The Troubling Resilience of the Queer Closet

Homophobia built the closet. So why do queer people continue to define themselves by it?

A partially open door to an empty closet.
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This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

The metaphor of the closet—and the concept of coming out of it—provide the basic vocabulary by which we chronicle the standard arc of queer development. It’s a trope so deeply embedded in queer identity formation that it seems natural and inevitable, like a rite of passage. Many of the iconic films about adolescent queer experiences—Beautiful Thing, Blue Is the Warmest Color, up through last year’s Love, Simon—have plots that revolve around the closet. In fact, of the 440 queer films I’ve watched and tabulated (I was a precocious user of Excel), no less than 383 make navigating the closet their central focus. And public self-disclosure doesn’t just enable self-actualization; it’s also a political weapon that secures civil rights and social respect through a process of familiarization. It’s all too easy to distrust the specter of the faceless homo lurking in parks and bathroom stalls, more difficult to clutch pearls when a genial Ellen cuts a rug on daytime TV.

What’s weird about this love affair with the closet is that it is not a structure that queer people hammered together 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. Only after 1960 did “the closet” take precedence as the authoritative term. The new metaphor, however, did different work than those it supplanted, in that it summoned a new ideal of total exposure: Out and proud gays would have no “skeletons in the closet,” no secrets, no hiding—total integration of a unified self.

Without doubt, the tactic of telling queer stories through the concept of the closet has yielded significant victories, both individual and systemic. But at what cost? And what stands behind this persistent obsession with telling our tales of queer becoming by using the ugly structures wrought by homophobia? At the risk of sounding heretical, I’d like to suggest that glorifying coming out of the closet has wrought unforeseen damage—and more, that its attendant declaration of a stable identity may be strangely at odds with queerness.

So, what’s wrong with using the closet as the defining architecture of the queer experience? For one thing, coming out—out of the dark, solitary closet and into the sociable light—makes queerness responsible for clarity of expression to others. By its very nature, queerness should reside in a sea of ambiguity, unstably morphing through androgynous and fluid forms, as brilliantly depicted in Virginia Woolf’s novel of spontaneous gender transformation, Orlando. By contrast, acquiescing to the demand to come out entails a tacit willingness to be pinned down, defined, made intelligible—in effect, to halt and freeze queerness at the very instant of its assertion. I’d prefer that we allow queer exteriors to more closely resemble, by analogy, Joan Crawford’s disposition: icy, enigmatic, alluring—but never transparent or laid bare. The requirement to come out places a particularly cruel burden on trans people, who endure enormous pressure to explain and categorize themselves in binary ways that are understandable and comforting to outside audiences. 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 discerned 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 cultivate openness to upheavals of self-discovery. But the metaphorical structure of the closet has the opposite effect. It conditions us to plant a rainbow flag in a social category—lesbian, pansexual, skoliosexual—and believe that our sexual truth has now been revealed, taxonomized, and finalized. Been there, done that—nothing more to see here! Paradoxically, then, what seems a great liberation insidiously tames and paralyzes, shoehorning unruly desires into a neat box. In stepping across the egress of the closet, the fluidity of queerness is at risk of getting stomped on and stamped out.

To some extent, our love of invoking 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 beginning in the closet, from infancy if not birth, permits a smug smirk among the victoriously “out”—in the advertising parlance of Virginia Slims, you’ve come a long way, baby!—who laud themselves in contrast to the cowards still shut up in the closet. 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 pretenses of closet-trapped queers. To makes matters worse, scouring youth for latent signs of queerness does the dirty work of policing gender expression, which in turn breeds paranoia as closeted queer folks strain to 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 prosecutorial.

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.

Take Gus Van Sant’s first film, Mala Noche. Set amidst the flotsam of Portland, Oregon’s Skid Row, with its itinerant drifters and seedy flophouses, the film follows Walt Curtis, the attendant at a grimy liquor store, as he pursues a handsome Mexican freight train hopper. We gather from Walt’s opening voice-over that he is what our lingo would designate as “out.” As the plot roams forward, however, Walt never reveals himself as an exemplar of a coherent identity. He doesn’t hide his lust but neither does he stabilize it in language. What distinguishes the film is its aloofness: It doesn’t pander to straight curiosity through confessional explanation, and for that matter, it doesn’t offer cheerful bromides to queer audiences of a future magically brightened by transparency. Van Sant works outside the binary distinctions—in or out, private or public—that the closet implies and, in doing so, bypasses the well-worn narrative ruts of disguise and disclosure. In its place, a far more nuanced portrait emerges about the haphazard drift of gay desire.

To be sure, purging the trope of the closet does not magically neutralize the external prejudice that the closet was erected to deflect. What I’m diagnosing, however, is an underlying complicity in how the arbiters of queer thought have bought into the in/out binary. The closet-based ideal of utter transparency and categorical clarity animates the current vogue of visibility politics, which prizes “being seen” in media representation. More identity boxes with more checkmarks are its panacea. But in a political epoch of entrenched tribal lines and sharpened factional division, it’s at least worth entertaining the thought that confounding identity and disclosure—declining sexual confession and receding into the mists of androgyny—might be the most powerful strike against the homophobic hostility that built the closet in the first place.