Lessons from the Closet



Word Column                                                              Sheila Suess Kennedy

October 8, 2007                                                          611 words


Lessons from the Closet                                                                                               


I remember laughing at my mother because when the newspaper came each morning she turned first to the obituaries, to see if anyone she knew had died. (As she got older, she told me that she wasn’t looking for the names of friends—“I look to make sure I’m not there. If I’m not, I get up and get dressed.)


Well, that was then, and now is now, and I find myself scanning the death notices just as faithfully as she used to do. And every once in a while, you see an obituary like the one I noticed this morning. Beneath a photograph of a square-jawed, severe-looking woman was a column attesting to a long life with numerous accomplishments—a doctorate, many civic and charitable activities, devotion to nieces and nephews. She had never married, never had children. The eulogy was delivered by her “close (female) friend” of many years.


I have no way of knowing whether this elderly woman and her “close friend” were lesbians, but it is a reasonable assumption. Hers was a generation born before coming out days and gay pride celebrations. Recently, one of the news magazines featured a personal essay by an 88-year old woman who had just lost her life partner, and had decided to declare her orientation publicly for the first time. As she wrote, “What can happen to me now? I don’t have a job to lose, or parents who will be scandalized or humiliated.”


As difficult as it can be to be gay and out today, those who were born 75 or 80 years ago rarely felt that they had the option to be honest about their identities. They usually remained closeted to everyone but a handful of others who were similarly situated, often living in fear that their secret lives would become known. When the AIDS epidemic hit, many gay men went to their graves insisting they’d contracted the disease from a blood transfusion.


I can’t imagine living a lie your entire life, living in fear that someone will figure out that you aren’t who you pretend to be. Just think of the amount of energy it must take to erect and maintain that sort of facade—energy that might be devoted to more productive and enjoyable ends. Think of the psyches that the need for secrecy has twisted, the Larry Craigs and Ted Haggards and others who have tried to escape detection by being more homophobic than the homophobes. 


To make matters worse, at least for men, the gay community has not been particularly hospitable to its elders. Gay men seem to put a premium on youth and muscle tone and good looks, in much the same way that heterosexual men prize good looks and youth in women. (Trophy wife, anyone?) But just as heterosexual women of a “certain age” feel bypassed, older gay men can feel isolated and rejected. 


As the LBGT community continues to make significant strides toward inclusion and equal rights, I can’t help feeling a pang for those who have lived their whole lives in the closet, never experiencing the relief that comes from not being constantly “on guard,” never knowing the joy of being accepted and valued for who they really are.


The next time you are angry over unfair treatment, outright discrimination or the general hatefulness of the not-very Christian Right, you might pause to consider that America is still a far better place than it was 30, 40 or 50 years ago. And then remind yourself that all of us—gay and straight—need to redouble our efforts to ensure that it will be better still 10 or 20 years from now.