What I Miss About Being in the Closet
Life after coming out of the closet is sometimes harder than you'd anticipate—but does it negate the pain of staying closeted?
I realize it's not a particularly fashionable position, but the truth is that sometimes I miss being in the closet. A full decade has passed since I came out, in what was essentially a nervous breakdown precipitated by the end of a secret relationship I was having with a man. Yet I still occasionally daydream about how things may have turned out if I had continued lying to myself and everyone around me.
I recently published a novel, Arcade, in which the narrator—a slightly more neurotic version of my former self—wrestles with his closeted existence, and the same anxieties about his sexuality and masculinity that once consumed me. Despite obsessing over his own queerness, he never wonders why it is he clings so desperately to the closet; its appeal is so self-evident that the question merits no consideration at all.
So it is for many gay people. However improved life might be for members of the LGBTQ community today, the closet remains the preference of an unknowable (though I suspect quite large) percentage of the population. And however much I'd like to say otherwise, coming out comes with its own sacrifices.
Consider, for instance, the not-nearly-as-unrealistic-as-I'd-like fear of being the subject of violence. Every time my boyfriend leans in for a kiss at a red light or calls me by a pet name in a restaurant, I say, "Stop. We'll be gay bashed!" I always deliver the words jokingly, but there's a nugget of reality in my overreaction. Members of all minority groups face the threat of violence in America, but according to the New York Times, no group falls victim to more hate crimes than the LGBTQ community.
And here's something people don't tell you about being gay: You're never finished coming out. Perhaps it's because I live in the hyper-conservative state of Texas, but it can sometimes feel like a part-time job. It's admittedly not a big deal most of the time, but for me coming out always feels like a potentially unpleasant awkwardness that has to be confronted again and again, an endless obligation that straight and closeted people aren't saddled with.
Then there's the effect it has on my life as a writer. A friend recently told me she went to the bookstore to buy my novel, but couldn't find it. She asked around until she discovered that it had been shelved in the LGBTQ section. While I appreciate that such a section exists, I can't help feeling that my book has been ghettoized somehow. My goal in writing isn't to speak solely to gay people—I'm just writing for human beings, who very likely won't find my book in its special section, segregated from other literature.
What the decision to come out boils down to is fear: fear of rejection by friends and family members, fear of judgement by strangers, fear of losing the respect and admiration of loved ones. After all, you can never know what those you love truly think about something like homosexuality. There have been too many examples of children disowned, careers snuffed out, violence enacted and friendships destroyed because gay people decided to come out. And the easy way to avoid all that is not to come out at all.
I thought there might be some other reasons to remain in the closet that I was forgetting, so I set out ask some men who are still inside it. I posted an ad in the Austin Craigslist "men seeking men" section titled, "Writer looking to talk to closeted guys." Sixteen men replied within 48 hours—a remarkable number, considering that the "Men Seeking Men" board exists almost exclusively for finding sex partners, and these men reached out simply to talk. More staggering, however, was how deflating the emails turned out to be. Most were from married men, all of them lying to the people around them for various reasons. After reading just a few, I knew the legitimacy of my pro-closet nostalgia was in doubt.
However famously unreliable Craigslist respondents might be, most of the replies had a measure of verisimilitude that would be difficult to fake. Gary,* a 40-year-old father of two married to his high school girlfriend, told me they "stayed together through college and got married when we graduated... 'Coming out' was never an option or thought I ever even thought to entertain. I grew up in very religious family and conservative community. When I was young I simply thought my feelings were the devil tempting me. College was when I really started to realize I might be different/gay, but there was no way that would ever be accepted in my world of friends/family/etc." Gary said that his father "would absolutely disinherit me and never talk to me again" if he found out, a main reason he remains closeted.
Todd,* a 50-year-old divorcé visiting Austin from Northern California, said his business's mostly conservative clientele would evaporate were he ever to come out. He was in love with a man once years ago, an experience he described as "amazing." Now, he said, "I exclusively date guys... but only when out of my home town. None of my friends, family, or coworkers have a clue." Asked if he has any regrets, he replied, "Absolutely. I should have moved to a bigger city and lived my life."
Jay,* a 27-year-old Austinite, told me he's still married to his wife, though he dreams of one day coming out. "I had some confusion about my sexuality in years past," he wrote, " but I'm pretty sure now... Some very close friends know my secret, but I am terrified of the prospect of ever telling my wife." After trading several emails in which he revealed his wish to be out of the closet by the age of 30, Jay asked, "In your opinion, do you think I'm a worthless person for putting myself in this position?"
People say it's the obligation of every gay man to come out of the closet, because it normalizes homosexuality to those around them. I suppose that's a fair enough rationale, but I find the personal reasons for coming out far more compelling. Reasons like maintaining one's sanity, being forthright, and embracing with wholesale acceptance that one's own happiness is just as important as everyone else's.
The more I communicated with my closeted pen pals—with their recurring themes of guilty trysts, secret identities, and desperate remorse—the more I felt my glorified recollections of the closet slipping away altogether. Faced with their words, my reasons for coming out returned to me in a flood. I came out because I couldn't handle the dishonesty and shoulder the shame. I came out because I hated feeling so terribly inauthentic all the time. It's true that life as a gay man is occasionally difficult. What's truer is that life in the closet is utterly intolerable.
*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of respondents.
Drew Nellins Smith's debut novel, Arcade, is out now from Unnamed Press. Follow him on Twitter.