‘Internalised homophobia’: The exception or the paradigm?

by | 15 Jun 2016

Omar Mateen

Omar Mateen

Shortly after the 11 June anti-LGBT massacre, it became clear that the perpetrator, Omar Mateen, had a gay profile of his own. Commentary poured out associating Mateen with internalised homophobia.

What shall we make of that diagnosis? It’s not necessarily wrong. Given our long and complex histories of sexual taboo, psychological explanations for gays aggressing others as gays are certainly plausible enough.

Throughout much of the media, however, ‘internalised homophobia’ is recited not to enhance the public’s insight into the politics, but to write politics out of the analysis altogether. If the killer was gay himself, it seems, then maybe his crime wasn’t really about politics.

Far from surpassing the age-old medical model of non-normative heterosexualities as disease (memorably documented by Foucault) that response keeps the pathological paradigm alive and kicking. Who needs a demo? Just find the right clinic.

Why do we continue to view sexual contexts as the opposite of political ones?

From Marx to Beauvoir

The notion of reflexive repression—that is, self-repression internalised within subordinated groups—is by no means unique to gender or sexual identities.

Classical Marxism is unthinkable without the concept of subordinated groups assimilated into their own active oppression, notably the 19th century industrial proletariat. That insight persists through Marxism’s affiliated concepts of ideological superstructure, false consciousness, and political-economic hegemony.

Critical race theory, too, documents ethnic minorities absorbed into their own perpetuation of the racism that harms them. And feminism, famously Simone de Beauvoir’s, crucially critiques the various ways in which women end up being participants—‘complicit’—in patriarchy.

But two striking differences emerge.

First, unlike ‘internalised homophobia’, those other insights into reflexive repression remain largely the preserve of academics. They may occasionally creep onto the pages of the Guardian or the New York Review of Books, but are far from being media commonplaces.

Second, those other models are not invoked to defuse political understandings. They exist for no other reason than to broaden our appreciation of their associated politics.

‘The woman’s part’

We credit Foucault with the insight that the post-Enlightenment psychologising of sexualities signified a massive de-politicising of them. Yet we credit Fanon with the reminder that psychology and politics cannot be shorn apart. And we remember feminism’s abiding exhortation that ‘the personal is political’.

What would it look like, then, if we were to explain violence within or against other groups using that same model of psychological reflexivity—that is, of violence against the Other construed as violence against the detestable within ourselves? (Decades after Lacan, Lévinas, and Derrida, it certainly can’t be called a new idea.)

‘[T]here’s no motion / That tends to vice in man, but I affirm / It is the woman’s part’. Thus exclaims Posthumus, one of Shakespeare’s many false-cuckolds, in Cymbeline. He is about to command his wife’s murder after fatuously believing lies about her infidelity.

Posthumus’s wrath against her turns to rage against all women: ‘be it lying, note it, / The woman’s; flattering, hers; deceiving, hers; / Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers’. And that murderous impulse against all women becomes, in turn, a murderous impulse against ‘the woman’s part’ in himself.

Just like ‘internalised homophobia’? Yet, outside the academy, popular discourses conceptualise male violence against women without that additionally reflexive element which they spontaneously attribute to homophobic violence. Rarely do the media present male violence against women as a violence against the woman within the man. Suddenly that’s a specialised scholarly discourse, and not the kind of commonplace that ‘internalised homophobia’ has become.

Rats and cockroaches

Patterns of nationalist or inter-ethnic violence are similar. Once they reach fierce enough levels of intensity, propaganda against the detested group acquires a lexicon of hygienic self-cleansing. The detested group becomes characterised as filth and muck, rats and cockroaches.

In other words, they represent a pollution of the type that must invariably be eliminated from one’s own body and one’s own home (anti-miscegenation laws being particularly emblematic). They nourish a mythologising discourse, harking back to a Golden Age that never was, which shrouds the group in purity, cleansed of the alien taint. The Jew most detested by Nazism was not the Jew living and breathing among the Germans. It was the symbolic Jew lurking within the Germans.

Yet those observations, too, remain confined to scholarly circles. Only rarely do popular characterisations portray inter-ethnic violence as a violence waged against the Other’s abhorred traits carried within the perpetrating group.

In the case of anti-gay violence, we readily speculate about a perpetrator’s suppressed homosexuality even without the kind of evidence discovered in Mateen’s case. There is little resistance to seeing the psychopath as presumptively gay, hence the violence as presumptively reflexive.

But with these other forms of violence, the opposite seems to hold. Reflexive elements go unnoticed, and are certainly not deemed presumptive or constitutive within mainstream political analyses.

Everyone’s a pervert

Internalised homophobia ends up, then, as the aberrant model. Yet we have every reason for viewing that model not as the exception but as the rule, the analytical paradigm, extending far beyond the contexts of sexuality.

Internalised homophobia ends up as the exotic, psychologising approach, the alternative to a straightforwardly political model. And yet as soon as we apply it beyond sexuality to those other contexts, its indissolubility from politics becomes glaring.

In a legendary and seminal footnote, Freud observed that the homosexual is indeed a pervert, but only in the sense that everyone is a pervert. Shall we now add that anti-gay violence is indeed pathologically reflexive, but only in the sense that mass violence, inherently, is pathologically reflexive?

Public discourse—beyond the academy—needs to apply the same psychologically reflexive model to other forms of mass violence that we all find so easy and obvious in the case of homophobia.

Eric Heinze is Professor of Law & Humanities at Queen Mary, University of London. His most recent book is Hate Speech and Democratic Citizenship (OUP, 2016).


  1. Nietzsche recognised the paradoxically enticing role of guilt-inspired self-hatred when he wrote, “Whoever despises himself nonetheless respects himself as one who despises.”

    The above thought-inspiring and consensus-challenging piece by Eric Heinze raises the important issue of internalised homophobia and the cultural reluctance to apply any similar paradigm to other parallel contexts that remain adamantly construed as political rather than psychological, and the article highlights just how much the personal is indeed political. The phenomenon of psychological projection is possibly far more rife in our own psyches, and in those of other people, than we imagine.

    The engine for all this. or so it strikes me as a result of my reading in the literature of forgiveness and psychotherapy, seems to be the overwhelming power of raw guilt and shame, which we humans find too agonising to bear for very long in their most present and unreconstructed form when they surface in our psyche.

    The possibility of trying to escape from guilt and shame by means of projecting wrongdoing (or wrong-being) onto others – by ironically escaping on to the less uncomfortable high ground of moralist by means of condemning oneself from a perspective of imagined moral probity – is what Nietzsche meant by the flight into “one who despises”. This insight may be the key to understanding the mechanics of socially-induced self-contempt and its temporary resolution by means of reflexive, projected self-contempt onto the Other. An action so often carried out with great enthusiasm and determination – sometimes even, tragically, with an assault rifle – in order to restore some degree of perceived moral self-worth, just so that the tormented individual feels he can reconnect with himself in some perverse. pathological way by gaining some temporary respite from the searing pain of raw guilt. Eric Heinze is right to raise the question of how pervasive this psychological projection is, and how it should be understood in a political context.

    The personal and the political are inextricably intertwined. When we see the homophobic mass-murderer Mateen as a tormented, self-hating gay person, who was motivated by the homophobia he had internalised, then we consider the atrocity from a psychological perspective. However, actions, attitudes and beliefs do not arise out of a vacuum: if Mateen had internalised homophobia (homophobia) then there must have been something external to internalise in the first place, and it is the external homophobia that lends itself to the political analysis and the call for political action and reform. If he did have homoerotic feelings, then what role did Mateen’s religious education have in bringing about the tragic recent events? What was he taught as a child and throughout his life about homosexuality, and what effect did this have on his capacity to develop as a balanced, happy, self-accepting, self-loving individual, with a sense of sexuality that was well-integrated into a healthy psyche? What contribution did the homophobic attitudes have on him that he observed in his environment? What can we do in terms of political action, to raise consciousness about the harm caused by homophobic attitudes, and especially those indoctrinated into children by adherents of extremely homophobic religious beliefs? The political will always impact the psychological: and indeed, the political only ever has any meaning insofar as it aims ultimately to promote the psychological well-being of humanity. Recognising the social causes of pernicious self-hatred, and promoting the social conditions for unconditional individual self-acceptance and self-love, are political actions that have as their end a very positive psychological impact.

  2. Intriguing and astute as ever Eric, though I thought you were going to conclude quite differently. As I see it, your argument leads logically to an insistence that homophobic violence be read as political, as political as other forms of violence, rather than to advocating that those other forms of mass violence be read as needing ‘the same psychologically reflexive model’. Posthumous was indeed struggling with his internalised misogyny but that doesn’t mean we need to follow suit! Who cares about individualised or even so-called ‘social’ psy models after Hegel?
    The foucauldian in me balks at psychological models, the foucauldian criminologist even more so. Pick up any psychology-based text and you will find it leading straight back to either biologically-based or culturally-based blaming games that invariably end up trashing working-class families, indicatively mothers. Psy models were precisely what Foucault had in his sights when he asked in 1975 astonishment: ‘Have you read any criminology texts’, wondering how they could continue to go on. But go on they have.
    In short, I eschew causal models because they are so utterly problematic in my crime/criminology field. For foucauldians, it is effects, not intentions, all the way down and the effect of going with a psy model is that it pathologises when it’s the normality of violence and the intense politicality of that hegemonised normality that is the problem to be addressed by anyone analysing mass violence.
    As for the Orlando killer, surely the only interest in his alleged internalised homophobia is that it stuffs up Isis claiming him as some kind of radical hero.

    Adrian Howe, adjunct research fellow, Griffith University, Australia


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