Out Of The Closet, But Still Locked In: Sexual Health And Dealing With Internalised Homophobia

Ed Farley

After I wrote my article on experiencing queer dating for the first time, I thought it was the be-all and end-all; everyone knew, I knew, so I could close the chapter. If I wrote that I was almost healing, somehow, it would be fact. But, off the heels of an “altercation”, I had a testing kit in my hands – and my heart sunk.

I’ve been no stranger to being honest with my articles – to the point where there’s a joke that I’ll write one if I so much as stub my toe, turn up late for a class, or forget something at the supermarket. It’s funny because I think there’s truth in that. We all know that what rattles around in our mind hasn’t got a fixed location; we carry it around with us. Sometimes it likes to bury deep and then others? Boom – it’s out, fighting with the rest of the emotions that inhabit our brains.

I’ve read about internalised homophobia: the notion that queer folks are so used to seeing. Messaging that denies their placement in society; they start to hate who they are. I’ve felt that, but strangely I didn’t think I would. I wear the same clothes I wore before, but now I’m scared. I talk the same way I did before, but I’m hyperaware. It’s a random occurrence of self-judgement – the lack of control is dizzying. Even when writing this, there was the worry that I was writing too much “gay stuff’. That somehow, talking about a multifaceted experience was a bad thing.

By that logic, I should’ve only written one Entertainment article, as opposed to a myriad I had. There’s more than one film or streaming service out there – I’m not “shoving it down people’s throats” by talking about another film, surely?

This illustrates how even if one hasn’t been in environments with overt anti-LGBTQ+ messaging, there’s a lot to be said about the system that we live in, regardless. Homophobia is unavoidable. It poisons silently to a point where you don’t know you have it.

You’ve still got many years’ worth of expression to catch up on

I’m out. Big whoop. In my head, I have been for years. But it doesn’t really change anything about the deepest levels you see yourself. Though you’re fresh out of the rainbow-striped womb to the public, you’ve still got many years’ worth of expression to catch up on, whilst wrestling with the many years of repression. I must navigate the world as a gay person with both, precariously balancing the two, hoping I’ll drop the latter at some point. Because theory has now been put into practice, it feels more real.

The practice in this case, being the panic I had when I got my testing kit. I had what could be seen as HIV symptoms. Recurrent sinus infections that made my lymph nodes swell and throat hurt. Headaches. I felt itchy (probably because I was stressed about blowing this out of proportion). Yes, some of these could’ve been explained because it was winter; cold season has been rife this year. However, because I am gay, because I had sex (not as carefully as I should have) and because I was getting tested, the little bug placed in my mind told me I automatically had HIV.

I feel ashamed writing this because there should be no shame in having HIV. HIV has many symptoms – symptoms I hadn’t had – but my brain worryingly latched on to the idea that I had it. HIV isn’t a “gay” illness. It isn’t a magnet that only latches onto gay men. And it shouldn’t ever be something used to villainise, or weaponise them either.

But the unfortunate, bigoted notion that HIV is a “punishment” still lingers today. I’ve even heard it being the first thing spoken about on the (very rare) occasions gay sex education was ever brought up. In Sex Ed classes, or casual conversations, never was there the conversation about consent. Never about the psychological forms of intimacy – oh, no. Before you’re ever told to the wrap the cucumber, first thing prefaced was HIV – the subsequent consequence of engaging in sex.

You have sex; you’re at risk of having it. The end. I remember it flinging easily off the end of a teacher’s tongue once. Not expanded upon, simply mentioned. End of story. As if they had to say it, as opposed to genuinely wanting to have the conversation. It was so blasé, as if the notion of having HIV was something in direct opposition to straight counterparts.

Amalgamating into a heavy form of shame

Dealing with expressing my sexuality is something I’m still getting used to. And these pre-placed sentences, as casual as it seemed to others, meant everything to me. They were there all these years after, as I held my testing kit, amalgamating into a heavy form of shame. I should’ve shaken myself and said that if I wanted to worry about getting anything, I should’ve also thought of all the other STDs that were out there. Sorry to break it to you, kid, but there’s more than just one.

Alas…. one stuck out, just like it always did. Here I was at home, looking at this cardboard box, holding decades’ worth of accumulative homophobic messaging on my shoulders, thinking of the “Big Bad”. I was also taken aback that I was thinking decades behind, knowing full well that I momentarily left my medical competency at the door. “No longer a death sentence”, HIV is a virus you don’t have to overtly fear. With treatment available, it no longer holds carriers back; something that was also never mentioned in our Sex Ed classes.

Where was the happy, euphoric pride I was scratching above the surface for? I’ve had it rest assured. Yet the lack of education, the lack of having any gay friends or mentors to talk to, the shame of hiding myself in the closet, the shame of being “too gay”, and the shame of having sex, were all wrapped up in this thirty-second moment. Hidden in a box shown to a brain that told me perhaps I deserved to have an illness because of it all.

If I spoke to anyone else with these fears, I’d automatically go into caring mode – logically explaining that they wouldn’t have to have these fears and burdens. That there’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’d realise the hurt of homophobia, and that we shouldn’t have to continue to bear a cross for it. However, when we’re alone in a room with ourselves, rarely do we give the same advice.

This time I utilised the fact that I was in the open. Not a stranger to sharing every experience (*insert the jokes about stubbing my toe again*), I spoke to my loved ones. They were taken aback when I asked them if they’d love me still if I was HIV positive. Their foreheads crumpled, their eyes widened and with bewilderment, they said “Yes, of course”. They gave words of affirmation and reassurance but despite this, I still felt awful. I felt awful I had to ask; that though they accepted me with open arms about being gay, I still felt that there was something else I needed to fear.

Additionally, I felt awful that with my internalised homophobia, I had the blinding light of privilege blinding my perspective. I could have this open conversation with my family. All too often, the determining factor of being faced with internalised homophobia, sexual health fears, and everything in-between is that it’s a battle faced alone. A battle where, for many, the people meant to be on your side leave you to fend for yourself with nothing but a wooden toy sword.

Instead of flying a rainbow flag around, in my mind I was waving a giant red flag at passers-by

My family and friends didn’t care, but I did. And somehow, the idea that I was the one who had the issue was worse. It made me feel like a small, insular being who was self-indulgent – playing the victim. A sell out, a weak link that’s hurting the community I was begging for access to, for years. Instead of flying a rainbow flag around, in my mind I was waving a giant red flag at passers-by.

Maybe this article could be seen as an “overshare”. But, if we temporarily kill a fear by burying it in our brain, it will inevitably resurface as a zombie on attack mode later. My fears have since been quashed and I hope, the baggage of what came with it too. We should feel comfortable about being tested. It’s sensible to look up certain symptoms
and it’s incredibly important to be on top of your sexual health. Yet, as it’s also vulnerable, it’s a soft spot for many – regardless of orientation, or sex-based trauma.

Sex should be an act of comfort – free of shame. An important part, I have realised, is to be knowledgeable and sensitive with how you treat your mental state too, as that’s a large determinant of your sexual health experience. Be kind to yourself; mentally, having to get tested is sometimes a beast already, without adding more emotional baggage and drowning in it as well.

Here’s to de-stigmatising it, and eradicating the narrative that continually hurts the queer community as well.

*Please note my home testing kit was available locally to my hometown, not at Nottingham. Services vary from county and region. For sexual health enquiries local to Nottingham, please find some useful links below:


Ed Farley

Featured image courtesy of Ed Farley. No changes were made to this image. 

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