“So, before you echo ‘amen’ in your home and place of worship, think. Think and remember, a child is listening.” – Mary Griffith, Prayers for Bobby
The construction of “the closet” to hide our minority sexuality is simultaneously protective and oppressive. Concealing a queer identity can be emotionally and, in some cases, physically protective when hiding it from relatives or community members who may (violently) disapprove. Throughout my childhood and into my late teen years, I hid my sexuality from my family, friends, and the world. For me, the idea of coming out was completely out of the question.
How would my parents take having a gay son?
I questioned to myself on the daily. Further, the Church told me that gays were destined to the pits of Hell. Hiding my sexuality in the darkness at that moment protected me from finding out how my relatives and my community would treat my gay identity.
For sexual minorities, the closet is something that is situationally negotiated throughout the entire life course. “Coming out of the closet” ranges from major milestones, such as revealing one’s sexual orientation to parents or siblings, to less impactful events, like telling that favorite barista at the local coffee shop. Some individuals decide to tell everyone in their social circle, while some only want to tell their close social ties. Additionally, coming out is not a one-time event, such that each new person added to an LGBTQ+ individual’s social circle might need to be told (Adams, 2010). Should I tell them? If I do, when should I tell? How should I tell? Imagine how this constant negotiation plays on the emotional strings of the queer individual’s mind – for some, causing anxieties, obsessions, or depression.
For me, the closet became my sacred, albeit dark, place for self-exploration and self-understanding. I went through several crucial mental developmental stages (and even physical stages… puberty!) within the closet. First, I had to come to terms with accepting my gay identity as a part of my holistic being. This part was the hardest; with society at large telling my 12-year old self that gay people were disgusting, I had the wonderful “gift” of internalized-homophobia drilled into my head. As I slowly accepted being gay, I was then able to take my first baby steps out of the closet.
The strategies I used within the closet to cope with sexual minority stress aided me emotionally while in the closet, but were ultimately maladaptive (harmful) coping strategies. My in-closet coping strategies were riddled with intense anxieties and obsessions/compulsions about concealing my identity and understanding my gay identity in relation to a heterocentric society. Although I am now out of the closet, these maladaptations reverberate and echo into my present state.
It is critical for research to explore the human experience of living in (as well as out of) “the closet” and generally how queer individuals cope with heterocentric ideals. In order to allow all LGBTQ+ individuals the ability to access vital resources, such as competent health information, social support systems, and even just simple identity affirmations, the closet must be addressed. The current research around if “coming out” is very contradictory (Legate, Ryan & Weinstein, 2012). Some research has reported that “coming out” positively affects the well-being of LBGTQ+ individuals (Lupien & Juster, 2013; Cole et al., 1996), while other research has reported “coming out” negatively affects well-being (D’Augelli et al., 1998). I believe that, in addition to providing resources to help LGBTQ+ youth who are ready to come out do so, we also need to attend to the youth who are not ready to come out yet. They vitally need identity affirming resources, and we should be working to provide them. For example, when I was using the closet to emotionally protect myself, I was unable to find affirming and supportive information. When I was younger, I remember Googling information about how to “heal my gayness” and was directed to right-wing, conservative “self-help” guides. These guides drove the hammer in the anxiety/depression nail to my psyche. Advocates need to aid the queer youth who are unable to situationally leave the closet, but who need to be affirmed and loved for who they are. It can be as simple as flying a rainbow flag at your local Church or as encompassing as teaching about sexual diversity in school-based sex education classes. Through research and policy reform, we need to push to develop, and make accessible, resources for queer youth that helps them at the present time, while they remain in the closet.
Second, the amount of public health and psychological research that helps LGBTQ+ individuals utilize and develop healthy coping strategies is very limited. We all know the horrifying and terribly saddening suicide and bullying statistics for sexual minority youth (Russell & Joyner, 2001). Researchers must work on 1) what coping strategies are best for individuals who are in the closet, and 2) how to actively promote and disseminate these strategies without ‘outing’ the individual. Finally, it is important to begin public health interventions that are focused at the parental guardian level rather than simply at the LGBTQ+ youth level (Bouris et al., 2010; Harper, 2013). Imagine a parent who openly talks to his children about the fact that if they were gay or lesbian or transgender that he would love them just the same. How would this actively promote positive coping for youth, even if they were not quite ready to leave the closet?
Finally, I want to briefly talk about those famous scandals that come out on the daily about this politician or that priest who publicly bash gay people throughout their careers, only to be subsequently ‘caught’ hooking up with a gay prostitute. The reason “the closet” even exists is because of society’s heteronormative outlooks, which continues stigma against any non-heterosexual sexuality. I do not condone their openly anti-gay stances, but my heart bleeds for them. The matter of the fact is, that priest and that politician are my gay brothers, lesbian sisters, and queer siblings. Society created a place so hateful, and so bigoted, that they were never able to leave the closet. Their maladaptive strategies to cope with the closet, and to draw attention away from their own sexuality, is to bash their communal kin. Maybe if these individuals were given proper affirmations from their churches, their schools, and their families, they would be sitting home with their same-sex partner cooking dinner and then running their kids off to soccer practice.
Public health research, let us push a new gay agenda forward to focus on the closet and the provision of access to positive, LGBTQ+ affirming messages.
Adams, T. E. (2010). Paradoxes of sexuality, gay identity, and the closet. Symbolic Interaction, 33(2), 234-256.
Bouris, A., Guilamos-Ramos, V., Pickard, A., Shiu, C., Loosier, P. S., Dittus, P., . . . Waldmiller, J. M. (2010). A systematic review of parental influences on the health and well-being of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth: Time for a new public health research and practice agenda. J Primary Prevent, 31, 273-309.
Cole, S. W., Kemeny, M. E., Taylor, S. E., & Visscher, B. R. (1996). Elevated physical health risk among gay men who conceal their homosexual identity. Health Psychology, 15(4), 243-251.
D’Augelli, A. R., Hershberger, S. L., & Pilkington, N. W. (1998). Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth and their families: Disclosure of sexual orientation and its consequences. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 68(3).
Harper, G. W. (Presenter). (2013, February 15). Promoting the sexual health of Black gay/bisexual young men: Critical consciousness-based interventions. Lecture presented at University of Michigan School of Public Health, Ann Arbor, MI.
Legate, N., Ryan, R. M., & Weinstein, N. (2012). Is coming out always a “good thing”? Exploring the relations of autonomy support, outness, and wellness for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(2), 145-152.
Lupien, S., & Juster, R.-P. (2013, January 29). Study demonstrates health benefits of coming out of the closet [Press release].
Russell, S. T., & Joyner, K. (2001). Adolescent sexual orientation and suicide risk: Evidence from a national study. American Journal of Public Health, 91(8), 1276-1281.