Tag Archives: internalized homophobia

99 problems (and my story has them all): Diversity and “issues books”

For a while there, I had a great writing streak going. Ideas popped into my head at the most random times – at meetings, during conversations, while driving, or in the shower. I started carrying a small notebook with me so I could jot these ideas down before I forgot them – because too many times, I’d said to myself, “Oh, I’ll remember.” And, well, you know how that goes, I’m sure. It was like I couldn’t write fast enough. My day job was beginning to feel like this big inconvenience, because I didn’t feel like I had enough time to do justice to all these great ideas. But when an idea grabs hold of you, it’s hard to let it go. So I made the time to write, whether it involved staying up late, getting up early, or grabbing a few minutes here and there. The writing didn’t always come easy, and sometimes what seemed like a good idea in my head sounded clunky on paper.

And then . , . the well ran dry. For months, I’ve had trouble coming up with new, fresh, and compelling stories. Many writers I know have experienced this very thing, and in each case, the writing eventually started up again. But this felt a little different that what I’d heard people describe. It wasn’t like the well ran dry slowly, like a riverbed drying up in a drought. No, this felt more like the coin-operated showers you find at campgrounds – when your five minutes are up, the water stops abruptly, and there you are, freezing and dripping wet. Strange. And I had no idea why.

Until today.

Every spring, I attend a writing conference that’s hosted by my local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Last year’s conference focused heavily on diversity in children’s books, probably in response to the well-publicized and much-needed #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. One of the workshops was “How to Write Diversity Into Your Stories,” which, ironically, was led by young White female associate editor from a large New York publishing house. At the end of the session, one of the questions I had was this: When writing for a diverse audience, how do you incorporate issues like racism, homophobia, class oppression, etc., in a way that’s appropriate for children?

“I wouldn’t focus too much on those things,” she said. “If you do, then it’ll be an ‘issues book,’ which are the scourge of the publishing industry.”

An “issues book.” I’d never heard the term before. But since the conference, I’ve seen that term tossed around quite a bit, along with its sibling, the “problem story.” Book reviewers tend not to like issues books, and if they do, it’s despite the presence of these issues. Most children’s picture books with LGBT characters fall into the category of “issues books.” Many books featuring people of color do as well – and when they don’t, the race and ethnicity of the characters aren’t really a central part of the story.

So now what do I do? I thought to myself. I’d written a manuscript about a girl who’s grieving the loss of her transgender sibling – an issues book. I’d started working on another one, at the request of my editor, about a mixed-race girl with two daddies who’s trying to figure out how to navigate Mother’s Day at school – another issues book. I’d been playing with a story about an intersex character, and another about a child whose mother comes out as transgender – which are, of course, issues books. Meanwhile, in the back of my head, round and round like the stock ticker in Times Square, I’m hearing, Issues books are the scourge of the publishing industry. No wonder I couldn’t get anything on paper! So many of my ideas involved addressing a character’s personal struggle triggered by oppression, and the last thing I wanted to do was contribute to a scourge.

That was only part of my epiphany. The other came this morning, when I read this article from the Diversity in YA blog. What they had to say about “issues books” basically boiled down to this:

  • If your characters are part of historically marginalized groups, then oppression is part of their experience.
  • If your characters have multiple minority identities, then the issues they face will involve these complex intersections. (For that reason, most books don’t include characters with more than one minority identity.)
  • Simple narratives that have a clean ending don’t reflect the realities that multiply minoritized people face.
  • As long as minoritized people face oppression, then books that realistically capture their experience will need to include issues – even if it seems like “too many issues.”

BINGO. This article nailed it. This is what I wish I’d thought to say at that conference.

It’s scary to me how easily this editor’s words derailed me, which speaks to the power of internalized oppression. I’ve studied internalized oppression for a long time (my dissertation focused on internalized homophobia), and I’m continually amazed at how, like a toxic mold, it can creep up and invades our psyches so easily. Internalized oppression may keep us from writing the stories we want to write. It keeps publishers from putting those stories out there – they fear they won’t make money, or they’ll be too depressing. But I don’t think it’ll keep readers from reading them – because, for many of us, they are our stories.

Just before I started writing this blog post, a little story idea popped into my head. I jotted it down, and later I’ll play around with it. Yes, that quickly, the idea well seems to be filling again.



Filed under children, covert homophobia, culture, intersectionality, intersex, LGBTQ youth, media

Take a look at yourself, and make that change!

We all know what it feels like to be judged. Sometimes it’s just a look, or a facial expression. Maybe it’s the person’s body language – a flinch, or a step backwards. Perhaps it’s their tone of voice, or choice of words – or a blatant, stinging criticism. Or maybe the person just drops off the radar screen and disappears from our lives, without a clearly articulated reason.

If you are an LGBTQ person – particularly if you’re also in a “fringe” community – then you know exactly what this feels like. We can say over and over again, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But that’s not the reality. Names hurt. Rejection hurts. And when we’re hurt, we hurt. We hurt ourselves – and we may hurt others.

In some ways, internalized hate is like a cancer that metastisizes. The more we hate ourselves, the more that self-hate travels throughout our bodies and our psyches, expressing itself in a variety of ways. And there’s concrete research data that supports this idea. Studies have shown a link between internalized homophobia and relationship problems, sexual dysfunctions, substance abuse, eating disorders, physical health problems, stress-related disorders, and a host of other problems. According to a 2010 study published by Brian Mustanski, a researcher at Northwestern University, internalized homophobia is significantly linked to “internalizing mental health problems” such as depression and anxiety. Research from the Family Acceptance Project, headed by Caitlin Ryan at San Francisco State University, confirms this pattern – according to her research, LGBTQ youth who were rejected by their families were more likely to have poorer mental health outcomes, such as depression and suicide attempts, illegal drug use, and unprotected sex. When we hate ourselves, we act out in hateful ways against ourselves – and in ways that can potentially injure other people.

And in the LGBTQ community, it’s not just homophobia we’re talking about. A bisexual woman may feel ashamed that she passes as heterosexual – and that her life is easier – when she’s with a man.  A person who’s bisexual and non-monogamous may feel shame for reinforcing existing stereotypes of bisexuals. A transperson may feel shame and embarrassment because they don’t pass well (or guilt because they do). Or a transperson may only feel like a “real” transgendered person if they’ve had the bottom surgery. The ways we judge ourselves negatively are endless. And it’s these statements that ultimately lead to depression – and worse.

If we pay attention, and listen carefully to the negative judgments we inflict upon ourselves, it becomes more clear that the things we say to ourselves weren’t created in a vacuum. We repeat (or reinvent in more creative ways) the things that we heard from our families, our peers, the media, our teachers, our mentors. If a fish is swimming in toxic water, it’s inevitably going to drink some of that poison, whether it wants to or not. And no matter how resilient of a person you are, the toxic effects of societal hate are going to have a trickle-down effect into our psyches.

Obviously, eliminating societal hate is powerfully effective in reducing internalized homophobia (I wrote about this extensively in a previous blog post, “There Oughta Be A Law.”). In the meantime, however, how do we learn to practice unconditional acceptance of ourselves? How do we inoculate ourselves from the individual, institutional, and cultural judgments that surround us? I wish I had a simple answer to that question.

There is, however, a passage from Alcoholics Anonymous (known to AA members as “The Big Book”) that I’d like to quote as food for thought. It goes like this:

And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation — some fact of my life — unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.

Practicing acceptance of everyone – even those who hate us – is a tall order. And, to be clear, this doesn’t mean resigning yourself to accept the unacceptable. When a queer person is the victim of a hate crime, that criminal act is completely unacceptable. Subjecting ourselves to self-inflicted abuse – abuse stemming from our intolerance towards ourselves – is also unacceptable. However, those of us who have been victims at the hands of others, or who have victimized ourselves, need to remember that the victim is not to blame. But we also have the power to effect change – and that change begins with ourselves.

What if, for today, I choose to accept this person – myself – as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment? Instead of feeling overwhelmed with the monumental task of changing the world, what if we started with ourselves? What if we really listened to the words of Michael Jackson (who probably understood judgment better than anyone) – and actually heeded them?

I’m starting with the man in the mirror

I’m asking him to change his ways

And no message could have been any clearer

If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make that . . .


If you are in the Sacramento area on Saturday, October 6, please join Julie Interrante, MA, and Gayle Pitman, Ph.D., for Born This Way, a workshop that begins to explore the idea of changing ourselves and our world through radical self-acceptance. For more information, visit http://www.elements-sacramento.com.


Filed under biphobia, bisexuality, covert homophobia, gay suicides, hate crimes, health, homophobia, LGBTQ, LGBTQ youth, media, mental health, overt homophobia, psychological research, racism, relationships, sexism, stereotypes, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized, violence

Killing the buzz

New Year’s Eve is not one of my favorite holidays. Drinking and staying up late are really not my thing, so that cuts out the majority of New Year’s Eve activities from the list of possibilities. Frankly, I’m grateful that I live on the West Coast, where I can watch the ball drop in Times Square on the ten o’clock news and then go to bed. On this iconic night of revelry, I’m a major buzz-killer. 
Obviously, alcohol and New Year’s Eve celebrations tend to go hand-in-hand. And many people are able to enjoy a drink here and there without a problem. However, alcoholism has a longstanding and destructive presence in the LGBTQ community. Several studies indicate that alcoholism is three times more common in the LGBTQ community than it is in the general population, and that up to 45% of LGBTQ people abuse alcohol. Although recent studies indicate that these statistics are inflated, and that alcohol abuse among sexual minorities is on the decline, the fact remains that alcoholism – and substance abuse in general – is a significant problem in the LGBTQ community.
Given that gay bars are still central to the social life of many LGBTQ people, these statistics aren’t surprising. For decades, gay bars were the only places gay and lesbian people could go to escape from the homophobia and heterosexism of everyday life. Closeted by day, authentic and free by night – that’s the safe haven that gay bars have been able to offer, especially in areas where it’s not safe to be out and where there are no other social opportunities for LGBTQ people. Throw alcohol (and, more recently, crystal meth and other drugs) into the mix, and you’ve got a mood-altering experience combined with a social lubricant – perfect for LGBTQs who might be harboring internalized feelings of guilt, shame, anger, fear, sadness, and loneliness. No wonder substance abuse has become such an issue in the LGBTQ community.
It hasn’t taken long for researchers to zero in on the significance of homophobia and heterosexism – and countless studies have connected the dots between alcoholism and the oppression of sexual minorities. For example, in a 2008 study conducted by Genevieve Weber of Hofstra University, lesbian, gay, and bisexual participants who had a serious drug or alcohol problem were significantly more likely than their non-drug-and-alcohol-abusing counterparts to have experienced heterosexism and internalized homophobia. This past year, a study led by University of Washington researchers Keren Lahavot and Jane M. Simoni indicated that, among lesbian and bisexual women, substance abuse was significantly associated with experiences of victimization and internalized homophobia. And findings from the 2010 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions suggest that the combined experience of homophobia, racism, and sexism quadruples the risk of a substance-use disorder for lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults. Combine sexual minority oppression with the absence of other social opportunities besides gay bars and clubs, and you’ve got a public heath disaster.
Thankfully, many LGBTQ communities have taken significant strides to address alcoholism and substance abuse within their ranks. Most urban areas offer a range of social opportunities in addition to lesbian and gay bars. The Internet has allowed LGBTQ people, particularly those who live in non-urban areas, to connect with others. Increasingly, LGBTQ youth have social opportunities in the form of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in their high schools. And being in recovery for alcoholism or drug addiction (and choosing not to frequent gay bars and clubs) isn’t grounds for having your gay card taken away – in fact, it’s fair to say that there is now a sizeable LGBTQ recovery community.
For anyone reading this who might have a problem with alcohol or drugs, or for anyone who might know someone with an alcohol or drug problem, check out www.gayalcoholics.com. This site provides information about alcoholism and recovery for gays and lesbians, and it includes links to gay Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as well as LGBTQ-friendly treatment centers.   

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Filed under homophobia, LGBTQ, psychological research, racism, sexism