There’s a unique kind of torture in being ashamed of being ashamed of being gay

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Internalised homophobia doesn't just go away when you come out, says Rowan Ellis. For some people, it is a constant – for others, it rises unexpectedly when a pretty girl touches your hand

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By Rowan Ellis on

We were on our fifth date, walking to Nandos for a romantic meal for two, when she reached out the back of her hand and brushed it against mine. It was the lightest touch, but every part of me felt it. I looked ahead and suddenly butterflies were tumbling furiously in my stomach – not because I was excited to hold her hand, but because a group of men were walking towards us and I was scared. I wanted to apologise, to make an excuse about sweaty palms, but instead I said nothing. We stepped away from each other to let the men pass between us. She didn’t try to hold my hand again.

There’s a unique kind of torture in being ashamed of being ashamed of being gay. I was the president of the LGBT society at my university – I ran campaigns and support groups, led queer-history workshops, marched at Pride… but I couldn’t hold a pretty girl’s hand. How could I call myself an activist? I wore (and still do wear) rainbow patches and pins with queer slogans and they felt like defiant armour – but, at the same time, I couldn't shake the fear that an act of intimacy as innocent as a touch of hands might be perceived as too much, too provocative, too gay. And that someone might try to do something about that.

This week, the results of the biggest-ever survey of the UK’s LGBTQ+ community were released – and found that 68% of LGBTQ+ people avoid holding hands in public. Many straight people talked about how shocked they were that the number was that high – but most LGBTQ+ people I know were shocked it wasn’t higher. The consequences of holding hands are different for straight and queer couples – the most obvious being that there are consequences when you’re queer.


The same report found more than 40% of respondents had experienced hate incidents – with the vast majority of the offences going unreported because they “happen all the time”.

Outing yourself in public is a precarious balancing act between wanting to be seen and wanting to be safe. As a femme queer woman, who people assume is straight by default, I am able to decide when I am visibly out. Asserting my queerness through make-up, clothes or body language is a powerful way of feeling seen by my own community. I become part of something bigger than myself by creating visibility for those who are feeling isolated and alone. But the difficult truth is that it isn’t just my community who can see these signals. The specific fear of femme “but you’re too pretty to be a lesbian” women I know is that we’ll be caught in the crossfire of hatred and arousal that so many homophobic men seem to sustain: simultaneously hating gay people, but also wanting to fuck a lesbian. Every man who I’ve politely told, “Sorry, I’m gay,” after they’ve approached me in the street has continued to follow me, crowded into my personal space to touch me, screamed homophobic and sexist abuse at me and/or told me in detail about the kind of threesome we should have instead.

Many of us, even the most out and proud, carry a pocket-size closet with us wherever we go

Many of us, even the most out and proud, carry a pocket-size closet with us wherever we go that we stumble back into when sharp eyes might turn our way. Maybe we wear things that fit more with traditional gender norms even though they don’t feel right, or stand a respectable distance from our partners, or lie by omission when asked if we have a boyfriend. People who don’t realise they’re speaking about us will spout homophobia and hatred right in front of our faces, and the bottom drops out of our stomachs – even when we know we’re “safe”. Because this isn’t what safe is supposed to feel like. And many more LGBTQ+ people don’t have the ability to choose whether or not to come out in public – they are too visibly queer or trans to be seen as anything other than who they are. They hear hatred right in front of their faces, too, only without even the illusion of safety.

But the most difficult truth of all is that every homophobic thought and attitude that has been socialised into the people who hate us was socialised into us, too. Most of us learned there was something wrong or inappropriate or shameful about being gay long before we learned we were gay ourselves. Internalised homophobia is an unparalleled destructive force that feeds into other statistics from the survey, things like mental health (24% of respondents had accessed mental-health services in the past year) and conversion therapy (2% of respondents had undergone some form of it, including corrective rape).

There are consequences at the end of a long process of homophobia – and until the root causes are addressed, the ban on conversion therapy proposed by the government is like putting a plaster on a stab wound. The homophobic ideas that you absorb, even unconsciously, don’t just go away when you come out – for some people, they are a constant presence. For others, they rise unexpectedly and devastatingly, when a pretty girl touches their hand.


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