Declared the "defining structure for gay oppression in [the 20th] century," the image of the closet has come to be the structure most acutely identified with the grief, silence and loss of the modern homosexual subject (Sedgwick 71). The idea of being "closeted" or a "closet-case" emerged in mid-20th century America with the increased policing of sexuality related to Cold War conspiracy, the McCarthy trials, and the White Flight to the suburbs. The mechanics of the phrase are often used to describe any hidden secret (a "closet misogynist") or a surprise unveiling or announcement ("coming out as a liberal"), although the overtones of "the closet" remain most strongly tied to the homosexual experience.
The closet is generally understood as a figure of speech for the self-imposed (but often necessary) silence someone adopts regarding personal sexuality; individuals are "in the closet" when they either do not announce their homosexuality (allowing their silence to be ambiguous) or actively hide their sexuality (posing as heterosexual). Such distinctions are inevitably mutable--an individual may be "out of the closet" with friends yet "in the closet" with employers or parents; similarly, silence regarding one's sexual orientation or activity may not prevent anyone from presuming an individual is homosexual, especially if one's appearance is not gendernormative.
Perhaps no image offers so poignant a representation of the closet than the scene of Ennis del Mar sitting in his dead lover's childhood bedroom in Ang Lee's 2005 Brokeback Mountain. Framed from within Jack Twist's closet, the stark realism of this shot places the viewer in the position of the closeted observer. From within Jack's closet we bear witness to Ennis' own unbearable silence, as he dwells in the traumatic aphasia of loss. Ennis approaches the camera and the next cut turns us within the closet, residing there with Ennis as he discovers a pair of bloody shirts--one his, one Jack's--long thought lost, hidden behind a panel: the tell-tale hearts of Jack's closet. These lonely remnants are taken away by Ennis, only to re-emerge in the film's final moment, hanging in Ennis' own closet. The moment lingers before Ennis shuts his closet door, the final mis-en-scene juxtaposing the chamber of feeling that is closed within Ennis' closet against the green field out the open window--a field whose verdancy is matched only by the field in which we witnessed Jack's silent and brutal death only minutes before. Within the closet, Ennis and Jack's feelings were protected, although unspoken. Outside the closet, however, Jack's discovered homosexual activities result in his demise--the land outside the closet, outside the window, is not enough, even in its vastness, to preserve Jack from death.
In what has be critically read as yet another crushing expression of queer tragedy (along the lines of Boys Don't Cry, The Well of Loneliness, Stone Butch Blues), Brokeback Mountain's implementation of the closet makes manifest the realities of silence versus speech on which the closet door literally hinges. The relations of the closet are "the relations of the known and the unknown, the explicit and the inexplicit" as it relies, on the surface, in a distinction between the hetero- and homosexual that emerged at the end of the 19th-century as a condensation of all sexual practices in the form of one's gender-object choice (Sedgwick 3).
The Closet as a Mode of Mediation
The metaphor of the closet involves the relationship between two spaces--one in, one out, one closed, one open, one announced and one shuttered. The complexity of the closet, however, lies in the fact that both of its spaces are simultaneously in and out, closed and open, announced and shuttered. It is fundamentally a psychic structure, a set of relations between interior/exterior, knowledge/ignorance, with the bar operating as sacred threshold through which one may hide in or come out. The closet, as a mental device for conceptualizing one's relationship to society, mediates a relationship between queer knowledge and social ignorance.
Closets are repositories built off main rooms, and are thus obviously peripheral and marginal. Yet to be "in the closet" means participating or passing (at least on the surface) among the majority. Thus the emotional dyslexia of the closet: being "in the closet" suggests that the closeted individual participates in the larger "room" of heterosexual relations, although one's own occupation of that space is psychically smaller as every covert speech act forces the homosexual to brush up against the enclosing walls of institutionalized language. The notion of the closet is held fast upon the homosexual's ability to live a "dual life" insofar as she must be aware that she is indeed in the closet in order to be in the closet. To be "in the closet" is to be at once gay and not-gay; it is a microcosm of an internal relationship between shame and pronouncement in which one recognizes oneself as deviant and understands the necessity to be read as normative. It requires self-knowledge and yet a denial of that self-knowledge as a truth that must be expressed; as such, the closet is a secret within a secret.
The Epistemology of the Closet as a Logic of Privacy vs. Risk
It is perhaps unexceptional, in some ways, that the notion of the homosexual closet arises during the same cultural moment as post-WWII McCarthyism. According to law professor William Eskridge: "Prior to the 1940s, same-sex intimacy was literally unspeakable, as the homosexual and society conspired to keep the matter secret. By the 1940s, however, the edges separating the two halves of the double life were eroding, as greater numbers of homosexuals transgressed the lines separating public and private spheres and more heterosexuals became curious about the secret life, either to condemn it, to explore it, or both. The erosion required the homosexual to decide whether to openly admit homosexuality or to keep the private life closeted and separate from the public one for fear that exposure of the former could destroy the latter" (2). According to Eve Sedgwick, the "damaging contradictions of this compromised metaphor of in and out of the closet of privacy" are simply siphoned from a larger topology of privacy and secrecy that emerges in the late 19th century (72). In such a political and epistemological climate, the closet comes to invert the traditional logics of secret intelligence that dominated the World Wars and post-War era. The enemy, in this sense, becomes the self as well as the other, as it is the homosexual's own desire that threatens to pry them from the closet. The homosexual attempts to render herself as a deceptive object, an object whose "appearance is never more than intentionally misleading" (Horn 67). There is indeed produced a "dynamic of bottomless mistrust and violence-prone paranoia" but this dynamic is entirely internalized in a violent self-navigation of spy-vs-spy. The homosexual in the closet embodies a Cold War-style logic of mistrust, which Eva Horn defines as "the logic of one's own will to deceive" (67).
The metaphor of the closet creates a situation in which one is psychically and physically constrained by the risk of discovery. In this sense, the epistemological equivalent for the post-WWII closeted homosexual may be the double agent, except one lacking the teleology of knowledge gathering. If the purpose of the spy is to "penetrate into the forbidden and protected space, cross borders, and investigate the enemy's territory [...] Physically setting foot on enemy soil to spy out hidden locations [...] His disguise is important: he mimics the enemy", then the homosexual executes a perverse reversal of this role (Horn 73). From within the closet, the homosexual mimics the straight world, but with the sole purpose of survival. The activities of the closeted homosexual are to keep the knowledge secret rather than process it into "information." The homosexual mimics the straight world not to garner intelligence about the enemy but to disguise intelligence about herself; enmity is always simultaneously "out there" and "in here." The closet and the room become jointly theatening spaces of potential discovery. The purpose of the closet is to contain risk, but likewise one must recognize the possibility of risk to be in the closet. In doing so, the closet becomes a secret space of internalized alienation (the much-touted notion of "gay shame"); the closet is a place of covert expression, producing an aesthetic of desire based in silences and ignorances both public and personal. The closet is never a black box, because the tension of the closet resides in the awareness that the world is just beyond; when in the closet the only light comes from the outside, underneath the door.
There is a structural reversal inherent to the conceptual interface of closeting, for what the closet encloses it also offers the potential to reveal. "Coming out of the closet" involves making oneself known as homosexual, either to a homosexual or heterosexual audience. It may result in a range of responses, including devastating violence, celebratory self-identification, or institutional refusal to acknowledge the speech act, a refusal Eve Sedgwick summarizes an the oft-noted heterosexual response, "That's fine, but why did you think I'd want to know about it?"
"Coming out" is an image curiously poised in exclusive relation to the closet--indeed, if the closet is based in "fits and starts" of silence, then there is no closet without the speech act of coming out (Sedgwick 71). As Sedgwick writes, "the image of coming out regularly interfaces the image of the closet, and its seeming unambivalent public siting can be counterposed as a salvational epistemologic certainty against the very equivocal privacy afforded by the closet" (71). If the closet is the homosexual's cruel destiny, then coming out produces a fantasy of acceptance in which the homosexual's secret knowledge becomes public information, the disguise is given up, and she ceases to be a spy against herself. The celebration of announcement is precisely the throbbing heart of gay pride; gay pride operates in response to the closet and, indeed, requires the closet so as to have any emotional efficacy.
If closeting allows the homosexual entrance to the master room as straight, coming out reverses the dynamic of the room: it dispenses with the closet, rendering the closet ultimately straight. Eve Sedgwick draws from the story of Esther to propose the radical potential of "coming out" to create the opportunity to produce a different flow of power by producing straight ignorance in the face of queer knowledge. In this Old Testament story, Esther, a disguised Jew, must unveil herself to her anti-Semetic husband and King, Assuerus, in an attempt to prevent the slaughter of her people. In the face of her revelation, Assuerus can do nothing but articulate his unknowing, and is left speechless. Sedgwick writes: "Only with the uttering of these blank syllables, making the weight of Assuerus's powerful ignorance suddenly audible—-not least to him—-in the same register as the weight of Esther's and Mardochee's private knowledge, can any open flow of power become possible. […] Just so with coming out: it can bring about the revelation of a powerful unknowing as unknowing, not as a vacuum or as the blank it can pretend to be but as a weighty and occupied and consequential epistemological space" (77). This revelation, however, can be as easily fraught with danger as suffused with potential. Coming out renders the double agent no longer double, and in doing so makes the door between the closet and room burn away and the closet itself walled up. Once uncloseted with another individual, the closet can never be rebuilt--this secret knowledge never becomes outdated.
The Closet as a Dying Mode of Mediation: The Dances of Two Justins
While the closet may be the "defining structure" of the homosexual experience in the 20th-century, its influence as an architectural-mental imaginary is waning in a Western world increasingly posited as "gay friendly". The closet is becoming a historical artifact, as its cultural weight is based on the institutional, legal and linguistic refusal to acknowledge homosexual subjectivity. As Heather Love notes:
'Advances' such as gay marriage and increasing media visibility of well-heeled gays and lesbians threaten to obscure the continuing denigration and dismissal of queer existence. One may enter the mainstream on the condition that one breaks ties with all those who cannot make it--the nonwhite and the nonmonogamous, the poor and the genderdeviant, the fat, the disabled, the unemployed, the infected, and a host of unmentionable others. Social negativity clings not only to these figures but also to those who lived before the common era of gay liberation--the abject multitude against whose experience we define our own liberation" (10).
Coming out involves leaving someone behind, even if that someone is a historical subject. If the closet is constructed to protect the homosexual from the risk of discovery, then the closet ceases to exist once assimilation, rather than discovery, becomes the guiding practice extended toward homosexuality. As the homosexual is increasingly invited into the practices of monogamy and matrimony (mediations themselves based in the nuclear-family-based accumulation and condensation of economic and physical property), the opportunity to recognize a radical potentiality to queerness wanes. Without the homosexual closet, gay pride simply becomes a celebration of a corporate-sponsored, watered-down liberal elasticity: being just like everyone else.
The texture of this transition can be clearly illustrated by through an isolated comparison of two mainstream television representations of queer youths. One the one hand there is Justin Taylor, the blonde, underage twink in Showtime's Queer as Folk, which aired 2000-2005. In opposition to Taylor's charming promiscuity is Justin Suarez, a Latino with an affected flair for fashion who discovers his desire for boys during the final episodes of ABC's 2010 run of Ugly Betty. While both these boys struggle with the pressures and impossibilities of gay identity, Taylor's "coming out story" harkens back to an almost Stonewall-sensibility of rage in the face of violence, whereas Suarez's narrative is ultimately one of gay assimilation.
When 17-year-old Justin Taylor announces his homosexuality to his parents, he is thrown out of his home, denied his college fund, and moves in with his 30-year-old, non-monogamous man-whore boyfriend, Brian. This is a tale of "coming out told straight"--rejection by family, denial of intended financial investments, and the crafting of alternative familial ties. In the final episode of Season 1, Brian arrives unexpectedly at Justin's high school prom; their ensuing dance recalls pederastic anxieties on the part of adult homosexual men toward adolescent boys. After prom, another senior bashes Justin's head with a baseball bat. This bashing serves as the violent reminder of the price of gay pride: a price always paid in blood.
Justin Suarez, in contrast, is never under any such threat of violence. While he does try to hide his homosexuality, and is scared about how his mother might react, the timbre of his time in the closet is relatively mundane. The presumption was always that Justin was already gay--for Justin to come out is no secret at all (almost identical circumstances exist for United States of Tara's gay teen Marshall). Thus, when his family discovers that he is romantically involved with another boy, they plan a surprise coming out party for him, replete with rainbow flags, balloons, cookies, and other decor. These plans are cut short by Marc, the adult gay man Justin confides in. Marc responds to the party as an appalling disaster; his queer aesthetic is fundamentally offended by the garish rainbow decorations. He rips down a gay pride flag and demands the family remove everything so Justin may reveal himself to them in his own time. This scene operates as a refusal of a traditional representation of gay pride, for the rainbow flag is to gay pride what the closet is to gay shame. By ripping down the gay pride flag, Marc makes a curious political statement: he is rejecting the very politics of speech that have allowed him to carve a space for himself as a successful gay man to begin with. His act speaks for itself: "We're beyond this." When Justin does "come out", he does so not through speech, but through action--he asks his boyfriend to dance with him at his mother's wedding. Unlike Brian and Justin's dance, this is not an act of defiance done in spite of heterosexual norms but an act of integration done because of heterosexual norms. Announcing his sexual orientation at a wedding foreshadows his very future as a homosexual man: one based in participation, not opposition, to the foreclosing standards of straight customs.
These dual narratives, divided by a decade and dissenting in emotional tenor, summon a specter of queer history that rests upon a narrow axis. In the spectrum of queer representation, the urge to depict queer suffering is held in orbit only by the equally suggestive yet contrary desire to "affirm queer existence" (Love 3). Homosexual identity, Heather Love argues, "continues to be understood as a form of damaged or compromised subjectivity; on the other hand, the characteristic forms of gay freedom are produced in response to this history. Pride and visibility offer antidotes to shame and the legacy of the closet; they are made in the image of specific forms of denigration. Queerness is structured by this central turn; it is both abject and exalted, a 'mixture of delicious and freak'" (2-3). As homosexuals gain increasing civic and legal protections, the inevitability of a doomed existence loosens its hold on the gay psyche. Yet marching toward a progressive future for homosexuals requires a certain refusal of what is coherently queer about the closet: the deviance that requires the closet to begin with. As Heather Love writes:
"[...] moving into that future is conditional: one must leave the past behind. [...] Given the new opportunities available to some gays and lesbians, the temptation to forget--to forget the outrages and humiliations of gay and lesbian history and to ignore the ongoing suffering of those not borne up by the rising tide of gay normalization--is stronger than ever" (9-10).
If "the rising tide of gay normalization" ensures that the homosexual secret no longer need remain secret, it does so only because the knowledge of the homosexual is no longer the sexual knowledge theorized by Foucault as the knowledge of society. This is the distinction between the erotic spectacle of Justin Taylor and the adolescent adorableness of Justin Suarez--a distinction between queer self-knowledge and homosexual self-ignorance. The de-sexualization of homosexuality brought on through social normalization in many ways neuters any capacity for homosexuality to function as effectively disruptive as it did from within the closet, for once the closet is nailed shut there is no periphery from which to displace the center. Justin Suarez moves forward by not looking backward, not being called to remember a history of his own oppression; Marc ensures the Justin need not be embraced by the very flag sewn at the behest of Harvey Milk in 1978. The evaporation of the closet presents a sweat test for contemporary queer radical politics, as its loss signals a very different kind of straightjacket proffered to the queer--that of heternormativity.
Eskridge, William N. "Privacy Jurisprudence and the Apartheid of the Closet, 1946-1961." Florida State University Law Review. Summer, 1997.
Horn, Eva. "Knowing the Enemy: The Epistemology of Secret Intelligence." Grey Room. (11) Spring 2003. pp. 58-85.
Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007.
Sedgwick, Eve. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1990.