“What’s that on your arm? Have you been bar-coded or prison tattooed?”
My oldest daughter was hanging out on my couch before biking across town to her dad’s house, and we were doing the post-last-day-of-school debrief. She looked at her arm and chuckled, explaining that since she didn’t buy a yearbook, a friend had signed her arm, which, she said, was better than her forehead.
“What’s it say?”
“#GAYVASIAN2014. That’s what he put in everyone’s yearbook. He’s gay and very, very proud of it.” She grinned and laughed the sort of amused, partially delighted laugh she has over any of her friends’ enthusiasms. “He and another kid go around asking people, ‘Why are you straight?’” She laughed again, “There are no closets in Davis!”
“Well,” I bantered. “Why <i>are</i> you straight?” We’ve long since had the ‘you can be attracted to boys or girls, everyone is unique’ discussion.
She waved her arm in my direction and raised an eyebrow. “Pot. Kettle. Why are <i>you</i> straight?”
“Well, actually, I think I identify more as flexible than straight.” I don’t even know if she caught it; the conversation drifted back to whose phone numbers she’d gotten preparatory to getting together over the summer. In the grand scheme of talks, it wasn’t a big deal.
Except it was.
For all that we have raised our kids to be accepting of everyone (as long as they aren’t assholes), this was the first time (as far as I know) that either their dad or I had ever given any of our kids any indication that they have a parent (me) who doesn’t fit in the heteronormative, monogamous box.
Most people who know me at all, even through social media, know me as a staunch LGBT ally. A straight one. From the outside, my closet looks like a tidy bedroom. No secrets, no variation from the expected. Didn’t date much before marriage, but only dated men. Married to one man for 17 years, recently separated, I look like an educated, middle class, middle-aged, straight, white, cis-woman – maybe with a creative streak, maybe slightly quirky, but nothing unexpected or “out there.”
My closet is quite livable. It’s spacious, nicely furnished, has a fridge and a mini-bar. Hiding in it produces precious little pain or inconvenience to me, and my world isn’t terribly different inside the closet than it would be outside.
But I’m increasingly confronted with the realization that remaining in that closet is both untrue to me and a betrayal of those around me. I have friends and loved ones for whom “coming out of the closet” has been a necessary leap of courage and has come at a cost. I have three children, and while they all give every indication, as I did at their age, of fitting into society’s boxes, I wonder about the cost to them when they find, as I did, some portion of themselves that doesn’t match with the models they’ve been shown.
It’s been easy for me to keep parts of myself hidden. I justify it by telling myself that my life is none of anyone else’s business, that I don’t want people using what they know about me to speculate about my decisions or relationships. But, that is, to a certain degree, bullshit. Those who would speculate and gossip about me have probably already done so.
And there is a larger responsibility at play. While I don’t owe everyone the details of everything I think or do, I think there is a certain societal obligation to show up as one’s authentic self. By not doing so, by presenting only the pieces of ourselves that we think are acceptable to the majority, we make it harder for each individual to step out of his or her own closet.
Think about it. If each of us revealed more of the things we keep hidden – our differences, our quirks, our secret shames – what would be left to fear or hide?
The only way to make it so that there are truly “No closets in Davis” (or San Francisco, Topeka, Juneau, etc.) is to normalize our differences, to celebrate the many ways of being.
I grew up in a loving, supportive, and fairly liberal family. There wasn’t much in the way of gender stereotyping – my sister and I had Tonka trucks as well as dolls, we learned to shoot as well as sew. No one ever overtly said that any one way of being was superior, but assumptions trickled through as they do in most families. “When you start bringing home boys….” “When you get married…” “When you have kids…”
In my family, you married one person of the opposite gender – for life. The few divorces in the extended family were mentioned obliquely or not referenced at all. If anyone in my family didn’t fit squarely into the heterosexual box, I never knew about it. None of this was touted as the “right” way; there just wasn’t another way that was ever shown or discussed.
By the time I got to college (I was a late bloomer), it was pretty clear to me that I was mostly attracted to people with boy parts. I felt relief. My life would be easy. Conventional. No need to rock any societal boats. I could crusade for others from the security held by a member of the privileged majority.
Every so often, I’d catch myself looking at another woman’s breasts or legs or lips. I’d be drawn to a friend, find myself fantasizing. And then it would pass – or so I told myself. If by pass, I meant the feeling would be ruthlessly squashed back into the corner of my mind from which it had leaked.
At the same time, navigating the emotional complexities of dating within a fairly narrow group of friends, I found myself repeatedly battling strong feelings for more than one person at a time.
This wasn’t just a potentially problematic side of myself – it was completely unacceptable. I’d been raised on fairytales and romantic stories. And as I was the product of eight years of Catholic school, the whole relationship/attraction road was pockmarked with potholes that dropped straight to Hell anyway. Everything I knew was clear on this point. While it was fine for some people – not me because I was straight, of course – but some people to be attracted to or love someone of the same sex, having feelings for more than one person was just wrong. In my head, that capacity – to love and be attracted deeply to more than one person at a time – made me a bad person regardless of whether I acted upon it.
I folded, squashed, and pounded these errant desires into submission, never realizing that I was packing away parts of myself, that by denying how I love, I was inhibiting my ability to love, to connect, to show up and be present as my full self.
Accepting that I can be attracted to individuals regardless of sex or gender (yes, those are two distinct things) and that I am capable of connecting with and loving multiple people in multiple ways has, rather than breaking me, made me better able to form friendships, be confident in my daily life, and open myself more fully to the people I love.
That’s the problem with closets. When we hide – from others or from ourselves – the things that we fear will be unacceptable to others, we deny our essence, and we limit the gifts we could give. Also, by hiding the things we fear, the things that make us different, we contribute to the other-ization of those traits.
Human beings aren’t homogenous. We aren’t tidily layered in all the same flavors. We don’t fit in boxes or on distinct points along a line. We’re a messy, lovely, kaleidoscopic jumble flowing along a vast spectrum.
In the last few years I’ve done enough research to learn that there are not only labels for my ways of being – pan-sexual, polyamorous – but there are lots of people like me, and a fair bit of research to suggest that, especially for a cis-gendered woman, the ways in which I am attracted and love are biologically quite normal.
I don’t much like labels, and there are nuances to both terms that don’t always fit me, but they are as good a step out of a closet as any. I’ve shied away from publicly owning them until now because I worried that people would latch onto the words and see every one of my actions through the filter of the labels. And, that may happen. But if it does, that is the choice of the people seeing me. My actions are my choice and my reasons for my choices remain private, mine. However, who I am, how I show up – well, that is part of my obligation to society, to my family, and to myself.
So, I’m throwing out a challenge. Whatever your closet: you live in a family of vegetarians but sneak out for a burger; you’re an atheist who accompanies your family to church because it’s the thing to do; you let your young kids watch action movies but tell them not to talk about it with their friends; you’re an intuitive or artist among scientists and trying desperately to seem rational…whatever your closet, think about how hiding inside it prevents those you love from knowing the entire you, think about how remaining in your closet may inadvertently be causing others to stay in theirs.
What would happen if there really were no closets in Davis…or Omaha, or Seattle, or Madrid, or…
[Note: I’m deliberately not defining terms in this essay. If you are unfamiliar with a word I’ve used or don’t understand the distinctions, and especially if you call me friend, ask. I’ll be more than happy to explain and discuss – outside the closet!]