The Tyranny Of The Closet Metaphor, Or Why Coming Out Shouldn’t be An Imperative

I am out to most people in my life – sister, cousins, friends, friends of friends, professors, coworkers – except my parents. That’s a tricky one.

Back in December, I found myself in the company of a bunch of queers and allies defending my choice to not come out to my parents. It was one of the most belittling experiences I have ever been through as a proud gay man. I was at a local queer film festival attending the premiere of a documentary short film featuring my partner. The film brought together representatives from the local queer community to discuss queer issues such as coming out, stereotyping and whatnot. The premiere went well enough, and the organisers persuaded the cast into holding a QNA with the audience. While watching the film, I was struck by the unanimity in the cast’s responses to the coming out question, where they basically said that coming out to one’s family is an essential condition for self-acceptance. I took exception to this; surely a caveat must be issued on behalf of those who have reason to consider such a step foolhardy? So I spoke up.

Although I attempted to frame my objection as an intellectual disagreement, I suppose it was apparent this was personal. I am out to most people in my life – sister, cousins, friends, friends of friends, professors, coworkers – except my parents. That’s a tricky one. Like most queer people, I too have obsessed over the thought of coming out to my parents. After years of agonising over the possibility of rejection, I have decided I won’t come out to them until I can afford to survive being disowned, condemned and excommunicated.  After all, it’s been known to happen, and who knows how my fate will play out? I may lose my parents forever, I may not. To bear all that pain in one’s youth is awful – so I want the answer to wait. At present, my situational closetedness helps me live a rich queer life while keeping my family together. In a way, I am lucky enough to have my cake and eat it too. Sure, I can’t keep this up forever, but that doesn’t make my present inauthentic.

At that QNA, I simply argued that there should be a diversity of perspectives around coming out. It wasn’t the popular thing to say, apparently. The lead, a lesbian who had suffered a lot of trauma over the course of her coming out journey, countered me by saying that coming out to one’s family is the only way one can fully embrace one’s sexuality. Then things got personal rather quickly – clearly, my objection had been misconstrued as a cry for help. She was obviously convinced that I must still be ashamed of myself to not be out to my parents yet and so advised me to do some serious introspection. As if that didn’t grate enough, some allies chimed in too, gently chiding me for not allowing my parents the opportunity to learn and grow. To cap it all, one of them implied that I was mismanaging my own life: “What will you do when your parents want you to marry? You must prepare them. This gay guy I know…”. They all meant well of course, but their patronising manner had pushed me towards a self-esteem crisis: Have I failed at being queer? Am I a maladjusted liar for trying to protect myself and my parents from something I know they can’t cope with?

A recent study by Stephanie D. Clare, “‘Finally, She’s Accepted Herself!’: Coming Out in Neoliberal Times”, explores how neoliberal politics and the psychological depathologising of homosexuality has made self-interested self-acceptance the measure of queer health, essentially selling us the idea that it’s not structural oppression but an inability to adjust that plagues “closet cases”. It is interesting that our pathological status now is based not on our orientation per se but on how private we are about it. Hence, coming out of the closet has become an individual responsibility, divorced from all structural, institutional and intersectional complexities that make every queer person’s relationship with their closet uniquely challenging. Moreover, in the present discourse, the closet metaphor has come to entirely dominate the queer narrative. We now organise our complex queer lives into a neat binary of in/out according to this metaphor, hoping that this will make us feel good about ourselves. However, as Judith Butler suggests in “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”, the darkness of being “in” exists to validate the illumination of being “out”. Here’s something that should explain this more concretely: in her article “Formulating Dispositions in Coming Out Advice”, Deborah A. Chirrey analyses common coming out advice found online to demonstrate how, by using certain linguistic strategies to talk about coming out in a certain way, we create“scripts” (i.e., cognitive patterns that feed the brain programs of action) of what it means to be closeted or out. These scripts, Chirrey reminds us, do not reflect reality but construct it through rhetorical manipulation for specific purposes, such as promoting coming out as the only moral, healthy and responsible choice. Based on this alone, we can conclude that much of what we have learned about being closeted and being out requires a critical reevaluation.

In his autoethnographic study “Paradoxes of Sexuality, Gay Identity, and the Closet”, Tony E. Adams describes the relationship between gay identity and the closet as paradoxical: coming out is necessary but potentially dangerous, while being closeted is unhealthy but potentially safe. Moreover, while coming out has a definitive end (which is to fully claim one’s identity), it remains a process without an end, as we are always already closeted in a heteronormative world. Consequently, each new encounter instigates a new coming out, through which we expose ourselves to more risk, given that a queer identity remains stigmatised. All these simultaneous considerations can give rise to feelings of guilt, shame and inauthenticity. Now the problem with the coming out imperative should be obvious. Adams proposes that by making ourselves and others aware that these paradoxes exist, we can arrive at a point where we can be careful not to hold queer people to unfair standards of authenticity.

However, the uncomfortable truth is that many openly queer people have an exaggerated contempt for those still in the closet. I would know; I haven’t been very understanding of my much more closeted friends in the past, privately exalting my own relative openness about my sexuality over their relative secrecy. According to Adams, closeted people are often labelled as “immature, unhealthy and self-hating”. Like the cast of the documentary short film, many openly queer people have taken significant risks to be able to claim their identity, for both personal and political reasons. In that light, their frustration with people staying in the closet is understandable. However, I believe we shouldn’t let a hotchpotch mixed metaphor tell us how authentic our lives are. Here’s the kicker: the closet doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so let’s be a bit easier on ourselves for not being able to escape it fully. As Benny LeMaster writes in “Relationally Out: A Case For and Against the Closet”, “I continue to believe that no one is ever always fully out. Rather, we are all relationally out and dependent upon the context that draws out the nuances of our queer lives”.

References:

  1. “Finally, She’s Accepted Herself!”: Coming Out in Neoliberal Times.
  2. Imitation and Gender Insubordination.
  3. Formulating Dispositions in Coming Out Advice.
  4. Paradoxes of Sexuality, Gay Identity, and the Closet.
  5. Relationally Out: A Case For and Against the Closet.

About the author

Abhishek Chauhan

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