Rebuilding the Closet

Gender and sexuality are a spectrum. In common discourse, we lose sight of what that means. Very Online approaches to gender and sexuality seem to say that gender and sexuality are a spectrum, but everyone is at a very specific and static spot on that spectrum. That fits with the more everyday discourse that was able to absorb the normalization of homosexuality on the condition that every individual clearly fits into one specific box. But that’s not how it is, and everyone probably understands that. Even among people who are exclusively heterosexual, there is a spectrum of how attracted they are to the opposite sex — how many partners they seek, how much monogamy is a struggle for them, how sexually motivated they are at all, etc. Enough people seem to be able to rest more or less content with monogamy that the whole thing basically “works,” but if we’re being honest, there are some people for whom it was never going to happen and who therefore never should have been expected to get married or have exclusive relationships.

Everything relating to sex and gender is like that. On the spectrum of same-sex desire, for instance, there are those for whom it’s a non-negotiable exclusive preference and others who could make a basically heterosexual lifestyle work, and a whole range in between. We see this from history — there are a lot of men, for instance, who were known to be primarily same-sex attracted but were able to hold together a marriage and have children. By the standards of the time, those marriages may have even been relatively happy! And on gender identity, there are people who absolutely need to transition or else their life will be constant suffering and others who can tolerate living in public as their assigned identity as long as they have some private release, and a whole range in between.

The political strategy of the “closet” was to require those people who exist in the more liminal spaces to hide, then relentlessly stigmatize and persecute the people for whom conformity was simply never going to be an option. The latter incentivizes the former — you’d only choose to live as homosexual or trans if the cost of denying it was worse than the social costs of acknowledging it. All but the youngest generations are familiar with this dynamic at first-hand. Every 80s kid, including myself, looks back and is horrified at the casual homophobia that was flung around the schoolyard in those tense days just before public acceptance of homosexuality gained critical mass. We were being groomed, from a very young age, to be homophobes. And the goal of that project was emphatically not to convert homosexuals or trans people, at least not among intelligent conservatives. The goal was to use the non-negotiable homosexuals and trans people to make sure that everyone who could stand to conform, would conform. Those who couldn’t conform and were never going to be able to conform were made into living sacrifices to normative heterosexuality.

That’s why the strategy of coming out of the closet was so powerful. The entire system depended on the idea that sexual minorities were freaks and monsters, and the majority could sustain that belief because so many people with those inclinations kept them secret. Once they stopped keeping it secret — often at great personal cost to the earliest generation of activists — the dynamic could no longer hold. Sexual minorities were not those strange scary outsiders. Everyone knew someone who belonged to a sexual minority, often intimately. The strategy was so powerful that it led to the legalization of gay marriage by a conservative Supreme Court — a move that would have been unthinkable in my childhood, but seemed obvious and long overdue when it finally happened.

Now the first generation of children is growing up for whom this new regime of gender and sexuality is normal. And what many — including myself — would now like to see is an inverse of the strategy of the closet. Instead of a default assumption of conformity unless the non-normative is totally irresistible, the approach should be to allow young people to experiment and see what really works for them. Hence young people should ideally be allowed to follow their curiosity and attraction before claiming a sexual orientation. More kids will wind up dating or even having some intimate contact with people of the same sex than wind up “being” homosexual in the long haul, and that’s okay and natural.

The same would apply to gender identity. In the past, only those who were in indisputable agony could pursue some kind of gender reassignment, and only at the cost of pathologizing themselves. Now, however, people who are uncomfortable with their gender identity — which, if we’re honest, includes almost everyone, at least at some times and to some degree — should be able to experiment, including living publicly as a member of the target gender (i.e., “socially transitioning”). The assumption is that more people are going to experiment than wind up adopting a gender identity other than the one assigned at birth, and especially more than wind up surgically transitioning. And that’s okay!

In contrast to the closet system, which aimed to churn out as many passable cisgendered heterosexuals as feasible, this system aims to make sure that no one whose life would have been enriched by non-normative gender or sexual practice is missed. The reality of evolution probably indicates that the majority of people will still remain other-gender attracted and have gender identities that correspond with that assigned at birth. But the number of people who wind up claiming non-normative identities will be larger than it was under conditions of systematic persecution and repression.

And the number of people who temporarily try out those other identities can be expected to balloon, given the realities of the teenage libido and the quotidian body-horror of going through puberty. More people are going to pursue that faint stirring of attraction to someone of the same sex when they don’t have to worry about being beaten up after school (including by that cute boy or girl) and more people are going to see if living as the opposite gender is the solution to their discomfort with their own body than they would in a situation where such a thing would have been simply unthinkable — both conditions that held during my lifetime (meaning during the lifetime of people who are raising young kids today).

All of that is happening now, at least in areas where policy enshrines some kind of openness to gender and sexual minorities. The fact that it is happening was predictable, and it is good. It opens up a situation where fewer people have to live lives of quiet despair for the sake of fulfilling an arbitrary role. It is the one way in which our children’s lives might be better than ours.

And so of course, a vocal minority of parents absolutely hate it. In response to this massive, positive social change, they are trying to reinstitute the closet. The strategies are the same as always — tarring all sexual minorities as pedophiles, equating all non-normative practices with the most extreme (e.g., acting as though social transitioning is tantamount to irreversible surgery), stripping gender and sexual minorities of basic political rights, etc., etc. The goal cannot be to eliminate homosexuality and trans experience — every intelligent person knows that’s impossible. The goal, rather, is to make the cost of expressing homosexual inclination or trans identity so high that the marginal few who could go either way find a way to make conformity work. In other words, a hard core of people who have no choice but to express homosexual inclination or trans identity will have to live thwarted, persecuted lives to marginally increase the odds that some bigot’s son or daughter will suck it up and settle into a “normal” marriage and produce a grandchild or two, so that the next generation can in turn suck it up and conform as well.

It’s an ugly political strategy that draws in ugly people and makes them uglier. People are going to die — whether by vigilante violence, or “gay panic” or “trans panic,” or suicide — because of this. And all to perpetuate a form of life that isn’t really making anyone happy at the end of the day. Why would people spend their lives and tarnish their souls for this? They claim it’s out of love, but I think it expresses a profound hatred of their own children, or at least of what their children might be or become apart from them. Perhaps it’s even a hatred of the part of themselves that wishes it could have had free range to experiment! It’s probably not helpful to speculate about that too much in individual cases, though. The larger reality is that the political strategy of the closet was a brutal, violent system, and a brutal, violent system produces brutalized, violated people who go on to be brutal and violent.

And it is by no means obvious that they will fail in their ambition to reinstitute the closet! The strategies are right there, familiar and ready to hand. For all but the youngest generation, they are a sad kind of muscle memory. All it takes is for the forces of repression to seem stronger and suddenly a lot of people will find a way to conform — as we can already see in the rank cowardice of most ostensibly “liberal” politicians and commentators on trans issues. Surely we are all old enough to know that progress is not automatic, that social justice does not depend on the date on the calendar, that every gain is reversible. The acceptance of minority gender and sexual identities was a contingent historical achievement, and allowing those gains to be reversed will have been a contingent historical failure — on the part of people who responded to irrational hatred with a pose of “reasonableness,” flinching in the face of a bully just as most of us did in the schoolyard.

7 thoughts on “Rebuilding the Closet

  1. As a factual matter, the history of sexuality since the Enlightenment at least is characterized by periodic brutal re-closeting campaigns. I really appreciate the political substance and pedagogical intent of this essay, but I also think that its very small number of concrete historical and contemporary references tend to make it seem more like a thought experiment than a statement of solidarity.

  2. I’m not saying more information is necessary; I’m saying a demonstration of respect to LGBTQ+ thinkers and intellectual curiosity towards LGBTQ+ history would be welcome (to me as a queer reader) and rhetorically helpful (to you as you address what I take to be an overwhelmingly cishetero audience). When you write as though the logic of the closet is historically novel and also a brand-new idea for your entire audience, you further the presumption that everyone here is cishetero, and you invite those projected cishetero people to just put themselves on the side of an unexamined ideal of progress. Whereas one presumes the actual goal is to encourage the straight-enough, conventional-gendered-enough to make common cause with sexual and gender minorities.

    A really ungenerous read of this essay would be to just call it “Cishetero Fragility”, in short.

  3. That would indeed be ungenerous. I certainly don’t claim or imply the idea of the closet is novel! And I am far from assuming the idea is new — I am arguing that cishetero people know all about it and were even recruited to enforce it. As for the unexamined ideal of progress — I’m starting to wonder if you even read what I wrote.

  4. Your critique of my lack of explicit citations of LGBTQ+ history and thinkers is well taken. Much of what I say here grows out of the work of Ted Jennings, specifically his book Plato or Paul?: On the Origins of Western Christian Homophobia, which indeed traces the history of the “strategy of the closet” back to Plato — so no, not new. I served as his research assistant for that work and absorbed the wide range of sources he was drawing on as well. All this to say — I do actually know the history and many of the thinkers and am personally invested, even though I am myself cis-hetero. I made the stylistic choice to write in a more general rather than academic mode and ground it in a widely shared experience among people of my generation (and not exclusively the cis-hetero ones — many of those who would later come out as LGBTQ+ also would have participated in the shaming activities as a kind of “cover”). Maybe that was the wrong approach, but I don’t pretend to be the last word on this topic.

  5. Uh, historical information is generally cool but I don’t get how you read this and got the impression it was aimed at cishets, I very much didn’t.

  6. deesse877’s comment strikes me as an example of Reviewer Number 2 Syndrome. Surely there’s value in a paper on historical persecution of sexual minorities, but this essay isn’t that paper and shoehorning all of that in wouldn’t improve it.

    It certainly seems wrong or at least very hostile tonerad this piece as suggesting that the closet is historically novel. I just don’t see that at all.

Comments are closed.