Life After the Closet

In my last post I mentioned I was doing a series of four posts on the topic of four ways Christians burden LGBTQIA+ people, but today I decided to veer off theme for a moment with some reflections on life outside the closet. Today marks the first anniversary of my friend T choosing to courageously invite everyone in her life to know her more personally than she’d ever done before, and it seems like a timely opportunity to reflect on what life outside the closet is like for us who’ve had the privilege of emerging from it. Having journeyed with T for some years and been church family together, I got to see just how much courage this took and how significant this decision to be more fully known was for her. I have so much admiration and love for her, so today I want to honour T’s story and dedicate this post to her.

I’m struck by how much of the stories and popular representation of queer people revolves around the trope of ‘coming out.’ The high-stakes conversation with biological parents, the complex relationship with peers at school, maybe even the terrifying experience of being outed against your will… these are all compelling versions of a captivating trope, perhaps even seen as the most defining life stage for queer people according to popular imagination. But I’ve noticed we hear far less about retrospective reflections on the other side – explorations of life outside the closet.

Maybe it’s because it’s such an expansive idea: after coming out, literally everything in a queer person’s life is, to some extent, life outside the closet, and it’s harder to pin down specific features when we all live such varied and individual experiences. Maybe it’s because it’s not so easy to map onto a comparable experience that cisgender/heterosexual people can understand (the adolescent ‘coming of age’ story is much more easily relatable), so it’s harder for these stories to gain the same kind of traction.

[I should say as well that ‘coming out’ is not as easily defined or even desirable for some people, and as much as I want to celebrate the freedom of life outside the closet in what follows, I do care very deeply about those LGBTQIA+ folk for whom false binaries of ‘the closet’ or ‘being out’ don’t resonate or who don’t feel any desire to make some kind of public announcement of their own experience. I recognise a lot of people I love and admire, especially bisexual and ace-spectrum people, don’t envisage a comparable ‘coming out’ moment in their picture of flourishing, and I want to say I wholeheartedly support and love all of you, and I’m committed to defending your freedom to pursue whatever flourishing looks like for you. I’ve also noticed a growing phenomenon of younger queer people growing up in a world where they never felt ‘in the closet’ to start with and so never had a ‘coming out’ moment per se – and I hope and pray we’ll see more of these varied stories in the years to come.]

One of the things I feel straight people (and especially Christians) often misunderstand about coming out is that it’s not all about sexuality/gender. In my mind, it’s a whole-person experience, where a person, despite all the risks and personal cost to themselves, decides that relational sincerity is so important to them that they invite people in to see the whole person they are, including the parts, like their gender/sex/sexuality that were hidden out of sight before. I was struck by the amount of backlash I saw after celebrating T’s coming out last year (although almost all the criticism was, as usual, whispers behind our backs or anonymous equivocating rather than an honest conversation to our faces). I think people hear words like ‘coming out’ and project their assumptions about queer identities, sexual ethics, and religious worldviews, onto the person without always taking the time to listen to what that experience actually means to them. Stepping out of the closet towards relational honesty is as varied an experience as the number of people taking that step.

The longer it’s been since I’ve been safe enough to start telling my whole story, the more I’ve found how relational this experience is. The closet affects all of us. And leaving the closet behind isn’t just an individualistic act of self-definition, it’s a powerful invitation to deeper and richer community. Since T has come out, I’ve been able to have more open conversations, not only with her, but with others in community together. Even as I’ve personally pursued more honest conversations after coming out myself, other people’s experiences of the closet still affect me, both positively and negatively. A while back, a gay man visited my church and joined us for lunch afterwards, and as I was talking about how my church family seeks to be a safe place for same-sex attracted people, I looked around the table and realised the other five people were all queer Christians too… and for the first time since T came out, I was able to say this out loud and introduce these friends to each other without concealing significant experiences we shared in common or risking making anyone feel unsafe. Imagine having a visitor to your church and telling them they’re not the only same-sex attracted person at this church, and then being able to actually say those people’s names. Being able to actually introduce them instead of using their faceless stories as an anonymous anecdote.(That might not seem like a particularly dramatic moment to a straight person, but you have to understand how significant it is for someone who’s been denied that freedom for decades. You might be so used to having people correctly assume your sexual orientation for your whole life and never even needing to say it out loud that you’re not yet self-aware about how significant a role that plays in your interactions. But for us: it’s huge.)

At the same time, being out of the closet when so many people you love are different levels of closeted is a strange kind of isolation too. I’ve only just started to consciously notice all the ways this affects me, because it’s been my norm for so long that I forget other people don’t experience these things as well. This week I was about to comment on a friend’s Facebook post (I had a great meme that was on-topic!), but then I realised that it could potentially out him if he wasn’t already out. I spent the next ten minutes scrolling back on his profile to see if he’d come out yet (I couldn’t remember), and eventually I decided it was safer not to interact at all. I’m pretty sure he is out after all, but in the end it wasn’t worth the risk of compromising someone’s safety if there was even a small chance I’m wrong.

This happens in real-life interactions all the time too – I’m so used to pretending to be less familiar with friends I bump into in public spaces because I’m worried if any mutual friends ask how we know each other, I’d need to either lie about it or risk violating their confidentiality (because saying ‘we have a secret fight club for same-sex attracted Christians to encourage each other in our faith’ or ‘we met at this conference for celibate gay Christians’ is a little incriminating). I’ve been on Christian camps where a dear friend (who’s also gay) told me on the first day that as much as he loved my friendship and was excited to spend time together, he felt he needed to appear less closely associated with me for the week in order to protect himself from being found out by leaders of that organisation. I completely understood and respected his need for that safety, but it still hurt. (On a side note: what does it say about a Christian organisation that people feel they need to appear less loving in their friendships to feel safe? And what does that say about our view of love?). The rest of that week, I was racked with paranoia every time I interacted with this friend, constantly worried about whether I was appearing ‘too’ close or ‘too’ invested in our friendship to keep onlookers from suspecting my friend’s orientation.

That’s one of the strange things about life outside the closet: you’re never quite completely out. My default setting when interacting with my same-sex attracted and queer Christian friends is to functionally go back into the closet, sit with them in the shadows behind that sturdy, safe closet door to keep them company. But that confined space hits different when you’ve tasted the freedom on the other side. There’s something very claustrophobic about going back and realising the toll it took on you after you’ve had some time to heal outside the closet. That’s why when my friend T came out, it felt so liberating for us to meet with some church friends out in the open for the first time. Only one year earlier, T had been so anxious about being seen with us that we met in a private place with her facing away from the door in case someone walked past and recognised her with us and put two and two together. I remember her distracted and fearful glances over her shoulder every other minute, and I remember us getting up and reshuffling chairs so she felt safer confined to a corner.

Then, one year ago this week, we met outside. We sat in the light of day soaking up the beautiful afternoon sunshine in a public park. We wore bold and bright clothes, we laughed loudly and sang, and we all held hands as we walked around the park. There’s a phenomenon where queer people, after spending decades trying not to be noticed, finally find the safety to exist ‘out loud,’ so we overcorrect with an extravagant amount of bright colours and loud talk. The clothes we wear, the profile pictures we post, the memes we laugh at so loudly… each of these are mini celebrations that now at last we have the safety to take up space in the world. I think straight people sometimes misread this as self-centred flamboyance and ‘rubbing your sexuality in our faces,’ but in my experience, it has much more to do with celebrating our dignity by existing out loud after so many years of concealing ourselves to feel safe. After a lifetime of making ourselves small enough to fit inside the confinement of the closet, taking up space in the world for the first time feels pretty good, so yeah, we might overdo it a bit sometimes as we adjust to our new-found freedom.

At the end of that catch-up in the park, with the afternoon sun about to set, we took group photos surrounded by the gorgeous flowers in the parklands. For the very first time in my life that I’ve hung out with other same-sex attracted Christians, I could actually post these photos on social media—because for the first time, everyone in that group felt safe enough being publicly seen with each other. And that to me feels like something pretty beautiful and worth celebrating.

[Photo by Alex Plesovskich on Unsplash]

2 thoughts on “Life After the Closet

  1. Great post as always, you are always so insightful. I liked your point about how it’s not necessarily just about disclosing one’s sexuality/gender, but about disclosing a wider experience. Part of this, I think, is because to be gay or Queer (I cannot talk to other Queer experiences, such as the bi or trans experience, in their own right, as those are not my experiences – but I can recognise some wider shared Queer experience in some respects), cannot be reduced down merely to, say, experiencing same sex/gender attraction. There is a wider social experience that informs what it means for us to be gay/Queer in our lives, and to not recognise this makes it a tad reductionistic.
    I also feel that we can recognise that in many respects some of the defining features of the closet is that anxiety, avoidance and isolation, which is one of the reasons that coming out can be so freeing and, as you said, an invitation to richer relationality. It’s also one of the reasons why we can experience other people’s closets in such a visceral way. Partly ofc because we can empathise, having experienced it ourself, but also because it is deeply relational. When one takes the necessary steps to help someone keep in the closet as they wish to, that relationality almost becomes closeted. Ofc this is necessary to help people feel safe and to allow them to come out when they’re ready, but it does shine a light on the relational aspect of the closet (and why it feels so isolating).
    I also like your point about how one is never completely out of the closet. This is in many ways – partly because one cannot come out to everyone you will ever meet, and also because of the deeply relational aspect of it, the way we inhabit other people’s closets. But I think it’s also because there are two sides to the closet – the state of the closet (other’s not knowing about one’s sexuality) and the mentality/disposition of the closet (the thought processes, actions etc. one takes to keep oneself in the state of the closet). They often go hand in hand with eachother, but no fundamentally. For example, one can be out of the state of the closet, but remain in the disposition/mentality of the closet. For example, I have left the state of the closet, but I often find myself feeling uncomfortable in discussions about this with people I know, and I tend to try to avoid such conversation. It’s also possible to be in the state of the closet, but not have the mentality/disposition of the closet. For example, if I’m on the bus, I am in the state of the closet with all the other people around me, but I don’t feel the need to actively try and hide it from them. So to “come out” as such takes much more than to merely leave the state of the closet, but also to change one’s mentality and disposition.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey there, what a brilliant and insightful comment you’ve shared! I’m sorry it’s taken me a few weeks to respond, but there was so much gold in here I felt like I needed to let the ideas marinade a little before replying. (You write so insightfully – any chance you write a blog too?)

      I was struck by how you said, “in many respects some of the defining features of the closet is that anxiety, avoidance and isolation.” I think you’re onto something there, and it reminds me of some of Alan Downs’ work in The Velvet Rage where he describes the damaging impacts of gay children growing up closeted EVEN BEFORE they realise they’re gay. Long before we’re consciously aware that we’re hiding something to feel safe, we often have a deep sense of feeling ‘different’ and ‘deformed’ that relationally isolates us from our peers, especially those of the same gender. By the time we realise we’re same-sex attracted/gay/queer, even if we were to come out to supportive loved ones immediately (!), there’s already been years worth of shame doing its work to isolate us from authentic relationships. I don’t have empirical data on this yet, but my instinct is that this phenomenon is only intensified in Christian subcommunities where conversations with youth about gender and sexuality tend to happen at a much later ages (and so does one’s own realisation about their own queerness, especially for women in Christian environments).

      Thanks as well for sharing your super helpful framework about the state of the closet vs the disposition of the closet. I’ll definitely be using that framework in my own conversations! What I keep hearing from different queer people’s experiences of the closet/coming out is that these thing are never black-and-white! There is so much liminal space between these two poles of ‘out’ or ‘not out’ and there’s a dynamic fluidity that pulls us back and forth as we move relationally throughout different social environments.

      Another thought I’ve been mulling over is the strange sense of loss that comes from being out and having no more secrets. Before I was out, coming out privately to close confidants was such a vulnerable and beautiful expression of trust and love. It usually propelled the friendship to a new depth as that vulnerability bonded us together. It’s something I often miss these days – because how do you show vulnerability to your closest friends when there’s nothing that vulnerable to share anymore? There are strangers on the internet who know more of my story now than my closest friends did a couple of years ago. I wouldn’t change things, but I feel it is worth acknowledging the strange sense of loss in relational disclosure for those who are no longer in the closet.

      Liked by 1 person

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