Friday, November 1, 2013

The Closet: As A Term & As An Entity

The following was originally posted on the Merced Full Spectrum Blog in April. That blog has now merged with the GCV blog but we wanted to share Colt's words with those of you who didn't get a chance to read it before.

The Closet: As A Term & As An Entity

By Colt Laney
Recently I was asked by a straight friend what the point of coming out was; it’s a question I have heard before and someone can make a pretty strong case for the staying in the closet. Doesn’t it make your life harder? Why does it matter if anyone knows? And what does it even mean to come out; don’t you just tell everyone your gay and go on with life? The closet is an issue I have spent a good portion of my life trying to ignore, which is why I thought it would be cool to write the next blog post on this. Below I will first explore what the closet really is as a term and as an effect on the individual ’within’ said closet, as well as looking at what it really means to ‘come out’ in a world where these terms have become cliché and oversimplified.

The closet today is a term that is used to cover everything that goes along with what (for the sake of this blog) we will call straight-acting. The usage of closet makes sense to a degree; it is a set of boundaries, a little box of straightness within which we confine ourselves. However it is at the same time an utterly inadequate term; describing a spatial concept and making it seem as if ‘coming out’ was as simple as to take a step through the proverbial doorway and shrilly announce “I’m heeeeeeeerrrrreee!” 

On the most innate level coming out is the coming of age story inherent to anyone going against the grain—the atheist son of a priest, the female CEO whose old fashioned family disapproves of her uppity spirit. It is no more than the story of a generation defying the outdated expectations of their forerunners; the key difference being where the pressure is coming from and the degree to which it is felt. Rather than facing disapproval solely from your family it feels as if it is coming from all angles, you don’t walk down the street and get ‘atheist bashed.’ Nobody throws food at the woman who seeks to make it in a man’s world in the high school cafeteria, not unless she is holding her same sex lovers hand that is.

Trying to define the closet is trying to nail down an abstract idea we have created to cover a set of events and a way of living your life, or not living it for that matter. In order to explore what the closet does to an individual rather than what it ‘means’ it is best to think of it as a mental filter through which our every action, our every sentence, and in extreme cases even our own thoughts are screened. It is hard to explain the feeling of pressure coming from all sides to someone who has never been in that exact place. When closeted I recall scrutinizing my reflection in the mirror every day, looking for any effeminate flaws. At school or out with friends I never said a word that hadn’t been analyzed, my actions were the same; how would they perceive that, could this be considered ‘gay?’ During adolescence I learned to shut down thoughts, desires, and feelings that I feared weren’t what my friends felt or thought. Every friendly jest stung like an insult, every tease a humiliating ridicule. I am sure now that I was an extreme case, my façade so ingrained it took me leaving my hometown to build myself a comfort zone. The degree to which closeted individuals filter themselves varies, depending on your environment, upbringing, how confident of a person you are, etc.

“The closet is a place where you hide the real you. You lock up the emotions that society thinks you shouldn’t have and become a robot. Being in the closet for me was stressful. I had to hear my parents gay bash all the time. Them talking about how wrong it was to be gay was the worst feeling in the world. Every time I obtained the courage to come out, they always found a way to stop it. It’s like they knew I was going to do it so they stopped me before I could until one day I stopped caring what they thought and told them. I gave them different scenarios and reasons why I was no different than anyone else and now they have a different view on homosexuality” -J.C. Hammond

Whether done for survival in an intolerant environment or done out of the seemingly irrational yet ever present fear of judgment simply living in this state puts an individual at odds with themselves and can only be detrimental. Studies from various universities and organizations have already shown that being in the closet is not only directly related to higher stress, depression, and overall poorer mental health, but also that being at odds with your ‘truth’ has effects on the strength of your immune system and physical health.

Ok so that’s not enough motivation? You smoke a pack a day and you drink a six pack to self-medicate, so to hell with your health? Alright let us look at why you should come out, preferably before those coping mechanisms kill that big manly liver of yours, but first let’s take a look at exactly what coming out entails. The thing that comes to mind foremost is the simple act of informing the people who matter to you that you are in fact a secret monster in stolen human flesh with designs to infect others with your evil ideology so that you may further the anti-American agenda you harbor. I meant gay, my bad where the hell did that come from?

For those who have spent an extended time in the closet or who have had it deeply ingrained in their day to day life it can be a challenge. Robert Duran of Arizona says that after coming out it took him the better part of a year to really understand how it affected the way he interacted with people.

“I had a network of programmed ‘straight’ responses that I would spit out instantly, I knew what jokes seemed straight, which things weren’t masculine, and even the tone of my voice was altered in the slightest way. I’ve always been soft spoken and I learned to ‘speak like a man’ as I put it. Many of my friends were shocked at how I acted on a day to day basis a year after coming out. They liked the real me they just never knew I was hiding anything from them.”-Robert Duran

Coming out isn’t such a challenge for everyone; many homes are accepting today and there is more understanding amongst the masses then there was in the days when gays would cook up batches of aids to splash on unsuspecting heterosexuals. One of the things that we have going for this generation is the fact that equality is within our reach. For the first time in America it is inarguably inevitable that gay unions will be afforded the same protection as straight ones. We have escaped much of the discrimination you see towards movements centered on race and gender because of the simple fact that hate is aesthetically driven and until its pride week your average homosexual cannot be distinguished except by the light of PDAs.

So if coming out is a process that entails, to varying degrees, informing your peers, dropping learnt behavior such as straight-acting and programmed responses, and learning to simply be comfortable with yourself then I suppose we have reached the why of the matter. Some people live their entire life closeted, marry, and raise children. Others do this for a time until they can no longer pretend; families and years wasted perpetuating a lie. For myself I reached a point where I couldn’t do it anymore; the closet, the pretending to be what I knew was the norm. I grew up in a very conservative town, to this day I don’t speak to the majority of people I grew up with because of the simple fact I am gay. I knew this would be the case and it kept me in hiding for a long time until I decided that even if I was never accepted I had to be recognized, being hated for myself would be easier then hating myself for what I wasn’t.

“Growing up in Santa Cruz aside from my grandparents and a few kids who didn’t matter nobody would have cared… I guess I did do the closet trip out of fear of judgment, when I finally came out it was because I was tired of missing opportunities to go out with guys I met just because I was afraid of a funny glance.”
-Joseph Burks

As with the motivation to construct a closet the reason for coming out is entirely individualized, but let’s say you don’t have the urge to come out. Maybe you are perfectly content with living a lie, or maybe you are somewhere in between and are simply looking for a good enough reason to come out… well let me give it a shot.

Can you imagine if the amount of out gays suddenly tripled or doubled? The estimates held most credible tend to state that about 65-75% of gays are closeted, and the majority of out gay’s fall between the age categories of 20-35 being to young to understand the fear of stonewall era gays and old enough to be out from under parental pressure that keeps youth closeted. Nobody who has experienced the closet can say that they don’t understand what it feels like to be alone; to wish that there were people like you, even just one to relate to. I think it is a pretty fair statement to say that if we all quit being pansies and tore down our mental prisons, hoisted our freak flag, and braved the withering gaze of societal judgment we would already see the rights and acceptance we crave laying at our feet. How many opinions would change in the realization that it is a less isolated segment of the masses? How many closeted individuals would follow your example, and how many scared youth would feel that they weren’t alone? That there were people just like them a whole lot closer then they could have ever imagined? We owe it to ourselves and the world to come out of the closet.

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