Closet Vs. Backstage: the ECGSR 2019 Keynote Presentation

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]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.[/vc_column_text][vc_video link=”https://vimeo.com/351763000″ align=”center”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

Carly’s Essay

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 fix