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social sciences

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The Closet  
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Certain of Wilde's contemporaries retreated to more secular sanctuaries, such as the gay colony forming on the island of Capri off the coast of Italy. Others (Wilde's lover Alfred Lord Douglas, for instance) sought the relative tolerance of France, where homosexuality was not illegal.

Constructing Lesbian Closets

In 1918, the English courts again participated in a campaign against Wilde (that is, homosexuality) and again participated in the construction of a closet, this one designed for lesbians. The Billing trial of 1918, which banned a production of Wilde's play Salomé, introduced the tabloid-reading public to the phenomenon of lesbian sexual activity for the first time.

Sponsor Message.

Three years later, in 1921, when English anti-homosexual laws were reworded to include lesbianism, the amendment passed the House of Commons, but not the House of Lords, where Lord Desart reasoned, "You are going to tell the whole world that there is such an offence, to bring it to the notice of women who have never heard of it, never thought of it, never dreamed of it. I think that is a very great mischief."

Later in the decade, in 1928, censorship proceedings (again in the English courts) against Radclyffe Hall's lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness mobilized support in homophile communities on both sides of the channel and again moved the subject of lesbianism into the headlines.

The effect of this exposure in the press was analogous to that of the earlier Wilde scandal; it fostered greater solidarity among lesbians and gay men (whatever the internal divisions within specific communities) vis-à-vis the "outside" world and made lesbianism (like it or not) an axis of social--that is to say public--identity for women. A new closet, a lesbian closet, took shape as a reactive formation to this exposure.

The Eulenburg-von Moltke Scandal

England, periodically animated by homophobic zeal, was far from unique in this respect. In turn-of-the-twentieth-century Germany, for example, a scandal of major proportions implicated high-ranking homosexual diplomats and officers in Kaiser Wilhelm's service (the Philipp zu Eulenburg and Kuno von Moltke scandal). The Eulenburg-Von Moltke affair rigidified enforcement of legislation already on the books in Germany, Paragraph 175, which made anal intercourse a crime.

In contrast to the patterns of response to Wilde's trials among London's gay dandy-aesthetes, homosexuals in Germany met this wave of repression with organized resistance, mounting the first campaigns for homosexual rights. In the midst of this campaign, one activist, Adlolf Brand, exposed a leader of the opposition as secretly homosexual, thus presaging the "outing" tactics of the post-Stonewall era.

Territorial Closets

Berlin's reputation as a scene of activism enhanced the city's appeal to homosexuals internationally, and the homosexual expatriate colony there expanded to rival that of Paris.

Urban centers like Paris and Berlin, while they could be described as "territorial closets," contributed to the visibility as well as the invisibility of homosexual refugees, while fostering bonds that were cultural as well as sexual. Urban institutions such as cabarets, after hours clubs, bath houses, salons, and theaters rallied individual homosexuals from the provinces and abroad, far from the admonishing eyes of their families, into identifiable communities.

If the closet has served to institutionalize homosexuality as shameful and inferior vis-à-vis the legitimate heterosexual culture, it has also provided a space of possibility for subversive sexual and political acts. The closet's unstable character, its reversibility, its shifting temporal and territorial boundaries, make it a figure of both oppression and resistance.

Tirza True Latimer

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social sciences >> Overview:  Berlin

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social sciences >> Overview:  Outing

First used by homophobes and then by glbtq activists, outing is the public revelation of a person's sexuality without the consent of that person.

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social sciences >> Overview:  Roman Catholicism

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arts >> Beardsley, Aubrey

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social sciences >> Don't Ask, Don't Tell

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literature >> Douglas, Alfred Bruce

Lord Alfred Douglas is remembered today for his tumultuous association with Oscar Wilde and as a minor poet.

social sciences >> Eulenburg-Hertefeld, Philipp, Prince zu

A favorite of Kaiser Wilhelm II, to whom he gave political advice, Philipp zu Eulenburg was involved with a circle of homosexual men, and his life ended in scandal.

literature >> Foucault, Michel

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arts >> Griffin, Merv

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social sciences >> The Labouchère Amendment

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social sciences >> Paragraph 175

Paragraph 175 was the German law prohibiting sex between men; strengthened by the Nazis, it was the statue under which homosexuals were sent to concentration camps.

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social sciences >> Signorile, Michelangelo

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social sciences >> White, James Melville "Mel"

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literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.


Butler, Judith. "Imitation and Gender Insubordination." Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. Diana Fuss, ed. New York and London: Routledge, 1991. 13-31.

Eribon, Didier. Réflexions sur la question gay. Paris: Fayard, 1999.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. I, An Introduction (1978). Robert Hurley, trans. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.


    Citation Information
    Author: Latimer, Tirza True  
    Entry Title: The Closet  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated August 3, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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