This is the first in a series (three postings) about the closet. In today’s I want to focus on the traditional understanding of the closet for gay people as a way of referring to those people who do not disclose that they are gay. Then in second posting, I will talk about what it means to be closeted spiritually and in the third I will explore using the of the closet metaphor (and a few other images) as a basic way of understanding human life and personality for everyone.
I want to start with original understanding of the closet as it applies to LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered) people. The clooset is a place where things can be hidden behind a closed door where no one will see it. When I think of this image I often think of a place where all the crap you have can be shoved behind a door where no one can see it. The closet always seems like that the undesirable, the dirty, the evil secret. Thinking of horror movies, closets are mysterious places where dangerous things hide that, if released, could destroy everything..
There are many ways to understand the closet. Part of what inspired me to do this blog was realizing that when you really look at things up close, they are more complex than our first snap judgment might indicate. In different places and at different times, the closet has been a place safety for many people. In recent times, this country has become a safer place for LGBT people in general, but there still many places where being out of the closet can mean you are at huge risk for your safety. If you are child or teen and your parents are homophobic, the closet is a means of survival. LGBT teens make up a GIANT part of homeless teenagers and of teen suicides. If you are in college and your homophobic parents pay the bills, you might lose your chance at a college education if you come out. In this great country you can still legally be denied a job or lose a job for being a LBGT person. Outside the US there are places you can legally be imprisoned, tortured or even killed for being LGBT and being closeted means living to see another day.
The closet is a place where all LGBT people have been in at some point. Let’s face it, we are all pretty much raised with the assumption that we are straight. I think that is changing, but for the most part it is still true. At some point nearly LGBT person has to say to someone else that they are not straight and “come out.” Except in cases where the closet person is working against LGBT people politically, religiously, etc. I don’t believe someone should be pulled out of the closet. This is a highly personal and individual process. I remember a graduate school professor once telling me that a therapist should take care not to go around ripping away people's security/safety banket suddenly, people's defenses have to be respected before the client and therapist can build an alliance to help the walls come down..People need to do things in their own time, often with help from friends, loved ones and good therapists.
All that being said, that does not change the fact that I think the closet is a psychologically, politically and spiritually a very dark and negative space. We need less closets in our lives for the sake of our health, the well being of our loved ones and justice in our world. Psychologically, the consequences of staying in the closet over the long haul are gravely damaging to the individuals involved, their families and friends, and society as a whole.
We all have closets, things about ourselves that we hide from other people; that is simply a fact of life. However, hiding one’s sexual identity is fundamentally unique and different from hiding other secrets. I believe that our sexual identity, whatever it may be, something at the core of what makes us human. My philosophy of psychology is based on relationships. I believe our relationships with others are basis of who we are as people. I believe we are who we are because of how relate to others, from the day we born onward. While I do not believe all relationships are based in sexuality, our sexuality is at the very base of our humanity.
Our sexual identity, straight, LGBT, etc. isn’t about sex as much as it about the type of person you can love in a way you can love no one else. No matter how hard a gay man tries, he can never fall in love with woman in the same way he can with a man, it is simply isn’t part of his nature. A snake may want to fly, but it never will.
Being in the closet is a heavy burden for the closeted person. It is like someone who has a beautifully wrapped birthday present but who refuses unwrap it because the wrapping is so beautiful. Yes, the box stays pretty, but the potential, the very reason it is a gift, is buried.The closet requires hiding, lying, and constant monitoring one's self. It is living a life that never feels completely safe, totally authentic or the ability to feel emotional truly close to the people in our lives. It is also a burden for the families and friends around the person. By its nature, the closet creates an unknown, an elephant in the room. A family with a closeted member will always be limited in how close people in that family can become to one another. When a basic truth about how someone loves is hidden, it is not destroyed, it lingers, hanging in the air and it changes every relationship around it. In world of the closet, the relationships between the closeted person and those they care about are always less than they were meant to be.
The closeted person at some level knows why their relationships with their family and friends always has some degree of a shallow, shadow-like quality that never quite feels real , but it is even sadder for those around the closeted person. They feel an emptiness and distance, but never know exactly why. The closet prevents a real closeness between even the closest family and friends. The closet creates a false sense of peace and calm that tries to take the place of depth and authenticity, but never can. Avoiding conflict takes priority over connectedness. Being closeted means remaining fragmented in your relationships, never feeling quite whole and being unable to make deep real connections to others. It also means that you condemn those you love the most from ever being close to you or to one another.
Politically, the more people stay in the closet, the harder it is for people to understand that gay people are human and deserving of human rights. Within the community of out gay people, the closet is often thought expression of oppression. Closeted people are often thought of negatively among “out” LGBT people. They are thought of as, at best oppressed, and at worse, suspect. Closeted people are seen as either not doing their part in the noble struggle for LGBT rights or they are seen as working against LGBT people in order to protect themselves. Out LBGT people see that the more people stay in the closet the harder it is for people to see that we are not evil, immoral, or all that much different from straight people.
It is one thing to think about “gay rights” and “gay people” it is another to have to deal with gay father, mother, sister or brother. It is easy to be against same sex people getting married, it is quite another to not believe your sister should have the right to marry the person she loves. People in the closet keep up the myth that gay people are “other” people.
Finally, spiritually, I believe that humanity and the divinity are images of one another, or to put it another way, we are all created in God’s image. What I love about that idea, is how many ways we are created, different races, genders, bodies, temperaments, etc. I believe we come into this world as an expression of the divine and our lives are meant to unfold in ways to uncover truths about the humaniity and divinity for the world to see. Christians talk about “Christ consciousness” and the Buddhists talk about our “Buddha nature” as ways of understanding how we live our lives are icons, our experiences as living examples pointing to the nature of God. I believe that coming into this world as a LGBT person means to be a specific face of God. Living our lives with honesty, openness and integrity and exploring the potential for love is the life we were meant to live. We are meant, by our creator, to be whole, happy healthy people, living that kind of life is a prayer, a way of showing the world something of God.
Coming out of the closet is risky, difficult, and not without very serious consequences for many people. This essay is a call for all of us to build a world where being in the closet is a relic of an oppressive past. This is a NOT condemnation of individual people who are closeted, but call to all of us to be constantly working to build a better world all the time. If we create a world without closeted LGBT people we make this world a place where people are less psychologically fragmented and healthier relationships with the people they love, where politically we are clear that justice for all is really justice for all. We are clear that LGBT people are made in the image and likeness of God and without their openness, the picture of God and of human nature is painfully incomplete. We are all meant to shine our light, to shine our love through the lives we live...