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Go to any meeting or join any mailing list on alternative subcultures, especially sexual subcultures, and 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 fuck anyone who doesn'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 any more 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 can not 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 fuck 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. I'm here to talk about a more subtle, and potentially more insidious, problem that can arise frm remaining tightly closeted, especially in polyamorous relationships--with acknowledgment to feorlen for starting me thinking along this path.

Doing the abuser's work: the closet as exile

One of the first, earliest hallmarks of a classic abusive relationship, counsellors and mental health professionals will say, is a relationship in which 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. A situation where one or more people are denied access to contact with other people creates an environment where a person may not notice destructive, unhealthy aspects of the relationship. 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--e 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.

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.

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.


( 38 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 4th, 2007 05:17 pm (UTC)

One of these days I'll actually get my own thoughts out in a clear and elegant manner before you usurp them with your more clear and more elegant writing.

Thank you for once again saying what's in my head.
May. 4th, 2007 05:36 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this. Good writing, good insights, as usual.

How do you think it's best to proceed in cases where the loss is very real and very possible? Say a relative has *actually threatened* to take custody of your child, and you know they have the power to do it? I'm generally in favor of being as out as possible. And at the same time, I'm acutely aware of the anxiety that can bring (I've literally been unable to sleep some nights--not many, fortunately--due to our media work and the potential ramifications for our daughter). How do we balance real vs. perceived danger? How do we balance our own need for transparency against our children's or other dependents' need for safety and stability? It's important, as you say, to judge *all* of the costs--and some of those costs aren't to you, and might not be yours to choose.

"Secrecy" is usually bad. "Transparency" is often good. But somewhere between the two is a grey area of "confidentiality," "circumspection," and "not causing unnecessary harm." I think that's the realm that most of us are living in most days.

Choices, responsibility, and balance. Not easy for any of us. Thanks for sharing yours so transparently. I very much appreciate your willingness and ability to do so.
May. 5th, 2007 12:31 am (UTC)
Hmm, it's pretty broad to say that 'secrecy' is usually bad and 'transparency' is often good. I mean... some things there are times and places for. I didn't and still don't give my parents a lot of details about my relationships, monogamous or not - as a general rule. In that case it is _my_ life, and my relationship with my folks for the most part is separate from who I am sleeping with or not. Not my boss's business either - just like most of the drama of being a parent is not something he and I talk about. We communicate with the net, and every once and a while I've shared a pic of my kids or mentioned something, but 98% of the time we talk about work projects. We talk kids a bit more lately, as he just had a baby some months ago, but still not that much.

I lived with several people, eventually I married one. I got divorced. I had to put my foot down when my mom was badmouthing my ex in front of our children. Nothing about all adults consenting changes her definition of adultery, for instance. So *shrug*. I tried to explain once or twice and am back to 'things work better if we avoid that topic'. I don't feel in a closet about that any more than about other things that have happened in my life that I didn't/don't mention to her. There are kinds of support, there is a kind of relationship that we have, and that's just... how it is.

Delicate balance? Or just pragmatic - not everyone needs to know details about your life... not all relationships are the same, global transparency is a good way to let some jerk make trouble - and that isn't just for non-standard situations, people can also stick their noses way into where they don't really belong in 'standard' relationships and find ways to stir up shit.

While I like the argument 'the more people know, in theory, the more tolerant they will be' but I am not 100% convinced. We still have folks shunning if not killing each other over basic stuff like religion, and many religions have existed for a LONG LONG time in human existence.
(no subject) - dawnd - May. 5th, 2007 12:55 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - May. 6th, 2007 06:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 4th, 2007 05:49 pm (UTC)
hmmm.. I don't know how my parents wil react but dad used the word "slut" in reference t my livejournal interest list... I don't feel the need to educate him... nor do I feel the need to tell my parents about being poly....
I'm not being secretive- most of my friends know... but I'm not sure it's my parents' business....
May. 4th, 2007 06:59 pm (UTC)
i'm in the same boat. The way I look at it, I wouldn't discuss my non-poly love life with my parents, there's absolutely no reason to discuss the poly stuff as well. It would cause tension (where tension already exists completely unrelated to relationship stuff) in that particular relationship. I get being out and especially wanting a support structure of those who get the "real" me.. but that doesn't need to be everyone I communicate with. Sort of the out at work dilema. I don't parade - oh my gosh I'm sleeping with two men, just as my co worker doesn't say oh my gosh I'm sleeping with one. It just isn't relevant to the business world. On the other hand, I can understand why it could make someone i'm involved in uncomfortable if they have to pull back from their usual level of "outness".

Do I think people *should* be able to share these things without negative ramifications? Absolutely. Would more openness potentially help further societal mores in such a way that it came about sooner? Possibly. Are there very real consequences of doing so to my financial stability and further career engagement? 100% certainty.
(no subject) - skitten - May. 4th, 2007 07:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dayo - May. 4th, 2007 07:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - joreth - May. 4th, 2007 11:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - debxena - May. 6th, 2007 11:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
*blink* - klrmn - May. 4th, 2007 10:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: *blink* - dayo - May. 6th, 2007 05:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: *blink* - klrmn - May. 7th, 2007 01:08 am (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
May. 6th, 2007 06:18 pm (UTC)
Haven't posted this on my site--I just kinda wrote it stream-of-consciousness while I was waiting for a bigass file to upload to my server at work. :)
May. 4th, 2007 06:23 pm (UTC)
*peeking out of my burrow* It's warm & cozy in here though! Heh
Don't you think that there's also "Not closeted, I just don't share everything with everyone in my life.."
May. 6th, 2007 06:24 pm (UTC)
Don't you think that there's also "Not closeted, I just don't share everything with everyone in my life.."

Indeed. There is a continuum between "obsessive secrecy" and "complete transparency." I definitely feel that there are advantages to being as far as possible toward the "transparency" end, though how possible that is depends on a lot of different things.
May. 4th, 2007 06:48 pm (UTC)

This fits so many things in my life - thoughts, people I know, and even more closer to home.

good post.
May. 4th, 2007 06:49 pm (UTC)
It's unfortunate that we live in a society where there are very real concerns about being out about alternative choices. I think that's why it's oh-so-important for those of us who can be out to be so. The more we can show positive examples of these choices, the more awareness and toleration there can come to be. At that point, people who feel they need to be in the closet about things are doing so not out of fear of external societal repercussions, but for other more personal internal reasons.
May. 4th, 2007 07:59 pm (UTC)
second that. anyone who can be out, even a little bit, is helping smooth the way for others to make their own steps out. Its kinda like becoming more ecologically responsible, only the ecology is societal rather than biological.
May. 4th, 2007 07:18 pm (UTC)
I agree, good post.

I was never out to family, work, or the internet, but I like to think that being my out to much of the SF Fandom community served the purpose for me of not being "dangerously" closeted.

Now that I'm retired, I feel much more freedom about being out (constrained only by my partners concerns - e.g. one of my partners is still working, and we'll never voluntarily be out to the other's parents for what I believe are good reasons).
May. 4th, 2007 08:01 pm (UTC)
What a wonderful post. It really encompases things I have been thinking a lot about lately. I am going to post a link to this in my journal, I hope that you don't mind. :)
May. 4th, 2007 11:44 pm (UTC)
I get rather annoyed when I hear people saying things like, "You need to come out of the closet to help make things better for all gays/polyfolk/kinky people." A person's private life is theirs to do with as they wish, IMO. You have the right to be poly, and you have the right not to share that with other people if that's your choice. I don't think it's true that everyone would be better off out of the closet. A lot of people who do things for political reasons, to improve the world for others, end up going through untold *personal* suffering as a result. I wouldn't fault someone for not wanting to do that.

About the abuse thing...I think this might be true in situations where people are 100% closeted. But most of the people I know who live alternative sexual lifestyles (myself included) aren't 100% closeted to every other human on the planet. For instance, many people are part of a poly (or gay, or kink) community, but not "out" to their families or coworkers. So you can't just say they are cutting off all social support, that they don't have anyone around who can point out when their relationships are becoming dysfunctional. For that matter, how is it helpful to come out to people you know won't approve of your lifestyle? They will consider the entire relationship dysfunctional by its very nature, which isn't particularly helpful to the person in question.

No, I think it's very smart to seek out social support from people who understand your situation and are willing to accept your lifestyle, rather than condemn you for the choices you make.

Personally, I'm "out" as poly to my closest friends, and to my kids/stepkids. The former because I trust them and know they are open-minded, and the latter because they live with me (at least part time) and I"m not going to try to hide my lifestyle from them only to have them pick up on me lying. Kids are smart.

I"m not out to my parents, who are wonderful, amazing people but who don't support nonmonogamy. They would still love me, but it would disappoint and worry them, and I don't feel that my coming out would really benefit anyone in that situation. They live 3,000 miles away and they don't need to know the details of my sexual relationships. (they have met my lover, they just don't know I'm sleeping with him)

I"m not out to my coworkers, either, because I don't feel it's any of their business, and because I'm not interested in losing my job just to make a "statement." Maybe I'm not helping my fellow polys in that, but I didn't get into this to make the world a better place--I got into it because I fell in love with two people.

I have no issues with people who feel that the best choice--for them--is total openness and transparency. I just don't like it when people try to badger others int coming out when they aren't comfortable with it.
May. 5th, 2007 12:43 am (UTC)
red_girl much along the lines of my thoughts, thanks for stating some of that more clearly.

Joreth, it's fine if you're happy saying 'mom deal with my partners or basically don't be as much in my life (if at all)' but I don't think folks are wrong if they choose otherwise. For instance, there is more than 'accept me' involved in my relationship with my parents - I have two kids, and my parents care about them a great deal. We tolerate the differences in lifestyles (in many ways) when we visit my folks, because we also love and accept them HOW THEY ARE, even if they are less open minded than we'd like. *shrug*
(no subject) - dawnd - May. 5th, 2007 01:13 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tiggerypum - May. 5th, 2007 01:39 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - May. 6th, 2007 06:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - red_girl_42 - May. 7th, 2007 12:46 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dawnd - May. 7th, 2007 12:58 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - red_girl_42 - May. 7th, 2007 01:44 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - May. 6th, 2007 06:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - red_girl_42 - May. 7th, 2007 01:40 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - May. 14th, 2007 09:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - joreth - Jul. 11th, 2007 03:56 am (UTC) - Expand
May. 9th, 2007 06:00 pm (UTC)
I have read your posts often and would like to add you to my friends list - thanks for making people think.
May. 10th, 2007 05:05 pm (UTC)
Welcome aboard...and thanks!
(Deleted comment)
May. 23rd, 2007 06:50 pm (UTC)
Be my guest! :)
Brodhi McClure
Aug. 19th, 2011 03:47 am (UTC)
"We all deeply desire to be loved for who we are. However, one of the greatest challenges to that goal is risking being known. If you don't risk telling your lover who you are, you won't feel accepted. If you feel guilty, you may tell yourself that you're not okay the way you are. Nevertheless, you are fine the way you are... and you are capable of finding others who accept you... The first step, however, is up to you. You will not find acceptance without taking the risk of being known. It is my hope that we may all risk being known so we don't perpetuate a world of relationships which are incomplete, conditional and limited by fear. We deserve better." ~ from Spiritual Polyamory by Mystic Life
( 38 comments — Leave a comment )