I’ve come out of a lot of closets. I spent a lot of my younger years hiding things about myself from many people. Sexuality. Spirituality. Parts of my history. Having grown up with and around people who exhibited a great deal of prejudice and judgment of others, I ended up fearing the reactions and judgments of others more than a lot of other things.
I spent all that time thinking that being shunned, being judged, would be so bad that it wasn’t worth the risk.
The thing is, I wanted to think that the people around me might react better than I feared, that they might be truly good people with open minds deep down inside. I wanted to believe that they had just learned to say the things they said, and that if they were forced to think about those words and the beliefs behind them that they would realize how wrong they were. As long as I stayed in the closet(s), I could avoid the bad things I feared and pretend the good reactions were possible.
Of course, it’s very hard to hide forever, and over the years I came out, little by little, over and over again. And the vast majority of the time I was pleasantly surprised at how the news was received. Even when those around me didn’t exactly throw parties to celebrate my revelation, I found that it was far easier to deal with stigma than it was to harbor the secret.
In recent years we’ve seen a drastic decrease in opposition to formerly contentious ideas like gay marriage, and general consensus is that the change comes from the fact that so many people realize now that their friends and family members are gay. When it hits closer to home, it’s harder to be judgmental. But there’s not actually been an increase in gay people, just an increase in visibility, and increase in the number of “out” gay people. The more we made it known that we were right there, in your family, in your friend circle, in your schools and workplaces, in your churches, the more obvious it became that the preconceived notions underpinning opposition to gay marriage were simply not true.
But while those notions remain in place, the threat of being judged and hated and penalized is what keeps the closet doors firmly shut. It’s a threat leveled against anyone who doesn’t fit within accepted boundaries, who doesn’t fit the mold. It’s fear.
Fear breeds hate. We know that. But invisibility breeds fear. Silence affirms negative assumptions. The hypothetical, theoretical person is far easier to vilify than the one standing right in front of you.
And we want to believe that the people around us are good. That they, like those who have changed their minds over time and come to embrace gay marriage, are simply misled and misinformed. We want to believe that things will change for the better. But as long as we stay hidden away, that illusion is real and the threatening reactions we fear are avoided.
If there’s one thing I’m certain of, though, it’s that the stigma is easier to cope with than the secrecy. The rejection of others is manageable, but the repression of self is a monster which devours us from inside. And I’m certain that, whatever our secrets and hidden identities, expending the energy to blend in and appease those we fear is not a viable solution. It harms us more than it protects us. And if we want things to change, if we want to ever be able to live in a world which doesn’t persecute and hate, we have to come out into the sunlight.