The closet refers to hiding one’s orientation, gender, or biological sex when it differs from the heteronormal. In LGBTQ folk speech, the closet may refer to strategic revelation of oneself to some but not to others (as in “I’m closeted at work”), or may be associated with complete refusal to deal positively with one’s own orientation, gender expression, and nonconforming physiology (as in somebody being “thoroughly closeted”).
The Closet in Folk Speech
“The closet” may be traced back to the phrase, skeletons in the closet, which suggests that scandalous secrets of all kinds are hidden from public view. A Spanish variant is gato encerrado en el armario/clóset (“cat buried in the armoire/closet”), and a French version is un cadavre dans le placard (“a dead body in the cupboard”).
Since World War II, the English version of the closet metaphor went from having skeletons or secrets in the closet (a space out of public view) to actually confining oneself in the closet (a small, cramped space for hiding from others) in order to hide one’s homosexuality. it is a metaphor that implies restriction of movement and individual expression.Typically referring to homosexual people who hide their sexual orientation, as in closet case or closet queen, the metaphor has since expanded to include anyone in the LGBTQ spectra and, in humorous folk speech, any secret behavior or desire.
The same shift in definition from undefined scandal to homosexuality happened with the Spanish phrases, “estar en el armario” and “estar en el clóset” as well as in Portuguese: “no armário,” and French: “rester dans le placard.”
El clóset has become a common phrase throughout Latin America. The Mexican LGBTQ community has a folk proverb: el clóset mata (“the closet kills”). A Lesbian activist group headquartered in Mexico City has taken the name of El Clóset de Sor Juana, in honor of the famous Mexican poet and nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who wrote love letters to some of her patronesses. There have also been Gay bars in Bogotá, Colombia and Patzcuaro, Mexico named El Clóset. In 2009, Colombian priest Germán Robledo Ángel caused a stir by declaring, “La iglesia cathólica es el clóset de los gays” (“The Catholic Church is a closet for gays”) and claiming that at least thirty percent of all priests in Cali, Colombia were homosexual.
A History of Secrecy: Passing as Heteronormal
Well before the closet metaphor, there were tales of people who kept their homosexual affairs and gender variance secret, yet tantalizing peeks into their hidden identities occasionally appeared.
One of the oldest examples is that of Pharaoh Neferkare (also known as Pepi II, 2300 BCE) who is recorded in fragments dating back to 1300 BCE as having a secret romantic relationship with his male general, Sasenet. Icons of the Gay community such as the Ladies of Llangollen (two women in Wales who lived together in the early 1800s CE) are considered important LGBTQ ancestors who adroitly manipulated the dynamics of the closet in their society for their own survival.
In the twentieth century, certain closeted individuals are now considered LGBTQ icons despite efforts to pass as Straight. Harlem Renaissance jazz singer and pianist Gladys Bentley (1907-1960), who was openly Lesbian for much of her career, went back into the closet before she died, claiming in Ebony magazine that she had been cured of her lesbianism. British doctor Michael Dillon (1915-1962), the first post-operative transman in recorded history, tried to pass as a man-born man with only partial success, while American jazz singer and pianist Billy Tipton (1914-1989) succeeded for most of his adult life to pass as a man, despite having an anatomically female body, until the day he died when paramedics examined his body.
Writer and Japanese nationalist Mishima Yukio (1925-1970) played hide-and-seek in his closet. He lived an obstensively heteronormal life while writing about being secretly homosexual in works such as his famous novel, Confessions of a Mask (considered semi-autobiographical) and posing for homoerotic photographs, including one of himself as Saint Sebastian.
It is not unusual for the closet to be an intriguing possibility in the lives of icons in music and film. Such was the case of Ian Curtis, lead singer for Joy Division, a British group that changed its name to New Order after Curtis’ suicide in 1980. Rumors of homosexuality followed Curtis to the grave, aggravated by the lyrics of “Disorder” in which Curtis sang the following:
I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand
Could these sensations make me feel the pleasures of a normal man
As it was recorded, the lyrics undergo a subtle shift for many listeners: “I’ve been waiting for a guy to come and take me by the hand/Could these sensations make me feel the pleasures of another man” which some feel were intentional on Curtis’ part.
For people whose families, communities, religious denomination, political party, and employment dictate that they cannot be homosexual or gender-variant, the closet may be framed as a moral imperative, and the performance of “passing” as Straight as one’s duty. For example, the concept of the closet-as-moral is a way for homosexual politicians in America to justify their strategy of opposing LGBTQ rights, and is part of their public performance of passing. According to Rich Tafel, former executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, those who pass as Straight may then perceive those who come out as Gay as weak, undisciplined, and deserving of oppression.
Michael Rogers, founder of Blogactive, a site for outing closeted people in positions of power, compared the performance of passing to theater: “Politics is like a Broadway show to them in that everything is planned, and every word that comes out of anybody’s mouth is scripted.” This dynamic has been portrayed time and time again in LGBTQ narratives in which a closeted politician publicly acts against the interests of the LGBTQ community, and then goes off-script to a Gay bar for same-sex erotic play.
Out of the Shadow and into the Closet
Sometimes it is important for LGBTQ people to hide their orientation when doing work that is important for the Gay community. Such was the case for Canadian director/producer Kathryn Klassen when she filmed her documentary, Out of the Shadow, Into the Sun about female bullfighters in Spain and Latin America. Although there was a definite subtext of same-sex orientation in what she found when making the documentary (as well as subversion of gender in appearance and identity), Klassen could not discuss anything pertaining to homosexuality with the bullfighters she encountered, nor could she reveal that she and her assistant, fellow director José Torrealba (originally from Venezuela), were themselves Gay. The absence of any references to LGBTQ issues and community in the documentary did not keep it from being received well at LGBTQ film festivals and conferences. The closeted production of Out of the Shadow, in fact, was an important topic of Klassen’s presentation on her documentary during the Qualia 2004 Conference on Gay Folklife in Columbus, Ohio.
Jay, Karla and Allen Young, eds. Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation. New York: New York University, 1972.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: U of California, 1992.
Dick, Kirby. Outrage: A Searing Exposé of the Secret Lives of Closeted Gay Politicians. Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2009.