Closet Minded: The Case of the Closet

31 October 2013

There’s a great deal of irony in a column called ‘Closet Minded’ that has never mentioned the closet.

Or perhaps to discuss closets and queerness would deflate the pun-ny potential of the column’s title?

Irony or not, a recent conversation with a friend and his boyfriend’s coming out got me thinking. What does ‘the closet’ even mean anymore?

It’s true that most people assume a simple in/out dichotomy between being in the closet and out of it. But reading a bit more on the idea made me realise that it’s a lot more complicated.

For queer folk, being in the closet is concealing your sexuality or ‘playing straight’. Being out is where your gayness is commonly known, perhaps announced to family, friends, and co-workers, or maybe even shared on a daily basis in new encounters with people.

But the problem with being out is that you’re always in a perpetual state of moving out. While family and friends may know that you’re gay or trans*, there will be times throughout your life when starting a new job, meeting new neighbours, or even filling out a census form, you may need to ‘re-out’ yourself.

The same can be said of being in the closet. How far in is ‘in’? Is it hiding behind a pile of clothes in a large walk-in-closet? Is it crouched between a fur coat and a school blazer? Is it completely in the dark or is there a dim light shining through the key-hole?

There is an assumption—and I had it as a gay man coming out—that the closet is a dark, secretive, unseen place from where you move to lightness and truthfulness.

I confidently tell you that this did not happen to me. No lights lit up and no stars shone brightly—a few coat hangers did rattle as I trekked through. Does that count?

One thing I’ve realised is that the closet has just as much meaning for queers coming out of it as its absence does.

When homosexuality became a public identity in the mid twentieth-century — instead of a hidden, shamed, and stigmatised medical condition, as it was known to be for a long time — the closet came out as a metaphor (pardon the pun).

When I came out, I dragged my secretly bought Cher singles and copy of The Craft with me. The motion was strangely an ‘in’ rather than ‘out’.

I moved into the realm of the speakable (homosexuality is something you don’t speak about, you see), into a world where sexuality is something that isn’t ‘outed’ but something pre-existing and mapped onto the body.

But because of our binary-based language—night/day, gay/straight—the closet is almost necessary in dividing the ‘out gay’ from the ‘closeted gay’. Like heterosexuality is to homosexuality, both are co-dependent and being in the closet is just as meaningful as being out.

But the closet is not just a queer thing. Who hasn’t been asked about the skeletons in their closet? Years ago, it was my sexuality. Was that the only thing there? Perhaps not.

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