Neither in the closet, nor coming out have the same meaning as they did when I was a child. I’m not ancient (yet), but the use of a closet as something to come out of really didn’t make an appearance in the language until the late 1960s. A closet was either a small room where clothes and things were kept or a small, cell-like room where a monk might live. It did not mean an LGBTQ person’s sheltering place until gays started looking for a metaphor to describe their situation. Closets seemed to be the perfect metaphor of a gay person protecting certain truths behind a door, but in plain sight next to costumes, clothing, and other personal affectations that are stored waiting to be used for whatever purpose required.
My father had a rifle from his younger days when hunting was a common thing for kids in his rural community. I never saw him use it. He kept it in his closet, disassembled, with parts in different shoe boxes. We kids were fascinated by the non-functioning wooden stock, trigger and dull metal barrel. The parent’s closet was full of fascinating items of personal memorabilia and so, a place of curiosity for the kids. The closet was in my parent’s bedroom on the second floor of an elaborate Victorian mansion that was being used as a Funeral Home on the first floor. Their closet was also connected to an adjacent closet for the children’s room so it was really a hallway that stored stuff. This made it tough for the parents to keep non-kid stuff like guns hidden.
My Grandparents used the first floor of their Edwardian mansion in the neighboring city as a home where the upper floors were divided up into apartments available for rent. That place had all kinds of secret passageways, hidden staircases and secret rooms. Many of the closets were old servant-stairways to the upper floors no longer needed, and blocked off with plywood walls.
Growing up in those two environments shaped my concept of what a closet was as well as what a home is. A home is a place of business that respects other folk’s privacy while they intrude on your own privacy. Once the third kid was born it became impossible to keep all three of us quiet, so we moved out of the Funeral Home and into a normal residential neighborhood house where I had my own room and my first normal closet ever. It was boring in contrast, but private.
The concept of gays ‘coming out’ of a ‘closet’ had evolved into general usage at about the time I reached puberty in the 60s. Mart Crowley’s 1967 play Boys in the Band seemed to be the crossover point from sub-cultural reference to more common usage in the population at large. So, I don’t know when I first heard of it, but I stayed in mine until 1975. My concept of closet was almost surreal, it included: passageways, staircase, multiple exits, a path to something unknown, and temporary obstructions of something that continues. It was a steep staircase leading to a temporary partition. No matter what shape the closet took it was stifling, but I knew I could get out one way or another.
Nowadays, Olympic LGBTQ athletes make big news by coming out and refusing to talk with Mike Pence. While at the same time the phrase is no longer exclusive to the gay community. It has unfortunately grown to encompass any hidden behaviors. Look at all the spousal abuse perpetrators in Trump’s administration; hell, look at Trump! Right-wing moralists are the ones defending those poor abusers who are forced out of their self-imposed closets-of-shame against their will. These are indignant voices defending those hard working Harvard-educated lawyers who have been accused of beating their wives with photos and restraining orders attached as proof. What they really need is a high ranking evangelical to sell them a mulligan like Trump got. Talk about revenue stream!
A skeleton in the closet refers to an embarrassing fact that one prefers to keep secret in order to maintain a level of credibility. We all have them. They represent the past and don’t involve the current actions of an individual the way existence in a closet on a continuing basis does. No one is actively doing anything about the great uncle who shot his big toe off to avoid serving in the army. It is a skeleton in the closet, but has no real daily impact. A skeleton is an embarrassment while actively ‘being’ in a closet addresses shame, a more serious concern.(This paragraph is an update 2/15.)
A closet can be a sanctuary for good people to protect themselves until they are ready to come out. Bad people cower in them to avoid the cost of their crimes. Good people use them for positive growth and finding courage, while those closeted cheaters and abusers know they are bad and use closets to surreptitiously avoid punishment. They are being protected by other cheaters and abusers in our current White House.
Dudes, you’re messin’ with our metaphor! Knock it off.