The Closet as a Traumatic Loss of Existential Rights
LGBTQ people may enter “the closet” to survive in societies where prejudice and hate proliferate. The closet is experienced as a world unto itself—a secret, insular world within the world-at-large. The closet is a world created by LGBTQ people to remain safe from prejudice, discrimination, and violence directed at them from society. The closet is also a world created by heteronormative societies to oppress sexual and gender minorities into invisibility and silence. This research study contends that the main way that heteronormative societies force queer people into the closet is by depriving them of access to basic existential rights: the right to truth, freedom, love, hope, and power. The ability to access these rights is required for people to stay sane, healthy, and even alive. Yet the more that society revokes these rights from sexual and gender minorities, the further they become submerged inside the world of the closet. As such, the closet exists as both a safe refuge and a place of oppression—it protects LGBTQ people from prejudice, discrimination and violence while simultaneously depriving them of the basic existential rights required to survive and thrive.
The Right to Truth / The Closet as Obscurity of Truth
In the closet, the right to truth is revoked. Sexual and gender minorities may discover a glimmer of truth about their natural sexual desires and/or gender identity, yet this truth becomes obscured by society’s distorted lies, which tell them their feelings are bad and wrong. Due to feelings of shame and fear that are caused by society’s lies, LGBTQ people may bury their truth and construct a façade to pass as heterosexual or cisgender. As they bury their truth further underground, they become increasingly submerged inside the world of the closet. Hiding one’s truth is both protective and painful; it keeps them safe from anti-LGBTQ persecution in the outside world, while simultaneously inflicting inner persecutory feelings of guilt and shame about lying to the people they love. The closet may cause some sexual and gender minorities to hide their truth even from themselves through denial and repression, confusing their grasp on reality and causing an excruciating inner debate to unfold. By revoking access to truth, the closet enforces a world of silence—it not only silences truth-telling about one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, but also truth-telling about their general existence and being-in-the-world. The closet forbids queer people from speaking to anyone about the daily ups and downs, joys and sufferings, and emotional details of their life. This is why “coming out” as an act of speech feels so relieving. Breaking the closet’s silence not only allows LGBTQ people to be honest about their sexual orientation or gender identity with themselves and with others, but also to share their full spectrum of humanity with the people that matter most to them.
The Right to Freedom / The Closet as Paralysis of Freedom
In the closet, the right to freedom is also revoked. While others in society are granted the right to freely express themselves, even their prejudiced and hateful beliefs, the closet prohibits LGBTQ people from the basic human right to free expression—even when all they wish to express is love. This prohibition on self-expression is enforced at the level of bodily freedom; the bodies of sexual and gender minorities may literally feel shackled, frozen, locked down, and paralyzed while closeted. The prohibition is also often internalized, as one polices their own expression and the expressions of others to stay within heterosexual and cis-gender norms. This policing is regulated by a state of constant fear about being ridiculed, rejected, or violently assaulted if queer people dare exercise their freedom of self-expression in society. In this sense, closeted LGBTQ people remain vigilant about their very lives being at risk if they express themselves freely. This fear is multiplied for those who possess multiple marginalized identities, such as being a queer person of color. Yet although the closet restricts freedom, in some ways it also offers a safe space to exercise freedom. Sexual and gender minorities may subversively harness the closet’s secret world to express same-sex love and desire, to break rigid gender norms and binaries, and to engage in other natural bodily expressions that would be punished by society. As such, the closet can subversively become a world of beauty, because within it one can be free to express their beautiful, full spectrum of humanity which society forbids.
The Right to Love / The Closet as a Barrier to Love
In the closet, the right to love erodes. The closet becomes a world that is mainly secluded and people-less. Even when one’s existence intermingles with others, still a barrier to intimacy exists due to a heteronormative façade that prevents anyone from getting too close to really know them. Upon entering the closeted world, many queer people grieve the loss of love, for they are leaving behind parents, siblings, and friends to whom they may have once felt close. Therefore, sexual and gender minorities may feel utterly alone in this insular world, as if they only have themselves. The isolation enforced by the closet can actually become fatal because love, like oxygen, is a necessary ingredient to stay alive for human beings. As such, the closet’s withholding of love has the power to kill life, figuratively and literally. Some LGBTQ people in the closet may feel like they are robotically going through the motions of life; others may attempt to take their lives. Yet the offering of love also has the power to re-awaken life. Sexual and gender minorities may experience renewed vitality when they are affirmed by significant others that they are loved and accepted, exactly as they are. In fact, receiving others’ love can help LGBTQ people begin to love and accept themselves, undoing the shame and self-hatred caused by oppressive societies.
The Right to Hope / The Closet as Fragility of Hope
In the closet, the right to hope also erodes. The feeling-world of the closet, at its darkest hours, becomes a world of despair. Closeted LGBTQ people may feel helpless, powerless, and hopeless as their rights to truth, freedom, and love become increasingly inaccessible. They may also internalize the prejudice and hate directed at them from society, manifesting as self-hatred and rage. If the rage and hate overwhelms them, some sexual and gender minorities may seek to expunge these feelings by externalizing them, which may lead them to become physically violence towards themselves or others. As such, at its most hopeless and enraged state, the despair of the closeted world can lead queer people to further perpetuate the violence of homophobia and transphobia, through attempting suicide or assaulting others. But rage coupled with hope can yield a different outcome. Many queer people, in coming out of the closet, harness their rage about injustice to engage in social movements, which provide a voice and forum for their righteous anger. Hope grows as LGBTQ people exit the closeted world and realize there are others like them in society, who have experienced the despair and rage of the closet themselves and are banding together to fight for their collective rights. Hope grows as sexual and gender minorities find community and belonging in society, and realize they are not alone. Society, once seen as solely hateful and terrifying, begins to also be perceived as a place of solidarity.
The Right to Power / Re-gaining Resources for Power
Society’s homophobia has sought to disempower LGBTQ people and exile them into the closet. As such, exiting the closet requires regaining the right to power: harnessing one’s internal and external resources for empowerment.
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 empowers LGBTQ people 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 sexual and gender minorities may become 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 queer people about having their basic rights revoked can be channeled as a fuel for passionate social activism.
Movement is a source or power. Wherein the closet restricts freedom of bodily expression and movement, sexual and gender minorities can reclaim 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. LGBTQ people can dare to share in laughter and comradery 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 men who have been 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 empowers one’s voice to be loudly heard, rather than silenced by the closeted world.
Finally, sexuality is a source of power. It is empowering for queer people to cherish and revel in the very thing heteronormative societies seek to repress—the beautiful, natural, pleasurable, sensual feelings of one’s body and being.