At last month’s East Coast Generous Space Retreat in St. Stephen, NB, Carly Murphy and LA Henry presented a keynote on the theme of coming out narratives, and the positive and negative effects of the metaphors and language we use. They discussed the drawbacks of the idea of a “closet,” and proposed a new image of “being backstage.”
It’s well worth taking a half an hour to watch their presentation, or if you prefer, scroll down to read Carly’s essay and poem that they used as the basis for their talk.
The symbol of the closet – and the idea of coming out of it – gives us the basic vocab by which we story the standard arc of queer development. It’s a metaphor so deeply rooted in queer identity formation that it seems natural and inevitable, like a rite of passage. Many of the films about adolescent queer experiences, like Blue is the Warmest Colour and Love, Simon, have stories that revolve around the closet.
When talking about the closet, it’s mostly portrayed as an inherently repressive place – queer people are often pressured to “ come out and live their truth – their best life”. What’s strange about this fascination with the closet is that it’s not a structure queer people built ourselves. With the invention of the homo/hetero binary in the late 19th-century, various forms of persecution and harassment were brought to bear against alleged sexual deviants. As George Chauncey chronicled in his definitive history Gay New York, terms like “leading a double life” or “wearing a mask” arose to describe the sense of being split or divided into multiple selves. Donald Webster Cory (aka Edward Sagarin) poignantly noted when he wrote as early as the 1950s, “Society has handed me a mask to wear. . . . Everywhere I go, at all times and before all sections of society, I pretend.”
It was after 1960 that “the closet” won as the authoritative term. This new symbol, however, did different work than those it replaced – in that it brought about a new ideal of total exposure. Out and proud queers would have no “skeletons in the closet”, no secrets or hiding, but a total union of one self.
Without doubt, the strategy of telling queer stories through the metaphor of “the closet” has brought important and significant victories, both individual and systemic. But at what cost? And what stands behind this incessant obsession with telling our queer stories by using the ugly framework formed by homophobia?
At the risk of sounding heretical, I’d like to suggest that glorifying the “coming out of the closet” narrative has brought about unforeseen damage – and even that it’s consequent declaration of a stable identity may be at odds with queerness. And public self-declaration doesn’t just enable self-realization – it’s also a political weapon that ensures civil rights and social respect through a course of familiarization.
So, what exactly is wrong with using the closet as the defining framework of the queer narrative?
For one thing, coming out – of the dark solitary closets and into the sociable light – makes queerness accountable for clarity of expression to others. By nature, queerness should reside in a sea of ambiguity, changing through fluid and androgynous forms, kinda like how it is in Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando (a novel of spontaneous gender transformation). In contrast, conforming to the demand to “come out” implies an unspoken willingness to be pinned down and defined – in effect, to stop and freeze queerness at the very moment of its declaration. I’d prefer that we allow the queer exterior to be able to fluxuate, and be just as natural as a fixed state.
Also, I think this attitude about ‘the closet’ may be well intended but is extremely problematic. While it may well be repressive for some queer people to keep their sexual or gender identities to themselves, it isn’t repressive for everyone. Many queer people choose not to reveal their queerness, maybe due to safety issues or in certain communities, and are perfectly comfortable with that.
The obligational requirement to “come out” places a distinct cruel burden on trans people, who face enormous pressure to elaborate and categorize themselves in binary ways that are understandable and, dare I say it, comforting to their audience. Katie Couric’s notorious shift from inquisitive to inquisitional in interviewing transwomen Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox in 2014 stemmed from the closet-based assumption that an instance of “coming out” entitles straight people to audit queer bodies.
If coming out were merely to mean, “Hey, I’ve found something unusual about my desires, and now I’m going to bravely explore them,” no one could object. In fact, we’d all do well to nurture receptivity to upheavals of self-discovery.
But the symbolic and metaphorical framework of the closet has the opposite effect. It conditions us to plant our own little rainbow flag in a pre-determined social category—lesbian, panromantic, asexual—and believe that our sexual truth has now been revealed, classified, and finalized. Been there, done that—nothing more to see here!
Contrarily, then, what seems to be a great salvation insidiously tames and paralyzes, embedding unruly desires into a neat box. In stepping across the threshold of the closet, the fluidity of queerness is at risk of getting stomped on and stamped out.
To some extent, our love of calling upon the closet could just be a defensive posture. But I suspect, too, a more troubling motive, for the closet gets wielded by queer people themselves to cement status. To imagine queer people as starting in the closet, from infancy if not birth, allows a smug smirk among the victoriously “out” who praise themselves in contrast to the cowards still shut up in the closet. Even moreso, even cishet allies demand us to categorize ourselves and condense our complex queer identities into neat little boxes so they can “understand us.” Coming out of the closet and picking a label limits us and is not something we would do if given a choice.
Let’s be real: Flipping on the gaydar isn’t typically some humane outreach of sympathy. More often, it’s a catty exercise in penetrating the cover of closet-trapped queers. To makes matters worse, ransacking youth for latent signs of queerness does the dirty work of policing gender expression – where we, as queers, are doing the work of the cishet patriarchy to enforce THEIR rules on OUR own people – which in turn breeds paranoia as closeted queer folks strain to hide and repress telltale signs of their secret—the lisp of a dude’s s that lingers too long, or fingernails trimmed to dykish bluntness. The closet turns the queer gaze into prosecutorial scrutiny.
I also believe that the attitude that queer people will be happier once they come out is an extremely privileged attitude to have. Sometimes, coming out can result in more harm than good. What about the queer youth dependent on financial support from queerphobic parents? So when white, cis, queer people talk about why every queer person should come out, they’re not properly examining how their privilege impacts their worldview. Saying that all queer people should come out is extremely homo-normmative. Homo-normativity is policing things like gender, sexuality and race within queerness. It means a system of rules that determines how queer people are supposed to act.
There’s an article by Jayson Flores that, does a pretty good job simplifying the concept of homo-normativity. In it, he writes:
“To put it in simplest terms, homo-normativity is saying you’re not like most gay men. Homo-normativity is dismissing black men in the club because, while you respect black people, you’re ‘just not attracted’ to them. Homo-normativity is thinking differently about someone you love on Twitter when you see they use a wheelchair IRL. Homo-normativity is gay white men dominating queer TV representation and white cis men playing trans women. Homo-normativity is the nation organizing for gay marriage, but not for trans lives. Homo-normativity is a privileging set of hierarchies, social norms, and expectations that cause the oppressed to oppress one another.”
The norms homo-normativity installs and repeats are heavily influenced by things like white supremacy, patriarchy, cis-normativity and heteronormativity. Because of this, white, cis, able-bodied, heteronormative, gay men are considered the “most acceptable” queer people.
Getting back to coming out narratives, saying all queer people should come out is very homo-normative. This is because it says that the norms set by the “most acceptable” members of the queer community should be followed by everyone else. So, I’m suggesting the closet isn’t just externally imposed; queer culture has bonded to the concept of the closet. It is possible, however, to tell stories about ourselves that bypass the fixation on the closet, without papering over the hostilities and trauma of queer experience.
To be sure, absolving the metaphorical trope of the closet does not magically neutralize the external prejudice that the closet was erected to deflect. However, what I’m saying is there is an underlying complicity in how the moderators of queer thought have bought into the in/out binary. The closet-based model of utter transparency and categorical clarity brings to life the current fashion of visibility politics, which prizes “being seen” in media representation. More identity boxes with more checkmarks are great here. But it’s at least worth entertaining the thought that confounding identity and disclosure—declining confession and receding into the mists of secrecy—might be the most powerful strike against the homophobic hostility that built the closet in the first place.
By reclaiming the closet as a larger, more preparatory backstage, we can work on a more affirming process of sharing ones queerness with the world, when the time and audience is right for “action!”
Ultimately, coming out whether from the closet, or from backstage, should be a personal decision. Telling queer people they should come out of the closet is trying to control their narrative for them. And doing that will just continue the marginalization of the queer community as a whole.
God, I can’t stand the way sadness always overtakes me
When the lights are low right before the action.
When the darkness hides my actions from sight
And I just want you here beside me.
I want you to pull me backstage again,
Through the smell of paint splatters and 2x4s to
Show me the set you created
You beaming with pride for my story,
But the only thing they cared about was the rainbow.
I don’t want you to leave me.
I am a woman — skin and bones, veins and nerves, hair and sweat.
I am not made out of metaphors, not apologies, not excuses.
This isn’t a play this is real life – but who’s watching?
I want You back, that sat and created with me,
Pulling on the ropes and pulleys,
You explain to me that the stage is where we set the scene
And even though you have never performed,
You wouldn’t trade that for all the mystery and joy that comes with working backstage.
My hands are calloused from pulling ropes for years,
And you promise to be there for me at the end of every performance,
Your presence lit by the stage light is how I know I’m home
Still here, still here
To welcome me, backstage.