Written by JLM; Published by GENDER FOCUS on July 2, 2014
I am writing this because of nightmares.
Have you ever been lying in bed, about to fall asleep, and you – while still half awake – begin having a nightmare, and you know you’re having one, but you cannot pull yourself from its semi-conscious clutches?
If you do, I feel ya; those things aren’t fun. If you don’t, feel me and hear me out. I’m a lesbian and I’m a struggling Christian: thus, sometimes and often, nightmares ensue.
Last night I had a set of semi-conscious nightmares that were loosely, as far as I can recall, about the wrath of God, a Jell-O mould at a volatile family picnic, atheist damnation, and the loss of my entire family. It was one of those mares that makes you feel like you’re in that psychedelic tunnel with Willy Wonka at the Chocolate Factory about to watch another brat be sent through a chute; and that brat very well might be you. You’re too disoriented to effectively make an escape from the nightmare, but you fight to wake anyway.
I managed, this time, to pull myself from it while within it, and though I don’t know whether it was part of the nightmare or something outside of it, I recall that I prayed; I pleaded with God.
Seconds later I awoke with a brilliant idea, one borne of nightmarish anguish, about something that’s truly a night- and day-mare: being in the closet. I know I’ve written on Gender Focus about this before, but my experiences continue revealing that the closet still exists. It is very real and pervasive, and it is not simply about sexuality; it’s something much larger.
And now, the idea:
I think we should start having a national event, perhaps part of National Coming Out Day or the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) annual Day of Silence.
The Day of Silence, if you’re not already familiar with it, calls for people around the world to take a vow of silence for an entire day as a way of symbolically raising awareness about the silencing of members of the LGBTQIAetc community, particularly students. National Coming Out Day is an international day of celebration and education that addresses silence and other issues faced by people who identify as a gender or sexual minorities.
The idea that came to me is a variation along these lines, but it addresses more specifically the issue and concept of closeting, and it’s not intended for those who identify as sexual or gender minorities. It’s for people who don’t have a clue about the closet.
The idea that came after my flash-frame nightmare is for those who don’t know, or don’t know enough, about being an outsider, especially about being a sexual or gender minority, but who want to know.
It’s also, more generally, for anyone who wants to know what it feels like to be “gay” or “abnormal.” That’s actually impossible; there is really no way of knowing what it’s like to be gay because being gay feels just the way being straight feels: it’s called being human. If you consider yourself normal, then you’ll probably never find yourself looking through the lens of abnormality or being looked at through the lens of abnormality. We’re all different, and so none of us can know what another person feels. But you can try, and that trying matters. We can seek to build empathy and to take empathy to its limit and we should. A day of complete silence simply doesn’t achieve this, though it achieves other noble things.
A Day (or even an hour) In the Closet will give you a glimpse, and remember it’s a glimpse and not a grand view, of what it is like to have to live in fear of oppression, rejection, and persecution.
Ready to go into the closet?
First, you should know how I’m defining closeting (you’re certainly welcome to your own definition). Closeting, to me, is hiding. It’s that simple. You might hide away your sexuality, you might hide your scar, you might hide your heritage. If you hide or if you hide something about yourself, you’re closeted. Sometimes it is not all bad. Sometimes it is how a person survives. But would you want to spend your life in fear of being found out? I wouldn’t.
If you don’t know what it’s like to feel pressured to hide something about yourself, read on because this exercise is for you.
Closeting 101: A How-To Guide
Phase I: Warning
First, a warning: This experiment may cause discomfort, self-loathing, or unusual pains throughout the body and mind. It may cause you to love and accept your neighbors. Ideally, it will cause the enlightenment of empathy.
Phase II: Pep Talk
Okay, so you want to be a good friend to your neighbor. You’re ready to go in, now.
Do not worry. You don’t have to pretend you’re gay. You don’t have to be anything other than what you are. Wear whatever you normally wear. You’re still you. You’re just not acceptable anymore.
It’s not you, but it is you. All you need to know is that whatever you are is not okay with the rest of the world, is not something that other people should be exposed to, is something deplorable that you need to hide if you would like to keep your friends, your family, your job, and possibly your ticket to an afterlife.
You can do this. Even though you have no support but this pep talk, and you have no one to talk to about this experience because you’re giving up your right to be open about yourself and the people you love, you can do this. After all, people do it every day; most do not lose their lives because of it and many stay alive because of it.
You can do this, out of respect for the majority, which is no longer you, and out of a respect for their limited experiences and ingrained fears. Yes, they are the ones who are uncomfortable and afraid, but because of their discomfort and fear, you will have to hide the source of their fear because it is, well, you. You must learn to be afraid of yourself or what is in you. Though those who are ruled by fear and those who make Fear their God are wrong and there is nothing scary or threatening about you, you must borrow Harry Potter’s invisible cloak, because they cannot possibly be expected to see that you’re really just a human being.
The task that will allow you to catch this little glimpse of closet and participate in this day is very simple. Remember it’s the decent thing to do to help make your friends and family and various strangers, especially assholes, feel comfortable.
Phase III: The Task
Now that you’re ready, and probably very excited, your task can be laid out. Fortunately, it’s simple.
All you have to do, for one day, is leave out ANY and ALL details even remotely pertaining to yourself and what matters most to you. You can talk all you want; you still have your freedom, right? All you’re being asked to do is go mum about the topics listed below.
(1) How you represent yourself. Whatever you feel inclined to do: don’t. Watch what you do with your arms, your voice, your clothes. Watch everything because everything you’re inclined to do with that body of yours is not okay today and needs to be censored. As for the clothes: if you normally love to wear jeans, take them off immediately. Put your jeans back in your closet. It would be better to be buck-naked today than wear jeans if what you like are jeans. Do not let your jeans be seen by anyone. Do not speak of your jeans to anyone. If you feel the impulse to mention your jeans, do whatever you must do to not mention them.
(2) What you live with and what you do. This includes cats, dogs, birds, and Sealy mattresses. If you live with it, today it’s zip with it. Or zip it up, in a bag, and pretend what you live with died or must be stored in the cellar. Be reassured no one will diagnose you; you won’t be going to prison or to see a counsellor. In fact, they will all commend you for your alternate reality, for being deceitful and delusional. People will hear about your pretend living arrangements, and your pretend life, and they will smile at you, they will pat your back, they will invite you to sit with them, they will invite you to the neighborhood barbeque and when you walk in they will be glad to know you as you aren’t.
Whatever you do at home on a daily basis, do not mention a word of it. Invent other home activities, preferably ones you know your neighbors are doing. If you have a wood shop, do not mention this. If your now-deceased mother left you her precious set of antique tea cups, even if someone brings up the precious set of antique tea cups their mother gave them, you are not to mention it. This is all about what we verbalize and what we keep silent. Your job is to let others verbalize while you keep silent (about what matters most). So while they talk about their plans to renovate their kitchens, you should be busy doing whatever you must do to prevent them from knowing about your totally awesome newly renovated kitchen. Keep it on the D-L, my friend.
(3) Those you care about most in the world. This really should be very do-able and not complicated at all—it simply includes any children and any significant others. You’re not being asked to unlove anyone. Caring and loving deeply never hurt anyone, as long as it doesn’t get rubbed in others’ faces.
If you’re usually a really good father and part of what makes you a good father is how much you involve your kids in your work life, prepare to pretend as though not knowing your children makes you a better dad. If you love talking about your wife, because she tells the funniest jokes about politicians or because she’s the next Frida Kahlo or because the two of you make a great team when it comes to keeping the house running and the family functioning, uh, nope. Just talk about other stuff.
Don’t talk about your daughter’s first home run or your son’s starring role in the ballet or your mother-in-law’s successful liver transplant. When you’re tempted to mention that one time your five-year-old goddaughter brought you to tears with a speech about kindness, think of unicorns and lollipops until the impulse to mention subsides.
Do not worry about the awkwardness of the moment. The closer you are with someone, the more they are an integral part of your life— the more important it is that you act like they don’t exist. Like you’ve never heard their name. It’s not like you’re erasing them from your memory; it’s just that you cannot let on that you love them, miss them, like them, think they’re funny, like to sit next to them on the porch, know them.
If you can do (1), (2), and (3) for a day, you’ll have a glimpse into what it’s like to be inside the closet. You can feel the dubious pride of being a socially-sanctioned liar and you can know, absolutely, that it’s not your fault. The great news is that many of you can do this service to yourself, your neighbors, and our nation without having to be spit on, locked up, beaten, or murdered.
I think that we should have a National Day In the Closet (or National Coming In Day) that precedes National Coming Out Day. While we should, indeed, celebrate events annually, like NCOD and Juneteenth, in order to honor and remind ourselves of the freedom that comes with standing up for ourselves, we also need to be reminded in sometimes very uncomfortable ways that coming out and being out (i.e., being honest about one’s self and life) are still issues.
The reason we need to come out is because we’ve been inside for too long. So in addition to celebrating the experience of coming out of oppression, allies can help their anomalous neighbors by educating themselves. One way to do so is to go in the closet (or, to put your loved ones in your closet). For one day.
I would like to share one more thing with you, before I leave you to your closets. Though I came out as a lesbian more than a decade ago, I have had relatively little experience with closets. Throughout my entire life, anything that emerged in my closet (that intimate space of the self and life) was almost immediately outed as soon as I recognized it. I am fortunate that I grew up in a time and a place that allowed for me to speak freely with little repercussion. Not everyone is so lucky. Some have to enter the closet to survive. Some enter it and never leave it. Before tonight, with my nightmare and the idea that stopped it, I thought I knew the closet well. I was wrong. What I knew well was coming out.
Events preceding the nightmare in my own life, in which I was not-maliciously asked to withhold certain details of my life for others’ sakes, led me to enter the closet for the first time in years this week, and it reminded me of what the closet is all about: it’s truly a nightmare. It’s a nightmare of discomfort, frustration and shame. Sometimes the answer does not lie in getting out; sometimes the truly heroic work lies in going in.
If you want to help, go there. Go in. Spend some time there. If you don’t feel the oppression, you’re not in the closet.
There are two things a person can do to help their neighbors: one is to go be in the closet with them for as long as it takes to understand why being out and proud matters, and the other is to make a world where closets are not necessary. Both are tall orders.
Surprises aren’t to be feared; it’s nightmares that are scary. The only good to come from a nightmare is the realization that it was only a dream and the wisdom that, with sleep, there’s always the potential to wake up with an idea that might address the problem that created it.
Rather than trying to prove through cheerful witnesses that being different universally “gets better” for the different, we might want to strive, instead, to go into an unknown –knowing that there is always someone suffering somewhere in this world– with the goal of making things better.
(photo of closet door used is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)