than 20 to come out to their near and dear.

In the time following the realisation of their sexuality, young LGBT+ people struggle to come to terms with their sexual identity. They’re also absorbing the attitudes and beliefs of those closest to them. Parents and other family members, partners, Churches and Mosques and religious schools, and peers have great influence in shaping a young person’s self-image and self-worth. It is near impossible to grow around homophobic people without picking up some of that filth. Hatred is catching, unless we are intentional about not falling prey to it.

LGBT+ people with internalised homophobia may:

  • Deny their sexual orientation, both to themselves and others
  • Lie to themselves about same-sex attraction
  • Maintain secret same-gender relationships often in betrayal of a marital vow entered into through a sham marriage.
  • Believe they or same-sex sexual relationships are bad or wrong
  • Feel contempt, anger, or resentment toward other members of the LGBQ community – leading sometimes to the violence towards fellow LGBT+ mentioned above.
  • Force others to keep their secrets or stay “in the closet”
  • Be uncomfortable around other LGBT+ – leading very often to discrimantion in areas such as employment, housing or just access to opportunities.
  • Engage in unhealthy relationships that leaves them more broken. 
  • Engage in risky behaviors, including substance abuse.

All the aforementioned are grave enough, yet it gets worse.

There is a mental health cost to internalised homophobia that is often an addition to what researchers term, ‘Minority stress,’ which predisposes the LGBT+ to mental health issues a lot more than their cis-heterosexual peers.

Minority stress describes well documented chronically high levels of stress faced by members of stigmatised minority groups. It may be caused by a number of factors, including poor social support and low socioeconomic status; well understood causes of minority stress are interpersonal prejudice and discrimination.


According to a 2017 study by the American Psychiatric Association, LGBTQ people are twice as likely as heterosexual people to have a mental health disorder in their lifetimes. Additionally, gay people are 2.5 times more likely to experience major depression, anxiety disorder, and substance use disorders, and four times more likely to attempt suicide during adolescence and three times more likely as adults. These higher rates of mental illness are thought to be due to the greater risk these communities face for bullying, discrimination, verbal and physical abuse, and childhood sexual abuse.

All that in addition to enough self-loathing to drown one’s capacity for joy enough to lead them to cause harm to themselves as well as others who are like them can be crippling, but it is above all dangerous to everyone.

What can be done:

Therapy helps greatly. Speaking to LGBT+-informed therapists – who are luckily readily available thanks to organisations like The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs) among others that cater to the health and wellbeing needs of the LGBT+ – can help one process the source of their self-loathing and begin to heal.

Because the resources available to care for mental health issues may be limited in Nigeria, speaking to other LGBT+ persons who are non-judgemental and can listen with empathy and advise accordingly can also help in the interim.

The goal should remain to heal enough to quit hhurting oneself and others.

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