A Closet of One's Own

This week, I had a discussion in which someone pointed out that it was racist and appropriating to compare the Black Civil Rights movement to the Gay Rights movement.

I completely agree that one cannot equate the two (although I do believe that it is possible, and often very useful, to identify certain commonalities that seem to run through all forms of oppression), and I have taken to heart the things that I learned. I will be more aware and more respectful of this in the future.

As I am wont to do, I went on an internet quest to learn more about this concept of appropriation of the black civil rights movement, and did, in fact, learn more.

I also noted that a lot of people made comments to the effect that one of the major differences between the oppressions faced by people of color and people who are queer (and yes, I include in that -- not in any particular order of priority -- lesbians, gay men, bisexual people, transgender, transsexual, intersexed, and questioning people -- plus anyone who considers themselves "queer", whether I've used their label choice or not -- I prefer and choose the word "queer" because the acronyms keep changing, and dammit, I like being a queer) -- anyway -- I kept seeing this comment when people were citing the differences -- that queers can "hide it" -- that they have the option of remaining closeted.

I noticed that I had a deep and visceral response to these types of statements, and didn't initially understand why, so I did some soul-searching and thinking and delving deep, and this is what I found:

First of all, I'm not sure whether it's even true that all (or even most) of us can "hide it".

I attempted to "hide it" for years -- just for starters, from age 12 to age 19, before I had even kissed a girl, but after I knew that I was queer -- and this didn't stop me from being harassed on the playground and in the halls of my high school with taunts of "lesbo" and "homo". So, maybe -- lol my hiding skills?

Second of all, even if it is true that it's possible to hide it -- hiding your queerness doesn't mean that you're not queer -- it just means that you're queer and completely suppressing a huge part of your persona.

To someone who is straight, the complexity of being closeted is probably not really apparent or easy to imagine. Being in the closet, once you have acknowledged your queerdom, is neither casual, nor does it impact one small, tidy area of your life (the bedroom) -- as evidenced by the difficulty that my straight coupled friends had in meeting my challenge to emulate a closeted life for even one week.

Attempting to remain completely closeted usually means either joining a cloister, remaining solitary, or marrying someone of the opposite sex (the latter almost always resulting in emotional wreckage for everyone involved).

Attempting to remain partially closeted as an adult (say, being involved in a same-sex relationship, but presenting a false front of being "straight" to one's family or employer/co-workers), influences nearly everything -- for example:

  • the jobs you will, or can, consider,
  • the clothing and hairstyles that you choose,
  • the living situation you will have (this changes with age, too, because you may get away with having a "roommate" at 21, but by the time you're in your mid-30s, people are going to start wondering, no matter how careful you are with your "straightening up" when the landlord or mom and dad come by),
  • the care that you take with the love-letters that you write (or choose not to write at all, depending on the depth of your closet) in terms of their traceability to you or the chances of them falling into "the wrong hands",
  • the proximity you will dare in terms of living near or interacting with your family of origin,
  • the amount of social familiarity you will allow yourselves with your co-workers (or your lover),
  • how often, and where, you will be seen with the person who you are most intimately involved with,
  • where (or whether) you keep keepsakes, momentos, or reminders of your most intimate relationship,
  • the art you put on the walls of your house, the magazines you leave on your coffee-table, and the books you keep on your shelves,
  • the topics of conversation that you will engage with at work, or with your family,
  • major decisions about where, and with whom, you will be at every holiday, birthday, etc.,
  • Etc., etc., etc.
  • This list does not even touch on the complexities of the closet for TG, TS, and IS people (the examples I used above are distinctly personal to me as a lesbian -- I can barely imagine how the closet is complicated for those who are dealing with trans-phobia and a raft of other oppressions).
  • This list also does not touch on the complexities of queers who live in countries where being queer is a crime punishable by death.
It's been a long time since I maintained an active closet, so I'm sure I'm leaving shit off the list -- but suffice it to say: "Hiding it", if that's what you attempt -- is a full time fucking job -- and rarely successful, anyway --

When I was closeted (to my family and at my work) and I did finally come out -- guess what -- no one was surprised. There was not one person at my work or in my family who didn't know -- which means that, if they had been a raging homophobe with an axe to grind, and had wanted to kill a queer -- they would have killed me anyway, regardless of my attempts to stay in the closet.

Even as an out queer, I still attempt to hide stuff when I think my safety is at risk, and that level of vigilance is constant (although nearly unconscious, at this point, as I have elucidated in the Take My Arm post cited above).

So yeah, that's one difference between racist oppression and homophobic oppression -- a queer can attempt to mitigate how badly homophobia affects them by suppressing big parts of themselves on a daily basis.

Isn't it nice to have options? -- I know I'm feeling all "whee!" about it.

Seriously -- the concept of choosing the closet is pretty contemporary, anyway.

Until 1973, homosexuality was still listed as a mental disorder (I have a friend who was forcibly committed to a mental institution -- straight jacket and all -- by her mother when she was discovered kissing her high-school lover in the early 1970s).

The last sodomy laws in this country were repealed only 5 years ago, and that ruling finally nullified the Idaho law which mandated a minimum 5 years up to life-imprisonment for "Every person who is guilty of the infamous crime against nature, committed with mankind or with any animal". When I was in high school, the only state where sodomy wasn't a crime was Illinois, and they had only repealed their sodomy laws in the 60s.

So, I'd say that at the time that I was coming out, it wasn't so much about whether we had the choice to "hide it", but that we had the choice to hide it, or risk jail or mental institution time. The closet didn't seem optional when I first realized I was queer -- and there were very, very few examples of thriving, out queers in those days.

Another peculiarity about experiencing the direct effects of homophobia as compared to other forms of discrimination is this -- at the beginning, at the very least, you pretty much get to experience this all alone.

For most queers, the first "coming out" is to yourself. For me, it was at age 12. I'd never met a homosexual. I'd never even heard the word.

There I stood, at the Health Department brochure rack, after my First Aid class (which would hopefully earn me another merit badge as a Girl Scout), and I opened a brochure for older kids which had a glossary in the back that included the word: "Homosexual". The description wasn't favorable, but I knew when I read these words -- “Homosexuality is a perversion in which the person prefers sex relations with a person of their same sex.” -- that they described me.

From that moment forward, I was dealing with my queerness -- alone-- until I found others queers, over 7 years later. The vast majority of queers that I know (especially of my generation) had this experience. There might even have been another queer in the family (in may case, there was), but we would probably not know that, because the option (ha!) of "hiding it" was exercised.

So, while people who are oppressed on the basis of their race, or their religion, or their nationality, tend to come to the age where they can begin to intellectually process the oppression they experience within an environment of others who also understand this oppression (family-of-origin/culture), many, if not most, young queers do this first "coming out" to themselves while completely surrounded by members of the privileged class (heteronormative/straight) most likely to oppress them.

Compound this by the fact that this first realization usually comes at a time when they are in the already-fragile state called adolescence, and while they are still completely dependent upon that group of potential oppressors.

Compound this further by the fact that young queers face not only the potential of being rejected by their families, but by their friends as well, especially if they grow up in a geographic area, specific ethnic or religious culture, or an era in which homophobia is not only not confronted, but fostered. (I first came out to myself in rural Kansas, in a family of Missouri-synod Lutherans, in 1968.)

Compound this further by the fact that the virulence of institutionalized homophobia may be so strong in a particular culture or religious group that the thought of coming out as queer would almost certainly mean becoming a complete exile from the roots that have nourished you, while entering the world of queer culture might mean facing a whole new set of oppressions because of the very roots you've had to leave. (Like my friend Catherine, who left her neighborhood and family behind because an out butch dyke wasn't welcome in the culture she grew up in, yet who faced constant racism within the queer movement as a black dyke, and Suzie, raised mormon, who was rejected by a religion and a social network that was very important to her, but who faced constant anti-mormon sentiment in the queer movement.) In this case, coming out may very well mean having the sense of having no "place" in the world at all.

Consider those facts, and tell me again whether "hiding it" is really a choice -- because honestly, is it a true "choice" when the alternative may be (during my era, anyway) institutionalization, incarceration, or complete isolation -- and more contemporarily -- homelessness, beatings, or death?

I mean, sure, it's technically a choice -- everything is -- but kind of a "shit-cake or death" choice -- the reduction of an oppressed person's choices to "obey or survive" is a time-honored tradition amongst oppressors.

Getting back to "coming out all alone" bit -- one of the most significant issues, for me, in queer culture and in the movement for equal civil rights for LGBTQ people has been this peculiarly isolated state in which most of us begin the discovery of our authentic identities.

With rare exceptions, we aren't born into queer families. No one tells us stories of our heritage -- in fact, books that might give us a glimpse of someone like ourselves are often the ones most likely to be kept out of schools and libraries.

The stories of people who were queer and brilliant -- the people we might look to as "ancestors" (Bernstein, Michaelangelo, DaVinci, Alexander the Great) are sanitized and "straightened up" (or their queerness is hotly contested, even when -- as in the case of DaVinci -- historical documentation would strongly indicate that they were queer).

This has resulted in a lot of problems in the queer movement, I think -- there has been a distinct lack of continuity -- a sense of the queer community remaking itself again and again with each new generation of queers. That's changing now, to some extent, as outreach programs to queer youth and greater exposure in the mainstream media documents the history of the queer rights movement, and queer history in general.

That takes me right back to my original point, though -- the reason I had no queer role models when I first realized that I was queer was because they hid. They hid, I believe, not because they wanted to -- in fact, the truly remarkable thing is that some of them came out of hiding, which made it easier --perhaps possible at all -- for me to come out of hiding.

Which lands me square on why this whole "you can hide it" argument bugs me so much, I think. Keeping queers in the closet is a major tool of homophobic oppression. It's not some perc. It's not some great advantage -- it's part and parcel of the eliminationist rhetoric of institutionalized homophobia. It's the thing that leads queer kids to suicide, and ruins lives, and destroys relationships.

The oppression of queers has relied upon queers' willingness to hide, to closet -- to erase themselves from the record of human life, or risk erasure by others -- sometimes in the most drastic of forms (complete expulsion from family and family records, edited out of history books, burned at the stake or hanged) -- so I consider hiding my queerness to be actively oppressing myself -- for me, it's a form of capitulation with my oppressors.

Ah! Wait! Eureka! I found it! After all that thrashing around -- here is why it doesn't seem like a choice to me:

Because the choice for queers, so often, is not really "Hide or Be Out" -- it is -- "Erase Yourself or Be Erased By Us".

Which isn't really much of a choice at all, except in the matter of who does the erasing.

Glad I got to the bottom of that. Maybe I can sleep now.

Posted byPortlyDyke at 11:20 PM  


purpleshinycrafter said... December 4, 2008 at 12:42 AM  

Hm, that's interesting. I am fairly femme and blend in easily; probably because I primarily read as "geek with long hair" rather than as "dyke". I think a lot about how to be visibly queer. I make a point to mention my girlfriend early on when I'm getting to know people so that they don't go around thinking of me as straight for so long that it's a shock when they find out otherwise.

(Sometimes the ease with which I "pass" as straight, along with the fact that I'm bi, makes me feel like an "impostor queer" :/ )

It is good for me to be reminded of others' different experiences with passing and closets.

murphy said... December 4, 2008 at 7:52 AM  

Thanks, Portly. As usual, you took the words right out of my mouth and spun them around so they'd make so much more sense.

Key issue here: oppressions can't be ranked because they operate too differently. I can't pretend to understand the totality of someone's experience with blackness, regardless of how much I read and how open I am to listening. All I can do is tell my story: too queer to pass, hurt almost irreparably by family when I needed them most, still confronting the closet everyday.

Something important too that most people don't bring up wrt civil rights comparisons: the gay rights movement is literally standing on the shoulders of The Civil Rights Movement TM. Several laws we're seeking to amend to include protections for gays were created out of the civil rights movement -- the civil rights act of 1964 is a prime example, since it prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of several characteristics and we're fighting to include sexuality (and gender identity, if we're doing it right) as a protected category. So in some respects, we can't ignore the history that brought these laws to fruition and we need to find a way to build on civil rights successes without alienating African American allies. I think approaching these discussions with the necessary respect and without trying to claim "most victimized status" will go a long way.

murphy said... December 4, 2008 at 10:30 AM  

I don't know if "standing on the shoulders" is a good phrase... what I'm trying to convey is that the legal structure that protects classes of people against discrimination wouldn't exist without the Civil Rights Movement, and that gay rights activists need that structure to move forward in our own anti-discrimination struggle.

Lauren O said... December 4, 2008 at 10:42 AM  

Thank you for this. As a straight, white woman, I didn't feel I really had the right to participate in the conversation to which you refer at the beginning of this piece, and I think I benefited a lot from just listening to what both sides had to say. But this entry was a point that definitely needed to be fully fleshed out, and which couldn't be fleshed out in the small space of a comments section. So thank you for enlightening me yet again!

ouyangdan said... December 4, 2008 at 12:29 PM  

Thanks, PD, b/c I am also a straight and passably white woman (long story), so I didn't feel I had a place in that discussion. I am learning a lot on both sides here (not that it is anyone's job to teach me).

You are so spot on on so many points, and a lot of those points are things that seem so "duh" but maybe a lot of us haven't thought of before...like the way history erases queerness (I have a Macedonian friend who I am sure would scratch my eyes out if I suggested AtG was queer), and how it affected the lives of the people they "straightened". IIRC, Tchaikovsky was queer and hiding it made him a little mad as he attempted to pursue women to "fit in" (he had other issues too, like being afraid his head would fall off while conducting, but I digress).

It's a slick stretch of pavement to cry foul at comparing one movement to the other at all, b/c I think that there is a lot to be gained on both sides from the intersectional approach to it all (just as I feel it has to be so in feminism as a whole).

But, as merely an ally, I don't know how to approach this particular debate. Reading this post is an excellent start...

ouyangdan said... December 4, 2008 at 12:32 PM  

OH! I also forgot there...

While the States have repealed sodomy laws, w/ DADT still in effect, sodomy is still illegal, even b/t straight, married people (don't ask me how you would ever catch or courts martial someone for it) in the military. Probably a moot and insignificant point, but I thought it worth mentioning.

occhiblu said... December 4, 2008 at 9:33 PM  

the reason I had no queer role models when I first realized that I was queer was because they hid. They hid, I believe, not because they wanted to -- in fact, the truly remarkable thing is that some of them came out of hiding, which made it easier --perhaps possible at all -- for me to come out of hiding.

I've read about some of the problems that gay couples, especially gay male couples, face in raising children, where their gay friends don't want to come over and be around the kids for fear of being accused of pedophilia. I hadn't thought about it affecting gay kids in straight families, but it seems like it's probably even more of an issue there.

It's so frustrating to see these systems in place that basically do everyone a disservice, but to also understand that individuals are buying into the systems because the repercussions of not doing so can be huge. Sigh.

Sarah Christiansen said... December 4, 2008 at 9:54 PM  

this was a great post! i totally think kids need more queer role models. i think it sucks that people who work with youth are basically forced to hide their identities (i have experience with this- i was a counselor at a girl scout camp. their official policy was basically that nobody was supposed to talk about anything related to sex/sexuality, but in practice girls in relationships with men could talk about that without any repercussions.

hmm, since i am a huge nerd of a history major, i do want to bring something up about the whole idea of 'queer ancestors,' though. there's a big difference in talking about homosexual identity versus homosexual practice. since homosexuality means different things and takes different forms in different cultures at different historical moments, claiming these people as 'ancestors' is somewhat problematic, i think. i started thinking about this when i read a piece of david halperin's. he is a classicist, i believe, and has a book called 'how to do the history of homosexuality.' this semester i am taking a geographies of sexualities of class and we've learned a lot about how western ideas about homosexuality (as an 'identity' versus a 'practice', especially) have been imposed on non-western folks in a way that is really colonizing. haha, sorry to go on a tangent. just thought i'd recommend some reading that made me think differently about the whole 'queer history issue.'

Post a Comment