In the Closet Meaning - And We're Not Talking Clothes

Last Updated 23.02.2022
11 min read

Psychologists say every person has four layers of being. The top layer is our public persona - what the whole world may see; the second layer is what we share with acquaintances and many peers/co-workers; the third layer is reserved for close friends and family. But that fourth layer is what we reveal to no one - the secrets we keep to ourselves. And that is where the phrase "in the closet" came from. Early use of this term began in England, with the phrase "skeletons in the closet" - things about someone's past that they never want to be known by anyone else. Since then, the phrase has come to refer to anything a person is hiding from others, often out of shame or fear.

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LGBTQ Closet Living

For the LGBTQ+ community, being in the closet means hiding sexual orientation or gender identity from individuals or groups of people - family members, fellow students, co-workers, and more.  And for those who remain closeted, it often means leading a double life, with all of the negative mental health issues and emotional anxiety that comes with that. It's not pretty.

Why LGBT People Choose to Stay in the Closet

Even with the far more open and accepting attitudes of society toward the LGBTQ community, and even laws that reflect a sense of that acceptance, all is not perfect for the closeted person. Laws do not necessarily reflect society as a whole, and discrimination remains. Consider these issues that the LGBTQ+ community still faces.

Workplace Discrimination is Real

Sometimes this is subtle; sometimes it's quite open. Yes, it's against many laws to discriminate against people for their sexual orientation, but it still happens, even as a matter of public policy. The most famous example is The Trump Administration’s Transgender Military Ban - American Oversight, banning transgenders from military service. If Trump could engage in such public workplace discrimination, then others in private industries believe they have the right to do the same. While business owners may not have policies against non-traditional sexuality, they can still decide to make life very uncomfortable for those who are open about their gay life, their sexual orientation, or their gender identity. No one wants to be miserable on the job.

Personal Life Can Be Damaged

Others have concerns or fear in their personal lives and so decide to remain closeted. Typical problems are worry about family support or straight friends who may not want relationships with gay, transgender, or bisexual people. Other issues may be a relationship with groups or organizations that accept only heterosexual identity, such as a church, sports teams, or school clubs. Announcing a sexual identity other than heterosexual can result in rejection.

The Current Political Climate

Still others with a non-traditional gender identity worry about the current political climate. A recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SLPC) had this to say: "Groups that vilify the LGBTQ community, represented the fastest-growing sector among hate groups in 2019." This report goes on to say that the increase is the result of a growing number of conservative politicians in public office who are openly making anti-LBGTQ statements and accepting support even from groups that promote hate crimes. Many of the anti-gay groups have religious affiliations and even typify gay men as child predators. And hospitals affiliated with conservative religious organizations may treat their gay patients differently, and this becomes an issue of fully equal access to health care. In this environment, it is no surprise that a closeted person may choose to remain where he is.

Career Professionals' Reputations

LGBT people also choose to remain in the closet for career reasons. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other self-employed career professionals fear that openly revealing their sexual orientation may mean rejection by those clients who disapprove of homosexuality, non-traditional sexual orientation, or gender identity that is objectionable. This can mean loss of business for such a person and will certainly hit them in the pocketbook.

Mental Health Costs of Remaining Closeted 

Lesbian gay women, gay men, bisexuals, transgenders, and any other person with a non-traditional sex life belong to a minority group anywhere in the world. Minorities of any type are subject to unequal treatment, but the LGBTQ community perhaps suffers from more hate and scorn than most others. This can cause a host of mental health issues, such as depression, stress, and even self-hate. It is also important to remember that there is a higher percentage of drug abuse and other risky behaviors within the LGBTQ community than within other minority groups. This is especially true when members do not have a support system. 

Two psychiatrists, Jack Drescher and Matthew Fadus recently wrote an article on what they call "minority stress" of SGM (sexual and gender minorities) that goes beyond common stressors of most minority groups. Here are the points these authors make:

  • First, they are more stigmatized because of their sexuality 
  • second, anti-LGBTQ attitudes can exist within their own family members who they must live with day and night
  • third, their responses to their own sexual behavior can lead to self-hate because they live in a society that insists it is wrong, immoral, or sinful. 

To quote these two authors and the clinical studies they summarize, "Chronic stress among LGBTQ individuals can lead to increased risk of substance use disorders, depression, anxiety, suicide, and self-harm among other mental health issues." 

Closeted gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans who remain that way suffer from all of the above stressors but with the additional burden of hiding their true identity and the constant fear of being "outed." Life is spent trying to look and identify as a heterosexual person in their social and physical environments and then "sneaking" into secret and sometimes unsafe environments where they can "live" a life they really want and need. And according to the psychiatrists above, this dual life can be disastrous. 30% of homeless young people are LGBTQ, and the suicide rate among gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and queer men and women is twice that of those who identify as heterosexuals and lead sexually "normal" lives.

Coming Out of the Closet Has Different Meanings

"The true ugliness of the closet is its subtlety. It eats away at your soul bit by bit and you don't even realize it. If you never deal with it or come to terms with it, then ultimately the closet will destroy you."   This quote from writer Gar McVey-Russell in his book, Sin Against the Race pretty much says it all. Although a piece of fiction, it is one of the most basic books that deal with the identity concerns and struggles of the LGBTQ community.

If you are struggling with important aspects of your self-awareness or if you are self-aware but in the closet, then you should know that there are steps or levels of coming out. You don't have to do this all at once to everyone, in every environment, and within every relationship you now have.

Let's Unpack These Steps/Levels.

  1.  The first and obvious step for coming out of the closet is to admit to yourself that you have feelings and attractions that involve homosexuality, bisexuality, transgender leanings, etc. This part of the coming out process is known as coming out to yourself. Once you have done this, you are in the closet and must determine the next steps to take.
  2.  You can keep your self-identification secret, in other words, talk to no one else about this and risk the mental health issues that may come. Or you can come out of the closet to someone you know is also gay, lesbian, bi, or other. This will give you at least one person to talk to and to get advice from. You can benefit from their experiences of coming out.
  3.  You can locate LGBTQ publications and online forums, thus coming out of the closet to groups of people who share their lives. This gives you validation and an outlet for honest discussion.
  4.  You are still closeted from important others in your life - family members, straight friendships, a roommate, or close others. How do you come out of the closet to them? This can be tricky, and you may have to be selective at first. But this, too, can come in small sub-steps, starting with those who will be accepting and who will keep your secret, and your need to stay in the closet, for the time being. This step will let you give you practice for coming out of the closet to others at a time you choose to be right.
  5.  This is the bigger step. You are now in the process of deciding when and how you will come out to others in your life - family members, other relatives, long-term relationships, as an example. Here is what you have to remember: you get to choose when, how, and who you come out of the closet to. In fact, for many members of the LGBTQ community, coming out of the closet can last a lifetime. 

You don't owe anyone an explanation about your personal life. Your sexual identity, behavior, and openness are totally up to you. And so is coming out of the closet in the phases you choose.

Taking a Look at Famous Coming Outs

In recent years, formerly closeted celebrities and athletes have made very public announcements about their homosexuality. These include such people as:

  1.  Demi Lovato: "Today is a day I'm so happy to share more of my life with you all- I am proud to let you know that I identify as non-binary & will officially be changing my pronouns to they/them moving forward." This on Twitter on May 29, 2021. 
  2.  Ryan O'Callaghan: This football great played in the NFL for six seasons before retiring in 2011. He did not come out of the closet until 2017. In an interview with NBC News, he said, "My whole plan was to play football and kill myself. I was convinced from a young age that my family would never love me if they knew who I really was. If you have a closeted kid, he hears every one of those times you say something (anti-gay). It sticks with him." It was through therapy that a psychologist got him to come out to his parents. They completely accepted him. Once that happened, he came out to the public. 
  3.  Raven-Symone: This actress, singer, and songwriter came out as gay many years ago. Since that time, she has been a big promoter of gay rights, especially legal recognition of gay marriage. Once gay marriage became legal, she posted on Twitter, "I can finally get married. Yay government. So proud of you."
  4.  On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled that gay marriage would be legal in all 50 states. The response on Twitter was cast in one now-famous quote - "Love Wins!" One of the most famous brands to celebrate this vTictory was Ben and Jerry's with a great tweet and video of support for the LGBTQ community. It should be a reminder that coming out of the closet is becoming easier now. 

What's Next for You?

The goal of this discussion was two-fold: 1. to speak to our readers about the ups and downs of coming out and the risks of both coming out and staying in the closet, and 2. to show that coming out can and probably should be something you do in steps. Let's recap.

The Ups of Coming Out

The biggest "up" is the emotional relief you will feel once you are no longer "living a lie." But in addition, once you have decided to pursue your sexual preferences, you will be able to "hook up" with others like you, at least in a digital environment, until you find those others within your geographic setting. Universities, and even some high schools, now have LGBTQ organizations that provide support within a healthy social setting.

The Downs of Coming Out

You may lose people who cannot accept who you are. This may include family members, relatives, and friends you have held close. It hurts.

Take Your Time

If you take away one best piece of advice, let it be this. Coming out of the closet is a process, not a one-shot deal. It's one thing for a celebrity to come out to the world via a television interview or Twitter. It's another thing for you. Elton John, for example, had his musical genius and many other gay celebrities who applauded and celebrated his coming out. You might not have that luxury. Find the process that is most comfortable for you, be flexible as you follow that process, and, above all, take all of the support that is offered.

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