An essay on battling internalised homophobia, and the road to self-acceptance.
My friends will gladly share embarrassing stories about me. Most of these are innocuous enough; entry level humiliations that are ultimately harmless. They’ll rehash fables of drunk me stumbling around like a mummy with outstretched arms trying to hug a disinterested boy to death; or the time I had a ‘one-night stand’ and subsequently had to spend the next day in A&E after having a severe allergic reaction to his fake tan (the nurse thought I’d been stung; not the kind of ‘prick’ she was thinking.)
Yet, of all the things my friends may tell you about me, the one that embarrasses me the most is my former fear, if not slight hatred, of all thing’s LGBTQ+ related.
That’s right; this death-dropping, occasional make-up wearing, drag queen adoring and all-round hyper-poof you see today wasn’t always a true reflection of myself. You see, I used to have a lot of internalised homophobia.
Once Upon a Gay I’d openly admonish anything that could link me to the LGBTQ+ community. For years growing up I thrived on this hate, like a junkie clawing at a crack rock.
To survive the torture of living in a small, close-minded town, I repressed parts of myself because I was made to feel I was inherently wrong for being queer. This led me to oppose aspects of the LGBTQ+ community, and rather openly.
At the time I believed with an almost religious conviction that other gay guys perpetuated an image that in no way, shape or form reflected who I was. I’d get enraged when people made assumptions about me. ‘Oh, he’s gay he must like Britney’ or ‘he has a penchant for hair and makeup tutorials.’ And the classic ‘I BET HE LOVES MUSICAL THERATRE’ (okay, that last one is true.)
These traits I claimed to despise were used as ammunition against me, and this set of horrible circumstances mutated into hate, one that I directed outward. It wasn’t until I broke free from the shackles of small-town oppression that I started to see toxicity in this mindset. Then, after moving away to the city, I slowly began my transformation into the rampant, shrieking and wailing-car-crash homosexual you see today.
My self-acceptance didn’t happen over-night though; I didn’t go to one drag show and suddenly underwent a gay exorcism, leaving the venue a woke bitch brimming with rainbow-coloured self-love. No. Like every journey of discovery it took time, a lot of learning and heaps of patience.
Back then I said a lot of shitty things about other gay guys; and just as I lacked understanding and knowledge to decipher why I felt like that then, I lack the requisite words to apologise for it now.
I wasn’t who I am today, I wasn’t comfortable with myself – I, in all honesty, hated myself. Years spent in the jaws of a homophobic town left me with a potent self-loathing. Now when I think back to how I acted, or the thoughtless things I said (even how I dressed) I get retrospectively enraged.
Anyway, to expose my former crushing wrongness on this issue I’m going to share my first encounter with drag queens, in a gay venue, that helped steered the way to my self-acceptance. Back before I discovered how wonderfully rich and vibrant LGBTQ+ culture is.
I was new to the city of Glasgow. Nothing more than a tiny country mouse skittishly learning all he could about his fresh surrounds. I’d only been to gay bars a handful of times, and whenever I set foot in a gay venue I didn’t know how to navigate it.
When someone would make a popular gay quip, or pop culture references, I was quite literally clueless. Some people looked at my naivety as if it a was cute, clueless baby; others looked at me exasperated as if they wanted me dead. In hindsight, it probably didn’t help that I looked like a early-noughties’ emo survivor. My fringe hung over my face like a dirty shower curtain; my skin was so oily that I am surprised the USA didn’t try to invade my forehead, and all I wore were oversized vests, black hoodies and ripped jeans.
Yet of all my unfavourable traits I brought with me from my small town, the most repugnant of all my features and qualities was my unchanging belief that I was somehow inherently wrong for being gay. This toxic notion hadn’t yet begun to wash off from a childhood swimming in the homophobic harbours of a small, backwater town. Until one night when I saw an eye-opening drag show, then I truly started to (slowly) evolve and accept myself.
I’d taken the train into the city centre to meet my friend; we were going to see a local drag show, something that filled me with such dread that I didn’t even read the description of the event on Facebook. I walked from the station to where my friend was waiting hurriedly, holding my keys like they were Wolverwine claws (does anyone else do this?) as I paced through the dimly lit streets. We met, and he showered me with misplaced enthusiasm, then we headed to the venue.
The moment I entered the venue I was slapped in the face by my anxiety – this was the busiest place I’d ever seen. People were packed like sardines; the atmosphere was thick with excitement. You couldn’t move, everyone was sandwiched together and waring like rival states for a decent view. I felt as if I’d been trapped in a gigantic, gay bubble. I ‘glitterally’ couldn’t stand it.
I took in my surroundings the same way a thief would – basically I was looking for the nearest exit. I don’t know what I expected to walk into: Maybe something that looked like the cast of Trainspotting mixed in with Christina Aguilera’s Dirrty video? But it wasn’t that. The venue resembled a mystical-run-down Oz that was accidentally wished into existence during an insane week-long bender. But we were here now. So, with the uncertainty of a baby fawn on rocky terrain I wobbled over to the bar and waited for the show to start.
‘Hey, sweetheart. What can I get you?’ The bartender asked pleasantly. Being called ‘sweetheart’ wasn’t new to me, I’d obviously been called that before. However, being called ‘sweetheart’ by a 6’3 gay-guy that looked like he could choke-slam me through a table? That was a first.
It took my eyes a bit to adjust to the beaming lights and florescent colours, but eventually ten minutes later I found my friend, snuggled up beside two drag queens, in the middle of handing out ‘Missing Person’ posters with my face on them.
I tried to blend in but failed spectacularly. I stood and listened as my friend chatted about ‘drag stuff’ and episodes of RuPaul – which I hadn’t yet heard of. One of the queens flipped around, propelling herself with such velocity that she nearly lashed a passer-by with the razor-sharp ends of her hair.
‘Who do you want to win this season? ‘She asked.
I didn’t know how to answer. I rubbed at my throat. I felt like I was choking on a truck load of dicks, but not in a joyful way, more the ‘fuck what have I gotten into I can’t breathe’ kind of way.
‘Win what? Drag Race?’ She nodded at my reply.
My head started spinning. Drag racing? Isn’t that something to do with cars and women in lingerie? Why are these gays so invested in cars and scantily glad women? Had I got it wrong? Are gays straight now? Am I straight now?
Beads of sweaty panic started trickling down my face. Oh, God. It was like when I was young and had to pretend I cared about football when someone asked what team I supported. Eventually I replied:
‘Yeah, I ain’t sure yet, it’s too early to be sure don’t you think?’
That felt like a safe answer, think I dodged a bullet there. Nope. Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It turns out the season finale was airing that week. There was silence – crushing, awkward, echoing silence – that was almost too gruesome to endure. Eventually my friend intervened, telling the queen that I don’t watch drag race, that this was my first ever drag show and that I’m a ‘country bumpkin’ – FYI this isn’t a term of endearment. This caused the queen to give me a look that cut with the ferocity of an expertly handled corn scythe.
‘Where are you from? Don’t you have the internet there?’ She joked.
‘Eh, rude. We do. We have dial up.’
Classic Topher, trying to defuse an awkward situation with terribly timed sarcastic comments. The queen smirked, then reared away. Then the lights dimmed, and the show started.
I watched two different performances of queens monologing about something I had no clue about before then lip-syncing to songs I didn’t know. I’d never felt more uncomfortable in my life. Every inch of my skin felt as though it was crawling with stingy, awkward insects. I stood silently as everyone around me roared with applause and hurled energized chants at the performers. I didn’t have a clue what was going on.
I was awash with confusion; conflicted feelings duked it out and used my mind as their battleground. These performances were well-thought out and executed, but I couldn’t appreciate them. I didn’t know 80% of the songs that were being lip-synced too. I felt like an anachronism; I didn’t belong here, I was too stuck in my small-town ways, doomed to linger in the past as the rest of this crowed stampeded into the future.
The show reeled on. I felt sad, sick and mournful; my embarrassment started to morph into resentment, then resentment burst into anger and hate. I questioned myself: How could I openly hate something that was clearly bringing so many people joy and comfort? Rather than address the growing conflict boiling inside me I simply swallowed and internalised it further. Everyone here was wrong, and weird, and wore clothes that were at least two-sizes too small. It wasn’t me, it was them. Them, them, them.
The contrast between everyone else’s faces and mine couldn’t have been more marked: I wore a morose expression laminated by a thin shine of panic and sweat, while everyone else looked like gurgling, happy kiddywinks skipping through a field in the height of summer. Of course, the performing queen noticed this. How couldn’t she? Drag queens can smell fear!
From the far left of the stage this queen started strutting towards me; a moment later she was barely an inch from my face. I tried to push her away like a little girl batting hopelessly at a persistent wasp – but she wouldn’t budge. The audience cheered louder, and I knew she was going to try pull me up beside her. Now if you don’t have social anxiety then you won’t know this, but being hauled up involuntarily onto a stage, in front of a room packed full of people, is the emotionally traumatising equivalent of being locked in a cage in the middle of a village square while the townsfolk fling shit at you before they gather their pitchforks and wood for the fire, so they can burn you as a witch.
My heart thudded against my chest as my anxiety did cartwheels around my head. I felt as though I couldn’t breathe. The queen’s hand reached toward me in slow motion and it was so intense and overwhelming it’s a wonder I didn’t implode with sheer panic. I felt like the best course of action was to play dead, but it turns out it’s bears that works on, not drag queens.
I felt like I didn’t belong here, not in this gay world, this blazing scene. I didn’t fit in here anymore than I fitted in back home in the small pubs of my ignorant town. I felt like a nomad. The queen’s hand edged closer.
I swatted at her before she could latch on to me, then I turned around and made a bee-line to the bar. Two minutes later I text my friend with a flimsy excuse and left abruptly.
As I walked for my train home I was hit by an awful moment of realisation: All this time I resented those people in that bar for being able to be everything I was hated for back home; for having the bravery to be something – someone – I couldn’t. Those stereotypes that were stapled to my forehead; the ones that were forced into my hand like an eviction notice, I’d seen them as bad and ugly traits. But they aren’t bad or dirty or wrong. Never had been, never would be. I kept walking and of course it started to rain, because my life is just a series of dramatic moments copied from terrible b-movies.
I sat on the train and blamed everyone in that ‘place’ for making me feel this way; it was all their fault. They didn’t need to be that ‘gay’ or to dress like women or screech like stupid little girls smacked-up on sugar at a Little Mix concert.
This defensive psychological distancing had worked for years but as the train sped off toward home I was swept away by a burst of intense self-loathing. It was like I was pulling out my own brain and spanking it over my knee. It wasn’t them; it was me. I hated the people in that bar because I couldn’t be them; confident, glamorous, beautiful, expressive and so in touch with every fibre and aspect of themselves. I lacked the confidence, the courage, to be any version of myself that didn’t fit in with a small-town mentality. I lamented my inability to fit in anywhere.
When you realise that you’re the problem you instantly become the loneliest person in the world. I wasn’t the problem in the sense that I was the sole culprit; that was a feeling which was forced upon me by all my past tormentors. Yet those demons still somehow had their hooks in me. Years of black eyes and bloody noses, of homophobic slurs and comments about wearing women’s clothing had wormed their way so deeply into my consciousness that I truly believed I was wrong for being gay, for being camp, for being me.
I got home and lapsed into a coping mechanism I’d long hoped was buried.
I took a knife and I ran it across my arm several times; it felt like sticks of fire being dragged along my skin. I looked down at my arm and waited – but it wasn’t working. I didn’t feel release. Why didn’t I feel soothed or saved or numb? Suddenly the years of aggression I’d taken out on myself made complete sense. It wasn’t working because the part of me that needed release, that needed cut out, was in my psyche.
Growing up I’d shielded myself with rigorous remarks and claims that I was openly proud of being gay, but after that night I knew that all that was all a cheap façade; a flimsy defence I’d employed to keep my head up. I wasn’t okay with my sexuality at all. I know it may seem like an extreme realisation to come to after watching 40% of one drag show, but I’d had an emotional embolism, and this was just the evening my body decided to strike out.
It would be another year before I really started to not only accept who I was but also explore it as well.
One day I sat chatting with my flat mate and he insisted I give RuPaul’s Drag Race a try. ‘Start on season four!’ He said excitedly. ‘There’s a really gothic and alternative queen you’ll love called Sharon Needles.’ Fucking once a goth, always a goth, right? But inevitably he’d turn out to be right, I do adore Sharon.
In that moment an unreal calm took hold of me as I sat and weighed up my options: Do I finally own up to my past and conquer these demons? Or do I slyly wait, like a coward, and pretend that everything is fine? Do I keep blaming others for being ‘too gay’? Should I keep shunning the LGBTQ+ community and ignore aspects of myself I’m too scared to even try, let alone embrace?
Do I direct this internal hatred outward still? Do I make other people feel as bad as my past was making me feel? I could hope that maybe – just maybe – I’ll manage to dodge the culpability bomb again. Only this time I knew I couldn’t. Later that day my flat mate left to go out and I put on season four of Drag Race. I loved every minute of it.
Sometimes the journey to self-acceptance is radically different between one person and the next. It can be rougher for some than it is for others. Sometimes those differences consist of a few missing moments in your life – experiences you never got to have yet, had you had them, they would have changed your life earlier. I’m not going to be trite and say RuPaul’s Drag Race or that drag in general changed my life, I cannot attribute all credit to that; but it did start the ball rolling. Later that year I attended my first Pride event and, despite it raining biblical style, I loved it – I’d never felt more comfortable.
This had a domino effect on every part of my life; from how I dressed, to how I styled my hair (I got it cut off.) It even changed the topics I’d talk about. The more I got involved with people in the community, the more friends I made; the more friends I made, the more stories I heard from others of their struggles with bullying, self-acceptance, and self-love. The more people I connected with, the more I connected with myself in a way I never had before. I realised that I wasn’t the only one who had struggled and that realistically my struggle, as bad as it was at points, paled in comparison to the horrors some others have and still do face.
Most internalised homophobia is born from a lack of understanding about aspects of yourself. It starts with words like ‘fag’ and ‘poof’. It plants seeds that grow when people hate you for no reason other than your sexuality.
I remember at one of my school Christmas Dances I wasn’t allowed to bring a boy I liked. The excuse I was given was that he went to another school, only when I turned up at the dance. there were several pupils from other schools there with their heterosexual partners. It’s events like that shape you; that make you question yourself. It can cause you to hate yourself subconsciously, and that warps your perception of everything. All that hate did was pollute my life.
To my younger self I’d like to say this:
If you’re looking at a drag show snarling with disapproval, please think for a second where that hate comes from. Educated yourself on all things LGBTQ, learn our history. Please appreciate drag as an art form, as a political statement, as a celebration of culture. You need to know that Pride is first and foremost about remembering those that came and fought before us; they didn’t fight so hard just so you could live in a world that makes you hate yourself.
Little Christopher, the road to self-acceptance is quite often a path you need to walk alone. I wish I could nudge you in the right direction; I wish I could stop you hating your sexuality. One day you will learn that the traits we once believed to be negative are supporting pillars in our community. Just know that it’s okay to be gay, to be you, and if people don’t like your authentic self, then you’re probably just too real for them.