The Troubling Resilience of the Queer Closet

Tom Joudrey writes about politics and culture.

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 ThingBlue Is the Warmest Colorup 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. Read more via Slate