Text last Updated 31 July 2014
Links updated 8 February 2018
Photo taken in Moldova in 2007 | Unknown photographer | Towleroad | 14171
What this is about
What is self-oppression, and why is it unhelpful?
Oppression has many meanings. In relation to gay men and lesbians it means the steps society takes to burden us psychologically or mentally, so that we are depressed, laden with grief and have a sense that we are a failure or of low worth. It can mean the expectations of your parents and the pressure society places on you to fit in or be ‘normal’.
Self-oppression means the gay person is doing society’s work himself; he has adopted and internalised straight people’s definition of what is good and bad and devalued his opinion of himself. Some people view gay Apps such as Grindr by their nature and exclusivity as further examples of gay men oppressing themselves, by just using the App. That is, of course, a matter of personal opinion.
Self-oppression is known by other names, including internalised homophobia.
In the early 1970s, as gay people struggled to gather together and organise groups, reach common understandings amongst themselves, explain themselves and formulate ideas so that they could start campaigning for their rights, they considered self-oppression to be a major problem that gay people suffered from. In a famous publication called With Downcast Gays, authors Andrew Hodges and David Hutter considered that by oppressing ourselves, we allow homosexual oppression to maintain its overwhelming success. We have been taught to hate ourselves — and how thoroughly we have learnt the lesson.
Those views were formed in the context of the early 1970s. Homosexuals were only decriminalised in the United Kingdom three years earlier, in Autumn 1967. There was very little information available to inform consideration or debate. There were few visible or accessible gay organisations, precious little gay literature, no gay media, very little understanding of gay culture. The experience of gays at the time was thought to be usually of disapproval from their families, being taken to the doctors to be ‘cured’, and so on. The sense of shame, of low worth, was instilled. It was indeed a heavy load on our minds at the time, as we imagined the world to be. But it was impossible for the activists and writers of the 1970s to know whether the limited literature of the time, and the few documented and available case histories or personal accounts of the time, were accurate or inaccurate, typical or untypical.
Other groups in society – such as Marxists, socialists – came out with political theories on sexuality and self-oppression and published their ideas. Again, they were formed in the contexts of the time, their political ideology, their views and the limited information then available.
Looking back, things look very different. Yes, in the 1950s many gay people committed suicide when they were arrested but they did not take their lives because they were in any way ashamed of what they were; they did it for other reasons, mainly because they had been discovered and, with no legal rights or protection, their careers and life were in ruins. Frequently measurement of the self-image of gay men and lesbians reveals that they are no more or less ashamed of themselves than members of any other section of the community, and those measurements have hardly changed from decade to decade.
It is true to say that people who struggle within themselves to accept their own sexuality even today try hard to be something they are not, to please their family or in order to have a career or participate in some activity important to them which they think they would be unable to do if they came out. It is a personal choice, not self-oppression. Eventually they find they cannot maintain the pretending any more, or grow tired of it and come out, only to find that their families knew all the time, or accept them because they love them. Other gay men and lesbians just accept their sexuality from the outset and get on with it. It’s their choice.
Rainbow Project, No Date: Internalised homophobia
Fordham University, No Date: Gay Liberation Front Manifesto 1971 “Self Oppression”
Huffington Post, 30 July 2014: Gay Shame and Grindr
Gay Left issue 9, 1979 (opens .pdf file)
The Guardian, 8 Feb 2018: Self-loathing among gay people is nothing new. We’re overwhelmed by it