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The Closet  
 
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The word "closet" designates a space of secrecy, confidentiality, or cautious privacy. We say that a gay person is "in the closet" or "closeted" when she or he dissimulates the object of her or his sexual desire.

Coming out of the closet, though, as Didier Eribon has remarked, can never be achieved once and for all. The gesture must be repeated in each and every new context. It is entirely possible, what is more, to occupy a position that is neither completely "in" nor entirely "out" of the closet--to be "out" within a circle of friends, for instance, while preserving a degree of discretion in the workplace.

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Being in the closet is facilitated by the fact that heterosexuality is nearly always presumed as the default orientation until or unless an individual announces or signals his or her status as a non-heterosexual.

The Closet in Post-Stonewall Politics and Discourse

The closet occupies a place of prominence in post-Stonewall politics and discourse. Notions of the closet and its functions have been hammered out in several of the foundational texts of theory.

For example, Judith Butler argues that the logic of the closet is circular. Being "out" depends upon and produces the condition of being "in," and coming out of the closet, in order to signify, reproduces and maintains the structure of the closet.

In contrast, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick conceives of the closet as a transparent enclosure. Homosexuality may be hidden in revealing ways, she observes, making it identifiable to some and not to others, a sort of "open secret."

Both would agree that the power of the closet to structure relations derives from the fact that ignorance/invisibility and knowledge/visibility generate understanding in equal measures and that these terms give meaning to one another.

In the period before Stonewall, much activity was devoted to preserving the closet, that is, protecting the privacy of homosexuals and sparing them the sometimes calamitous consequences of being exposed. After Stonewall, however, the political cry was "Out of the closet and into the streets!" Activists believed that only through coming out could homosexuals build a mass movement for social change.

In the 1980s and 1990s, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, many activists in the United States and Britain embraced the practice of "outing" public figures--such as legislators, bishops, celebrities, and media moguls--as a political tactic. In breaking the traditional code of silence that preserved the closet as a refuge for people of power and fame, the activists successfully exposed the hypocrisy of several individuals and also garnered a great deal of attention for glbtq issues. However, that practice remains controversial precisely because in a society the choice to come out of the closet is often seen as intensely personal.

Because conservatives tend to be deeply disturbed by the visibility of glbtq people, they typically urge out people to return to the closet. In doing so, they in effect admit that what they object to is the challenge that out glbtq people pose to assumptions.

The same attitude finds expression in the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy of the United States military, under which homosexuals are ostensibly welcome in the armed forces as long as they remain in the closet.

The Closet in History

The closet as a historical concept first materialized, along with the homosexual as a historical subject as defined by Foucault, toward the end of the nineteenth century in Western Europe.

At this time, attitudes towards same-sex desire were undergoing codification in arenas of secular authority, such as medicine, psychiatry, and the courts of law. In 1885, for instance, the English parliament ratified the Labouchère Amendment, also known as the blackmailer's charter, which criminalized homosexual acts in private.

The Labouchère amendment was invoked ten years later to condemn Oscar Wilde for "acts of gross indecency." As a result of Wilde's highly publicized trials and subsequent outbreaks of homophobic panic (an attack on the Decadent journal The Yellow Book among them), many of the gay men in Wilde's entourage sought the cover of marriage or the sanctuary of Catholicism, in effect retreating into the closet.

Catholicism as a Closet

The decadent poet John Gray (allegedly the prototype for Wilde's Dorian Gray) and his lover André Raffalovich converted to Catholicism, for example. Gray went so far as to take the vows of priesthood. Raffalovich converted Wilde's illustrator Aubrey Beardsley to Catholicism. Even Wilde ultimately converted to Catholicism.

Max Nordau, whose treatise Degeneration made best seller lists in England in the wake of Wilde's prosecution, unmasked what he called "neo-Catholicism" as the "most distinctive stigmata of the degenerate," identifying the Catholic church as a kind of closet.

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