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Deconstructing the closet

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Darin Grace explores the relationship between the societal acceptance of terms such as “homophobia” and “coming out of the closet” with depression and suicide among non-heterosexual people.

QUITE OFTEN, when a celebrity or popular figure makes an announcement that their sexuality is anything but heterosexual, they say that they are speaking about it in the hope that it helps others (especially young people) to feel more comfortable to do the same.

It’s a long-held belief and understanding by those who have achieved it, that announcing your homosexuality is a process made all the more difficult by other people and circumstance.

We know that there is an all too large suicide rate among young people who struggle to come to terms with their own sexuality and how others may view them. Let’s face it, just one person committing suicide is too many.

It is also a fact that there are a number of organisations that do fantastic work in providing support and advice to young people dealing with their sexuality — Beyond Blue and Lifeline come to mind.

The internal personal issues and stresses that anyone faces when coming to terms with their non-heterosexuality can be very complex. The situation is further complicated by the fear that friends, family and co-workers may not understand or accept who you truly are. I dare say that for the majority of people grappling with their sexuality, this is a legitimate fear. The fear of the people you love most being homophobic.

Homophobia. That’s an interesting word: “homo”, meaning homosexuality and “phobia”, being an irrational fear. Homophobia, therefore, implies an irrational fear of homosexuality or homosexual people.

While it is regrettable that homophobia in its true form (an irrational fear) may very well exist for some people, if we’re all totally honest about it, this would be an incredibly small number of people in the world’s population. Consider someone that you know or have known who would be considered to be homophobic. Are they really? Do they actually have an irrational fear? Probably not.

The most likely explanation is that homosexuality does not mesh with their beliefs, ethics or religion. If that is the case, they should not be termed “homophobic”. There are a range of other words that can be used to define their opinion and stance on homosexuality.

Intolerant. Judgemental. Unaccepting. Unfair. Unjust. Closed-minded. Stubborn.

Built over many decades, there is a passive acceptance of homophobia in our society, under its current social definition of not liking or agreeing with homosexuality. This has to change if some of these young lives are to be saved. But, the question is, how?

It might be time to make a change in our vocabulary.

The word homo-“phobia” implies a situation that is beyond the control of the person who suffers from this fear. Too many people have used this word for too long as a get-out-of-jail-free card. However, the words listed above highlight there is a choice – or capacity to make a choice – when deciding not to accept people who do not fit into the social “norms” of heterosexuality.

Consider the difference between the terms “homophobia” and “intolerance”. Which strikes you as creating a more negative illustration of a person?

The fear for young people accepting their sexuality and finding the strength to be open about it, is steeped in terror about not being accepted for the person that they are. It’s not just about their sexuality — it becomes about the whole person. I contend that if these young people were able and encouraged to think in terms of “intolerance” instead of “homophobia”, some of the pressure would be relieved and some of that judgement moved back onto other people for their own inability or unwillingness to open their minds. It could give some strength and power back to those who need it most.

Consider the same vocabulary impact with the word “closet”, as in “to come out of the closet”.

In my house, a closet is somewhere that I can put my belongings or possessions and close the door so as not to see them. Almost so that to anyone in the room at any given time, those items do not even exist.

Any time I sit and truly think about the idea of the “closet”, I keep coming back to this idea of somewhere that homosexual people can be put away so that they are not seen or heard from — somewhere out of the way so that their mere existence does not even need to be acknowledged.

Don’t get me wrong; I think that the “closet” has served a purpose in the past. I just don’t think that it has any benefits now.

The “closet” perpetuates the myth that homosexuals should not be seen or heard and that we should stay in an enclosed structure that makes it easy for everyone else to live in ignorant bliss.

Visually, or in poetic imagery, the closet is a dark place with a closed structure that you cannot see a way out of. Coincidentally, or maybe not so coincidentally, depression can be described in a very similar manner.

Physically, stepping out of a closet can be a demanding or difficult exercise; emotionally and spiritually too. It takes a very big effort to make a statement about who you are and this statement is what is, unfortunately, too difficult or confronting for so many young people to make. And so they continue to live in desperate sadness and misery. It’s not their sexuality that leads to suicide but the depression and feelings of helplessness.

Consider if we tore the doors off the closet, opened the structure up to natural light pouring in and bouncing between its walls. Consider if we then took a mallet and smashed off the roof of the closet: even more light and flowing air. Let’s go even further and grab an axe. Swing it hard into the sides and back of the closet. Break down those wooden panels that encase the closet’s occupants.

Ultimately, we’re left with just a platform on which to stand for support. A sturdy platform that helps to raise you up from the floor and is safe and strong, from which to make an announcement or revelation about your sexuality. This announcement or revelation does not require you to summon up courage or puff out your chest to protect against a backlash. It is just an announcement or revelation contained within a sentence in every day conversation: a short and simple sentence.

Surely, making an “announcement”, sentence or even a revelation, is less daunting than breaking out of a closet.

It’s well past the time to change the terminology. To provide a safe and strong platform for young people to stand on. Let’s do it now before it’s too late for even one more of our promising young people.

Darin Grace is a self-described ‘simple guy’ who has a tendency to think a little outside of the norm. Darin struggled with his sexuality largely because of fear of the reactions of family and friends. Darin inevitably announced his homosexuality at age 27 after having suffered from depression since his teens and having contemplated suicide in his late teens and early twenties.

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Deconstructing the closet

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