Internalized “isms” as a frustatedly necessary adaption

TW – discussion of mental illness and psychosis, internalized transphobia/homophobia and binarism, misgendering and discrimination, religious trauma

I spent more energy in my first “girl-on-girl” relationship navigating psychological hurdles bestowed onto me by my rigid Christian upbringing than enjoying the thrills of a newly established relationship. Even three years into my open queerhood with my gender thrown out the window I still stumble around the concept of dating women, connecting with women and just generally being around women. In my lost needing validation of my queerness state I ended up letting other girls trample over my boundaries and comfort zone.  In the year after I came out I was sexually assaulted by two different people, one whom I had entered an emotionally abusive relationship with. Both people were gender variant like myself, who may or may not have struggled with internalized isms. I definitely did though and that internalized critique of myself made it hard for me to connect with other queer people in a healthy way, or be emotionally available to them. Mostly I’d just say hi and run away and the only people who got into my inner world had to be persistent. After spending a lifetime in a closet I was desperate to have my relationships validate my increasingly queer identity (which is not a healthy approach to relationships in general). This sense of desperation had me staying in situations where I shouldn’t have and ultimately getting hurt.

Before we can present ourselves to the world as our whole self, we have to love that inner self and I didn’t know how to do that. I had spent twenty some years in shame, feeling like a fraud and just generally hating myself until I had a complete psychological breakdown. I needed spaces to heal from that and in general, those spaces didn’t exist, not with the partner I had at the time and certainly not with my parents who I lived with for a few months while recovering from my psychosis.

I didn’t know that safe space could exist within myself because it was me who had suppressed and hated my gender since childhood. This is not to say that I was to blame for that. We learn to internalize homophobia, transphobia and binarism from a young age because the environment is not accepting of us. This can happen because of many reasons, maybe its in language or through actions. For whatever reason a person can determine their environment is not a safe place for them to be themselves and they close off. Or the gender roles presented are so rigid that it becomes a sort of chain that we can’t shake off. What’s most important to me about my gender is that stating it and expressing and having it being accepted allows me to be my whole self. If don’t feel safe I find myself shutting down emotionally. I struggled to make phone calls because of the gendering of my voice. I lost my footing at a protest because a police officer called me ma’am. I literally disconnect from my body (and given that I have a physical disability which requires me to extra conscious in my motions I can end up taking a misstep and be on the ground in pain from a kneecap dislocation)  in situations where I am repeatedly misgendered because it is not just an internal experience, it also shapes our interactions with each other and I can feel when I am misperceived.

A huge part of the internalized “isms” that I struggle with is believing that my needs are not important, that my needs as a gender minority are less important that someone who is binary trans. Given the ignorance a lot of people have about non-binary genders, I have had to struggle to speak up because even though it is my intent to live as “out-of-the-closet” as I can, its often not a simple request. And so because my needs are complex I’ve treated them as less important: this is false. My needs as a non-binary person are important and it’s not my fault that I live in a binarist society.

Just over a year ago I was offered a promotion at the organization I was working at to become their main communications person, a job I was basically already doing but it would have required me to learn more and work full-time, something I did not feel capable of at the time. I was in an abusive relationship because I thought that was the only place I could safely be my gender and was terrified to come out in the highly gendered dance of professionalism. I was depressed from dressing up to work as a “professional woman” and the workplace is not a place where I could experiment with my gender, despite that being the thing I needed to dress up for. As a young queer person recovering from serious mental health issues I didn’t have the capacity to get what I needed to be successful in that environment. So instead I let myself get laid off and accept a job making $10/hour less and completely unrelated to my skill set and education in disability studies because I was afraid of arguing about what name would go on my business card.

My sense of self was new and fragile, and any rejection could have me falling into the well-crafted pit of denial and self-despair, a place I was not willing to go back to. The only way forward was honesty, to maintain my mental wellness and I have had to suffer for that honesty. Part of my honestly though is acknowledging the ways in which I have held myself back for fear of not being accepted; though in many ways this fear is a necessary act of self-protection when you’ve been forced to fear yourself because you’ve learned that being who you are puts your life or wellness in danger. We wouldn’t internalize homophobia, transphobia and binarism if it didn’t serve a purpose; that is to protect us from entering unsafe situations, but these adaptations become harmful because when mixed with anxiety they can stop people from everything to applying for jobs, getting groceries to reaching out to arts communities,  attending social events or just generally connecting with another person. What we need allies to realize is that our fear is valid, our self-hate is adaptive and that in order to help us they need to build spaces of radical inclusion and go out of their way to indicate that random book club or that some organization is an inclusive employer (because there is definitely an underworked and undervalued demographic of employees who like me, struggle with suitable employment). While it is up to us to overcome our self-hate, there is also a need for society to change such that this sort of internalized hatred is no longer a necessary and harmful adaption we are forced to make.


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