The Closet Is Not Your Friend

Posted on April 7, 2015


I used to think that the closet was just a mythical bad place that people struggled to break out of until I encountered some situations that have painted it as a safe haven where other folks plan to live and die in. Some people will do whatever it takes to remain firmly in the closet. Anything at all. What is clear is that those who are in the closet really have something to fear. The question is, are the sacrifices they make worthwhile? Are they right?

I would like to address the issue of coming out or choosing not to in situations where there is no actual threat of physical harm; just the fear of disapproval by people we love and admire.

To be fair, there are many situations that relate to coming out and each of them commands different levels of anxiety and thought. For example coming out to a work colleague and coming out to a parent have different consequences, weights and meaning attached to each scenario.

Since no one shoe fits all, one man’s food can be another man’s poison. No one has the authority to condemn another individual’s situation. We are all free agents and whether we approve or disapprove of people’s actions or life choices, we cannot impose our own views on them. We are only left with room to discuss and debate.

I’m of the opinion that even in situations where it is a matter of life and death, coming out or staying in the closet are choices. When people says things like, “I really do not have a choice but to stay in the closet”, they are telling a big fat lie. Everyone has a choice. Some people just have very difficult choices. No matter the views and morals that family, friends and societies have placed on us, we can choose to accept, dismiss or refute them. Even when we do not out-rightly state our opposing views, we can challenge those norms through acts of dissonance. So, does it make sense for people to choose to remain in the closet because of fear?

My belief is that humans are extremely vulnerable beings. Yet, we are afraid of being vulnerable; and so we do things to hide our vulnerabilities. We lie about being who we are so that other people will not get wind of certain knowledge we consider sensitive and use it against us. I don’t blame anyone for acting this way because we avoid conflicts when we simply do what others expect from us. When our vulnerabilities are not exposed, our egos remain in check and our lives out of conflict. All seems to be at rest. But, this conflict-free state of rest that comes from not being true to ourselves is a farce.

I have been stood up and embarrassed at parties, introduced as a just a friend or a work colleague by lovers, and been the victim of near violent rage episodes that were probably the result of a nervous breakdown from the pressures of not coming out. I was once thrown out of an apartment I shared with a girlfriend because of fears that her ‘gayness’ would be revealed to her parents who were visiting us for a few days.

These are just a few scenarios where people would rather lie or hurt the person they are with than admit to who they are. They do this because they are afraid that they will look less perfect, less beautiful, less normal, or immoral. At that very moment, they choose to stay in the closet as opposed to taking the potential sting that might come from coming out.

My father taught me that we lie because we are afraid of something. Of course, when it comes to choosing when to tell the truth and when to lie, some situations can be very dicey. Social norms require white lies or half truths; or full-blown, as animated as possible lies. Lying does not necessarily mean only spoken word. It can also be actions or inaction. In this regard, we can choose to lie or be truthful through the ways we express ourselves. Gender expressions are constructions therefore if I were to express myself in a way that defected from set norms in my society, perhaps through my dressing or mannerisms, those actions of self-expression can be construed as lies. I might be trying to deceive others into believing that I am just like them. I am part of the “we” and not the “them”. But, lying does not always come with bad intentions.

Three friends I spoke with while writing this article explained to me that we also lie to protect people we love. I asked them if they thought it made sense to lie about being gay and they responded that a person might do it to protect their family name or to protect their families from the disgust or disappointment that comes from hearing such news. I had a similar experience when I tried to come out to my mum. She was openly friendly with gay people and she never made any derogatory remarks about them. She understood that was just how they were and she loved them regardless. Whereas, when it came to me, her child, I was not gay. I might have had lesbian friends who I spent time with but I was not like them. I was just as she and society expected me to be- straight as an arrow and accommodating of all kinds of people.

In the struggle with coming out to my mum and to others, I always told myself that I had no business trying to placate or manage other people’s feelings about my sexuality even though I had the power to hurt their feelings. The additional question, I had to answer to myself was if I was completely absolved of the responsibility of hurting people’s feelings by disappointing on their expectations of me?

At what point does someone’s comfort trump mine? At what point does someone’s ego trump mine? At what point does someone’s morals and value system trump mine? At what point does someone’s freedom trump mine? Is it right to take a hit like that to protect a family member, or to please society? Is it equally right that they expect this of me?

Whenever I got caught in a situation where it would be easier to lie about my sexuality, I would always weigh them next to a bible teaching, “…And the truth shall set you free” (Taken out of the Christian context please do not bash me, thanks!). I would consider the depth of the hole I was about to dig myself into with that lie and really ask myself if I was ready to bear that burden forever or up until a point that I deemed it unbearable. Would I then be ready to face the dual embarrassment of having to explain that I was in fact not straight and that I has lied about it? Those situations called for a trade-off and once I chose, there were consequences attached.

I believe that everyone is entitled to determine what factors matter most in their lives. True happiness, societal approval- even this even can be a measure of true happiness, money, power, or glory. If I work everyday of the week from 8am to 10pm because I know that my boss expects this and I want him or her to approve of me, I might be doing so to my own mental and physical detriment but then I garner his/her approval which might lead to an early promotion or a pay-rise.

On the other hand, I might decide to get married to man I am not physically attracted to and do not love because I want to stop listening to my parents bang on about how I am getting too old for marriage and my ovaries are wrinkling. Doing so has invariably locked me into at least a few years of unhappiness but I have won their approval and shut them up for good.

Presuming, I plan to carry this secret to my grave, I have single-handedly chosen this difficult path to thread. It is such a huge burden to bear that it is not uncommon to hear of people giving up their plans of being in the closet half-way. They want to be free. Maybe they have overcome being ashamed or the situation of their initial trade-off has changed. But, the outcome of that in sheer numbers is that they have wasted so much time suffering. Time, that can never recovered.

Of course, this is not to say that the disapproval that some people fear so much does not have direct impact. Some people lose their jobs, get disowned by their families or have their entire businesses discredited or thrown into debt for coming out of the closet. In societies where there is no redress for such actions, freedom and truth to self could seem like an iPhone with Wi-Fi versus tons of water and food on a trip to the desert. One would be very nice to have but you really need the other two for sustenance.

The most common reasons I’ve heard for people choosing not to come out include, expectations from families to get married and have children, bringing shame upon the family name, and coming from very religious homes where fanaticism pervades common sense. In a more just society, I would like to think that any gay person who has failed to come out because of the fear of disapproval has played the wrong cards. You have a secret which you guard so closely in a world where nothing really remains hidden under the sun. You have opted to bear a heavy burden in a world where the chances of life getting easier as we grow older is probably subzero. Freedom and personal happiness in the area of sexual and emotional well-being surely holds value when measuring one’s happiness.

After several discussions with friends who tried to convince me that staying in closet was an act of love and sacrifice rather than of cowardice and illogical thinking, the last question was to ask myself how I got so selfish. I too had parents and siblings and they held positions of status in their own respects. I lived in this religion-crazed society with them too. Where did I get off with deciding that it was not a useful position to stay in the closet, if all I stood to lose was disapproval?

I wrote down a list of things that were important to me in life and family was at the top of the list. Friendship was second. Love was third and Honesty was seventh on this list. There is no perfect family. Each one has its own quips but I believe that love and honest discussion can move mountains. In my family, we usually start discussions with the premise that each person is entitled to their opinions. Contributions are offered with an “up-for-grabs” air. No one person’s views are facts, and disagreements on opinions are respectfully welcomed. We make it a point to come at each other from a place of love, and curiosity to understand and to accept another person’s position, even if you do not agree with it.

Of course, understanding is a process. I tried to come out to my mum several times and she would not hear it. She refused to engage me on that front but I kept pressing until one day her position moved. All the times I tried, I did not know how she would react. Whether she would lash out, whether she would take me to church for prayers- my mum is a very religious person. But, I knew that she loved me and that my happiness was important to her. I pushed so much because I believed that she would come around. I chose not to comfortably allow her to ignore an important aspect of my life. I know my choice was easy in comparison to what many face. Yet, it was still a choice. Lying to remain in the closet did not make sense to me. I would rather come out with it and deal with the consequences than dig myself into a hole.

Where it is safe, I try to tell people I am queer before they get to know me too much. It might seem like an over-the-top out and proud move but it has a very important strategic undertone. I am giving this new acquaintance a chance to know this “big deal” about me before they become important to me and their feelings start to mean anything. Because I barely know them, I don’t need to worry whether I will disappoint or disgust them. If it happens that they disapprove of me, we can cut ties and keep our losses to a minimum.

In many Nigerian cultures, family prevails over the individual so when we talk about asserting our individuality at the detriment of those of the family, it is really easier said than done. Despite this, I maintain that the struggle to attain that status of ‘individual’ especially where it concerns the ability to be open about your sexuality, is worthwhile. It is an area where lying is more costly than honesty regardless of what it looks like on the surface.

As long as there is no threat of physical harm, where confronted with an opportunity to be honest, the long run benefits far outweigh those of lying. Once your vulnerabilities are exposed, you have less to be afraid of. I believe that where we know that we do not stand the threat of physical harm, and even emotional harm, then we must try to come out. Whether, we do it in slow steps, unraveling who we are by giving clues through acts of subversion; until we are finally ready to say those words, we must try. Excuses like, “Why should we have to come out when straight people never do so?” and “Why can’t I just live my life as I want, quietly and secretly, without upsetting anyone and without saying anything?” should not cut it because this an area where the personal is really not personal. People who you are not fucking, have no intentions of fucking or will never fuck in a million years are hotly bothered by who you fuck or do not fuck. I believe that it is an obligation, for those of us who it is safe to do so, to educate people by coming out whenever we can. This spreads the word that there are people who are ‘different’ but it also closes the gap on what they view ‘different’ as. These people who are close to you, know and love you and they can see that your sexuality is part of who you are. Those who are not yet close to you will probably see that you are not an alien, you are just a regular person who eats, breathes and shits just like them.

Finally, being gay/bi/queer is not just about sex with people of the same gender. Those relationships are often the bedrock of people’s lives. We build our lives around the mental and emotional support of those we are close to and love. It is incredibly difficult to go about life without having people who ground you. It is a lucky thing to find someone who you can grow with and build your life around. Imagine having to cut ties from this person because your relationship is unacceptable to others. Imagine having no roots in life, no unconditional support, no emotional nourishment, no fulfilling sexual bonds, no love. Imagine floating through life without any real support. Surely, you can see that lying isn’t sustainable. The closet is not a safe haven. The closet is not your friend.