A Traumatic Loss of Existential Rights

“What is the lived experience of being in the LGBTQ closet?” The following text provides the main research findings produced by a phenomenological data interpretation of five research participants descriptions of being in the LGBTQ closet. This text corresponds with the short film “illuminate,” both seek to shine a light on the trauma of being closeted through mind and heart, poetry and prose.

The Closet as a Traumatic Loss of Existential Rights

“I feel like I lost something in my teenage years for not being heterosexual. And I think that will always be painful to think about… I feel like it was a great injustice. To me… to everyone who has to go through this.  It reminds me of a great sadness.”

Five themes emerged from the phenomenological data interpretation of participants’ descriptions of the LGBTQ closet: truth, freedom, love, hope, and power. The first four themes appeared primarily as losses or absences: while submersed inside the closet, participants described how their truths were silenced, their freedom of expression was prohibited, their access to love was obstructed, and their hold on hope was slippery or absent. These losses were experienced as a great injustice to all participants—an unfairness that sparked anger about having their access to truth, freedom, love, and hope unjustly withheld from them, which they rightfully deserved. Moreover, these losses were described as putting participants’ lives at risk, either by the risk of suicidality or the ever-present threat of violence from others. Therefore, this study’s research findings suggest that the closet is lived by LGBTQ people as a traumatic loss of the existential rights to truth, freedom, love, and hope. Participants described how the traumatic loss of these rights pulled them into a world of grief, sadness, loneliness, fear, shame, rage, hopelessness, and excruciating emotional pain that they constantly sought to escape. Yet a fifth existential right was also imbedded in participants’ descriptions of the closet: power. Power appeared as a strong, palpable presence in their beings and bodies—a presence that helped participants challenge the deprivations of the closet and restore their access to freedom, truth, love, and hope. Healing from the closet’s trauma involved identifying and embracing resources for power, and harnessing them to empower themselves and their community to fight for LGBTQ rights.

The Right to Truth / The Closet as Obscurity of Truth

“That was the hardest thing about being in the closet. When I’d have an emotion, or a life experience, when something would happen to me in life, like my first boyfriend.  I wanted to be able to go to my parents and say “look what’s happening to me! I love this person! He likes me!” but I couldn’t share that. I couldn’t share that… Stop it. Stop it. Silence. Silence.”

In the LGBTQ closet, the right to truth is revoked.  Participants described a glimmer of truth awakening about their sexual desires in childhood or puberty. This truth was felt, it emerged from their natural bodily arousal. Yet this felt truth quickly became obscured by society’s distorted messages about homosexuality, which told them it is bad and wrong. Due to feelings of shame and fear caused by society’s messages, participants described “burying their truth underground” and “constructing a façade” to pass as heterosexual. As they buried their truth further underground, they become increasingly submerged inside the world of the closet. Hiding their truth was both protective and painful; it kept them safe from homophobic persecution in the outside world, while simultaneously inflicting inner persecutory feelings of guilt and shame about lying to the people they loved.  The closet also caused some participants to hide their truth even from themselves through denial, repression, and dissociation, confusing their grasp on reality. Ultimately, by revoking participants’ right to truth, the closet enforced a world of silence—it not only silenced truth-telling about their sexual orientation, but also truth-telling about their general existence and being-in-the-world. The closet forbid them from speaking to anyone about the daily ups and downs, joys and sufferings, and emotional details of their life. This is why participants described “coming out,” as an act of speech, to feel so relieving. Breaking the closet’s silence through speech not only allowed them to be honest about their sexual orientation with themselves and with others, but also to share their full spectrum of humanity with the people that mattered most to them.

The Right to Freedom / The Closet as Paralysis of Freedom

“I’ve been in jail before. I’ve been in booking, processing, overnight type of stuff. It’s like knowing that your release should be in the next two or three days, and just waiting, waiting, waiting and feeling so constrained.  Like, feeling so anxious. Just having all this pain, even with your body, you don’t know what to do with yourself. And once you’re out of there, you just feel like you’re on top of the world.”

In the LGBTQ closet, the right to freedom is also revoked. The type of freedom that participants described losing was the freedom of self-expression. The closet’s prohibition on self-expression was enforced at the level of bodily freedom; participants described their bodies feeling literally shackled, frozen, locked down, and paralyzed while closeted. They felt prohibited from moving their hands freely, from embracing their beloved freely, and from freely experiencing arousal in their groin. The prohibition of self- expression was also internalized, as participants described policing their own expression and the expressions of others to stay within heterosexual norms. This policing was regulated by a state of constant fear about being ridiculed, rejected, or violently assaulted if they dare exercise their freedom of self-expression out in the world. In this sense, participants described having to remain constantly vigilant about their lives being at risk if they express themselves freely. This fear was multiplied for participants who possess multiple marginalized identities, such as being a queer person of color. They described having to behave “like a soldier on guard,” ready to restrict to their self-expression and use the closet as a defense against potential violence depending on the sociocultural context. Yet all participants described ultimately accessing a degree of freedom over their bodies, expressions, and themselves, by angrily rebelling against the constraints thrust upon them by homophobic social forces. This angry rebellion coincided with the healing of their coming-out process.

The Right to Love / The Closet as a Barrier to Love

“This is no way to experience or live love. Love is lived spontaneously and free. When you see the person you love, you want to rush to them, you want to look them in the eyes, you want to kiss them, you want to hold them, you want engage with them differently. But we were bound to the shadows. If we saw each other in the hallway, we had to nod our heads in acknowledgement. A cordial “hi” would sometimes be said. It just felt oppressive and wrong.”

In the LGBTQ closet, the right to love erodes.  As participants became more deeply submerged inside the secluded world of the closet, they described being increasingly “cut off” from other people in the outside world. Moreover, even when they did socially interact with other people, participants described maintaining a heterosexual façade in these interactions with served as a barrier to intimacy and prevented anyone from getting too close to really know them. Upon entering the closet, many participants described grieving the loss of love, for they were leaving behind parents, siblings, and friends to whom they once felt close. This estrangement from others led participants to feel utterly alone while closeted, as if they only had themselves. As their access to love eroded, the resulting isolation actually became fatal for some participants, because love, like oxygen, was experienced as a necessary ingredient to stay alive. As such, the closet’s withholding of love had the power to kill life, figuratively and literally. Some participants described robotically going through the motions of life; others described actually attempting to take their lives. Yet the offering of love also has the power to re-awaken life. All participants described experiencing renewed vitality when they were affirmed by significant others that they are loved and accepted, exactly as they are. Receiving others’ love helped them to love and accept themselves, undoing the shame and self-hatred caused by homophobic societies.

The Right to Hope / The Closet as Fragility of Hope

“I was filled with self-loathing and every day I existed was a struggle because I was living in denial. I thought I had a disease and all I knew and wanted to do was to combat it and all of the persuasions that came with it. I hated my body, I hated myself, and I hated who I knew I could become if I didn’t keep my impulses in check…I wanted to destroy my body.”

In the LGBTQ closet, the right to hope also erodes.  Participants described the feeling-world of the closet, at its darkest hours, to become a world of despair. They described feeling helpless, powerless, and hopeless as their access to truth, freedom, and love become increasingly inaccessible. They also described internalizing the homophobia directed at them from society, which manifested as self-hatred and rage. As the rage and hate threatened to overwhelm them, several participants described seeking to expunge these feelings by externalizing them, which led them to become physically violence towards themselves or others. As such, at its most hopeless and enraged state, the despair of the closeted world led some participants to further perpetuate the violence of homophobia by attempting suicide or assaulting others. But rage coupled with hope can yield a different outcome. Participants described how, in coming out of the closet, they learned to harness their rage about injustice to engage in social movements, which provide a voice and forum for their righteous anger. Hope grew as participants described exiting the closeted world and realizing there are others like them in society, who have experienced the despair and rage of the LGBTQ closet themselves and are banding together to fight for their collective rights. Hope grew as participants described finding community and belonging in society, and realizing they are not alone. Society, once seen as solely hateful and terrifying, began to also be perceived as a place of solidarity.

The Right to Power / Re-gaining Resources for Power

“It’s about finding that the power lives inside of you. Once you can realize that you are strong and that you have the power, and find a way to connect to it… then you can actually have the power to do anything. You are all the more powerful. You are full of power. And we need to be continued to be told that. Because the world—some in ignorance and some because they want power over you—try to negate that. And we can’t allow that to happen. We do have a right to love. We do have a right to those things that are so much a part of who we are.”

Society’s homophobia seeks to disempower LGBTQ people and exile them into the closet. As such, exiting the closet required participants to become empowered—harnessing their internal and external resources for power. Participants identified the following resources through which they discovered their power:

Love is a source of power. Other people in queer people’s lives can deliberately offer explicit love and affirmation towards them. This love is received as a breath of life, healing internalized oppression and helping them come out of the closeted world.  Receiving others’ love empowers sexual and gender minorities to love themselves.  Eventually, this love is paid forward, as many queer people seek to empower other members of the LGBTQ community to realize they too are lovable exactly as they are.

Knowledge is a source of power. Obtaining self-knowledge by engaging in introspection and by researching human sexuality and gender identity empowered participants to understand and accept themselves, as well as make meaning of their experiences. Knowledge can also be harnessed as a tool for social change, as some participants described becoming empowered to spread education about LGBTQ experience to transform ignorant beliefs across society.

Anger is a source of power. The righteous and imminent anger among participants about having their basic rights revoked was channeled as a fuel for passionate social activism.

Movement is a source or power.  Wherein the closet restricts freedom of bodily expression and movement, participants described reclaiming their right to bodily expression by joining social movements, by dancing on streets and in bars, and by marching alongside other moving bodies in a spirit of protest and pride.

Humor is a source of power. participants described daring to share in laughter and comraderie even in the worst of times, even despite homophobia’s attempts to bring them down.

Femininity is a source of power, identified by some gay male participants who were forced by institutionalized homophobia and patriarchy to sever expression of their feminine sides.  Yet queer people across the gender spectrum can empower themselves to embrace the full spectrum of their gender expression, refusing to conform to heteronormativity’s oppressive gender restrictions.

Creativity is a source of power.  Making and spreading art across society empowered participants’ voices to be loudly heard, rather than silenced by the closeted world. They described participation in this project to be one example of that.

Finally, sexuality is a source of power.  Participants described how empowering it has been to cherish and revel in the very thing heteronormative societies seek to repress—the beautiful, natural, pleasurable, sensual feelings of their body and being.