Lesbian and gay invisibility/”Coming out”
An additional difficulty is the invisibility imposed upon lesbians and gay men, and our relationships. Lesbian and gay history has been obscured through the active erasure of historical references to lesbianism and homosexuality. Lesbian and gay male invisibility is maintained by the pressures which force many lesbians and gay men to conceal our sexual identities, pressures such as the threat of discrimination, harassment and violence. The enforced invisibility of lesbian and gay male sexualities and relationships contributes to the normalization of heterosexuality and heterosexual relationships, and fuels the popular misconception that heterosexuality is natural and normal, whereas lesbianism and homosexuality are deviant and perverse. This contributes to the oppression of lesbians and gay men, not only because it fuels social prejudice against us, but also because many, particularly youth, internalize the message that they are not normal and consequently suffer insecurity, anxiety and shame:
“As young people we are told that gays are to be avoided and gayness hidden because homosexuals are perverted, unhappy, disgusting and likely to molest heterosexuals. Sometimes it was said directly through queer jokes, verbal attacks and threats or reports of violence. Others of us heard more subtle comments … bit by bit we began to accept what we were told. We absorbed anti-gay beliefs even before we knew that we were gay. It was often only with great difficulty that we could acknowledge our own gayness, for then these beliefs would apply to us.”
Goodman, Lakey, Lashof & Thorne, No Turning Back: Lesbian and Gay Liberation for the Eighties (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1983), 23-24.
The normative status of heterosexuality also induces some lesbians and gay men to deny their sexual identities—sometimes for many years—and to engage in unhappy and unfulfilling heterosexual relationships in an effort to conform to the socially prescribed heterosexual ideal. This reinforces social pressure for lesbians and gays to remain invisible, to hide their true identities and to conceal their relationships. For many, this is an emotionally and psychologically damaging experience:
” ‘The opposite of self-disclosure, keeping this information entirely to oneself, is an affirmation of internalized homophobia, implying that this aspect of oneself is too shameful to disclose to anyone.’
Having to decide whether to come out, and then deciding not to, means never being able to forget that we are other; that we don’t belong. Remaining in the closet can mean we feel continually sick and ashamed of ourselves all the time as we pass as heterosexual. … Because the systemic discrimination is so powerful, it does not occur to us that we may be healthy and society may be sick. Thus, like the law, lesbians and gays may believe the issue is an individual, rather than a societal or systemic one.”
Sophie, “Internalized Homophobia and Lesbian Identity” (1987) 14 Journal of Homosexuality 53, 60, cited in Abramczyk, Heterosexism, Legal Education and Lesbian Oppression, University of Ottawa Feminist Legal Theory, 1990, 31.
The absence of legal protection for gays and lesbians, and for our relationships, therefore has consequences far beyond the immediate denial of a benefit: the denial of equality can undermine self-confidence and self-esteem, and inhibit the ability of lesbians and gay men to live full lives and be open with those dear to us.