(Heterosexism: discrimination against homosexuals based on the belief that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality. Heterosexism is built into our institutions such as laws, the media, religions, the family, education. The result of institutional heterosexism is that everyone is taught to be homophobic.)

By external oppression I mean the words and actions of others, for example,
* rejection by parents, friends, work colleagues;
* being bullied or taunted at school or witnessing the same;
* being physically or verbally attacked;
* being arrested/dismissed from the forces;
* losing your job or not getting promotion because of your sexual identiy;
* being bombarded daily with negative stereotypes of homosexuality from the media, family and friends, religion;
* the almost complete lack of support and understanding from parents, youth service, school, health and social services, etc.

INTERNAL (Homophobia: the recognised or unrecognised fear or hatred of homosexuality or homosexuals that is present in both heterosexuals and homosexuals).

By internal oppression I mean the internalisation of a stigmatised identity. Everyone internalises the things said about homosexuality, such as: homosexuality is a mental disorder, a sickness, an illness; homosexuality isn't normal, it's not natural, it's a deviancy, it's a perversion, it's a crime against nature; homosexuality is a sin, it's immoral; homosexuals are promiscuous, only interested in sex, obsessed with sex, carry disease, have all got AIDS; homosexuals are not to be trusted, they lead young people astray, they are child molesters, they are dangerous, they are sex abusers; male homosexuals are all sissies, effeminate, limp-wristed, want to be women, dress like women; all female homosexuals are butch, masculine, ugly, want to be men, dress like men, do not have children, hate children; homosexuality is a white disease, it's a capitalist disease, it's a western disease, it isn't found in the country, only in cities; ad nauseum. At the same time, we internalise things said about heterosexuals, for example, they are normal, healthy, fit, men are macho, women are feminine, etc.


Utilising previous work, the following model has been developed to assist our understanding of the stages a person who belongs to a minority group might go through from internalising a stigmatised identity to developing a positive identity. It should be noted that, without help, only a few will arrive at the final stage - isolation and multi-oppression make progression more complex.

Stage 1: We're unaware that we are different from the so-called majority but we still internalise the negative messages (preparing us to be homophobic, racist, classist, sexist, etc).

Stage 2: We begin to realise that we are different from the majority and, because of the internalised messages (internalised oppression) are ashamed of who we are. We desperately want to be like the majority and try to conform to heteorsexuality.

This is much worse during adolescence because this is the time when many lesbians and gays are becoming more aware of their true sexual identity; it is also the time when there is much more pressure to conform to heterosexuality. This makes lesbian and gay youth isolated and creates deep conflict making them vulnerable to depression, suicide, alcohol and drug misuse.

Use of alcohol or drugs as a means of coping, and isolation from accurate information and other members of our minority group who challenge the stereotyped images, means that we can either get stuck in this stage or, if we progress, we do not deal with our internalised oppression and our self-esteem will remain low; we will continue to be vulnerable to alcohol and drug abuse, depression and suicide.

Stage 3: Some of us make contact with other homosexuals and begin to realise we are not alone. If we're lucky we will meet other lesbians and gays who act as positive role models and have access to accurate information and support which contradicts the messages we've internlised. However, we are still greatly influenced by society and feel torn between being proud of who we are and, at the same time, being ashamed.

Those who are isolated are less likely to have access to accurate information and support and are more likely to remain isolated or to meet negative role models, i.e. homosexuals who are into alcohol and drugs and who have a negative self image. In this case, internalised messages will not be challenged and the person will get stuck in Stage 2, remaining vulnerable to depression and suicide, alcohol and drug misuse.

Those who can 'pass' can also get stuck in stages 2 or 3. Being in the closet (or passing as heterosexual) whilst guarding us from external oppression, has a great toll on our emotional health. It means, for example, we face the threat of being discovered and are open to extortion and intimidation; we are unlikely to get appropriate support; and, worst of all, we are unlikely to develop positive homosexual identities and self esteem.

Stage 4: Through access to accurate information, positive role models and support, we realise it is society which is wrong and not us. We reject the dominant image of homosexuality and develop a positive identity. This stage is extremely important in eliminating internalised negative images and beliefs and helps us to develop our self-esteem.

There is also a danger of getting stuck in this stage, however, when we become arrogant and argue that we - as homosexuals or as women etc - are the 'most oppressed.' We ignore or minimalise other oppressions. In consequence we are, in turn, guilty of oppressing not only other minority groups but also members of our own minority group who are multi-oppressed. If we are multi-oppressed we continue to oppress ourselves by not dealing with all of our internalised oppressions. We often project the effects of other oppressions onto the one we consider the 'worst.' For example, many feminist lesbians consider their oppression as women to be 'worse' and deal only with that, ignoring or minimalising lesbian oppression and projecting the effects of heterosexism and homophobia onto sexism and mysogyny.

Stage 5: We realise that there are often many aspects to our identity and, by accepting and dealing with all of our internalised oppressions, we are on the road to recovery, developing our self-esteem and confidence, and becoming complete human beings. This plays a crucial role in helping us to cope with everyday discrimination.

We realise that being separate from the rest of society means we are limited in what we can do, what we can achieve, that we must engage in society to fulfill all of our needs and to challenge the system. We become aware that oppression follows a similar pattern for all minority groups. We make links between oppressions and want to eliminate all forms of oppression.

n.b. Because of the effects of homophobia and sexism, lesbians (and some gays who are isolated or multi-oppressed) often get stuck in the first three stages. Feminist lesbians often skip stages 2 and 3, hence they are more likely to get stuck in stage 4.

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CASS, V.C. (1979) Homosexual identity formation: A theoretical model, Journal of Homosexuality, 4(3), pp. 219-235.

CASS, V.C. (1985) Homosexual identity: A concept in need of definitions, in: DeCECCO, J.P. & SHIVELY, M.G. (Eds.) Origin of Sexuality and Homosexuality, pp.105-126. (New York: Harrington Park Press). Cited in: SLATER, B.R. (1988) Essential issues in working with lesbian and gay male youth, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 19(2), pp. 226-235.

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LOIACANO, D.K. (1989) Gay identity issues among black Americans: Racism, homophobia, and the need for validation, Journal of Counseling & Development, 68, pp. 21-25.

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SUE, D.W. (1981) Counseling the Culturally Different (New York: John Wiley & Sons) (Cited in: BARRETT S.E. ibid).

TROIDEN, R.R. (1989) The formation of homosexual identities, Journal of Homosexuality, 17(1/2), pp. 43-73.

© Jan Bridget 1994.