Being Out

Thoughts on the choice to be open or closeted about alternative lifestyles

If you go to any meeting or join any mailing list on alternative subcultures, especially sexual subcultures, one of the most common topics of conversation you’ll see again and again is the conversation about “coming out.” Do your parents know that you’re gay? Do you share the fact that you’re polyamorous with your co-workers? Do your fellow game enthusiasts know you’re kinky?

You’ll find a huge range of responses, ranging from “I am who I am and I don’t care if people don’t like it” to “I would never, ever dare breathe the slightest whisper to suggest that I did not conform to social norms in every way.” And you’ll find just as many reasons for these attitudes.

On the “I am completely closeted” side of the equation, many of the reasons center around a few simple ideas: fear of tangible loss (“If my ex found out I’m poly, he might try to take custody of my child,” “If my boss found out I’m gay, I’d be fired”), fear of being judged (“My parents would never approve,” “My friends would think I’m a slut if they found out I have two lovers”), fear of emotional loss (“My friends would not like me anymore if they knew I was bisexual,” “My mother would disown me if she knew I have two husbands”), and that sort of thing.

On the flip side, you’ll find the same arguments often trotted out to counter these ideas (“If more people asserted their rights to child custody who were openly pagan/gay/whatever, the social structures and stereotypes that allow such people to be cast as unfit parents would fall,” “If someone loves you and then, after learning the truth about who you are as a person, withdraws that love, then that person never loved you to begin with,” “You cannot love someone you do not know,” “If your friends only like you as long as you project a false image of yourself to protect their own prejudices, you need a better class of friend”).

You’ll also see arguments in favor of remaining closeted based on the specific situation of the person in the closet (“I’m in the military,” “I work for a church that condemns homosexuality”) and arguments that rebut those arguments (“You had a choice about joining the military,” “If you’re gay and working for an organization that promotes disenfranchisement of gays, you’re shooting yourself in the foot and working against your own interests”). And ’round and ’round it goes.

Now, I’m firmly on the side of “I am who I am and I don’t care about anyone who doesn’t like it.” I do not see the advantage of pretending to be someone I’m not, nor see any compelling reason to protect others from the emotional consequences of their own prejudices. But that’s not actually what I’m here to talk about.

And I do recognize that there are many legitimate reasons to be closeted. People in the US armed forces can, for example, be prosecuted for sexual infidelity under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. In some states in the US, being part of a non-monogamous relationship can lead to a visit from Child Protective Services, or worse. The choice to be out is a personal one, and even though I am out myself and I strongly advocate being out whenever possible, I realize that some people do not have an easy way to be up-front about their sexuality.

What I do want to do is talk about a more subtle, and potentially more insidious, problem that can arise from remaining tightly closeted, especially in polyamorous relationships.

Doing the abuser’s work: the closet as exile

One of the first, earliest hallmarks of a classic abusive relationship, according to many counsellors and mental health professionals, is a relationship where one person seeks to isolate his or her partner, cutting the victim off from friends and family, controlling who the victim may socialize with, and seeking to limit the victim’s contact with other human beings.

This is a useful tool for an abuser. Denying access to contact with other people creates an environment where a person may not notice destructive, unhealthy aspects of the relationship. (This has happened to me, in a relationship where my partner tried to cut me off from my other partners and even my friends, and substitute her own circle of friends for mine.) Often, a relationship’s dysfunctions are invisible from the inside; without someone from the outside to say “Whoa, dude, that’s totally fucked up!” it becomes easy to be blinded to even the most blatantly destructive, unhealthy things in a relationship.

Even outside the context of abuse, the presence of extra, uninvolved pairs of eyes is often useful for finding the broken parts of a relationship. Little everyday problems are seldom unique; in a world of billions of people and fourteen thousand years of recorded history, someone somewhere has had whatever problem you’re having before. Experience is the best teacher, the saying goes..but sometimes the tuition is very high. Learning from other people’s mistakes is less costly than learning from your own. Having a support network of friends who are close to you makes solving problems of all sorts far easier.

But what happens when a person digs himself a nice little cave at the back of the closet?

In extreme cases, he does exactly what an abuser would do to him, only he does it to himself. When a person refuses to share the reality of who he is with the people around him—even with friends and family—he does more than live a lie, and he does more than project a false façade to appease the prejudices of others. He cuts himself off from his support mechanisms; he isolates himself from the very people who might be there to say “Dude, that’s fucked up!” if things start to go wrong. He creates barriers between himself and those people who might be able to help him solve problems or spot weaknesses in his relationship. He removes his own ability to bounce ideas off of others. He creates a breeding ground where unhealthy habits can fester and grow, unchecked by the light of day.

And that really sucks.

I’m not saying that everyone who’s closeted is in an unhealthy or abusive situation. The choice to come out is a complicated one, and it is often influenced by factors outside your control, like work, family of origin, or children.

Instead, I'm saying secrecy can be a fertile soil in which unhealthy patterns can flourish. The same thing that draws an abuser to isolating a victim can work against you in a secret relationship, even if it is not abusive.

There’s another potential problem with being closeted, as well. It’s not necessarily safe to rely on all the people around you keeping your secret. When you choose to stay closeted, you potentially hand a terrible weapon to all the folks who know you, a weapon they can dangle over your head all the time. If you have a bad breakup, your ex-partner now has a way to damage you. An ex-spouse may use polyamory against you, even if your ex-spouse was polyamorous himself or herself. When you choose not to come out, sometimes you let other people make the choice to be out for you—and it’s almost always far more destructive when someone else outs you than when you out yourself.

And finally, the choice to remain closeted doesn’t just affect you. It affects your partners as well. I’ve talked to many people who are partnered with a person who’s closeted about polyamory, who feel relegated to an inferior status because of the secrecy. It’s not hard to understand why someone who is not acknowledged can begin to feel as if he or she is being treated like a shameful secret.

In discussions about the values of openness, i often see people arguing the perils and potential consequences of coming out. What I rarely see, though, is acknowledgment of the fact that remaining closeted has a price, as well. And the more I think about it, the more I think the price of remaining closeted can sometimes be greater than what might at first be obvious.

The culture of secrecy can lead to a mindset of avoidance, of not talking about uncomfortable things even within the relationship. If one builds a reflexive habit of concealing the truth, it’s hard to put down that habit even when talking to someone on the inside. At worst, in the most extreme cases, it can lead to precisely the type of dark, inward-burrowing isolation that the abuser seeks to impose on a victim, only self-inflicted and therefore even more internalized.

Like I said, the choice to be open or closeted is a personal choice, and there are people for whom a choice to be open comes with a very high price. Your life is your own. It belongs to you and to nobody else. Live it as you will—but be aware of all the potential costs of your decisions. The choice to be open sometimes does have a price, but I feel that we all too easily forget that the choice to be closeted has a price as well.

Last updated: Sun May 10, 2020