I have a very powerful memory of coming across an enormous textbook in my school library, one that – for a moment – washed away some of my smoldering inferno of fear that had been roiling across my subconscious nonstop since I was very young. The book was Homosexuality and Civilization by Louis Crompton and it was fucking massive.
I didn’t take it out of the library – I didn’t dare let my family see it. I barely even glanced at it besides shakily, casually flipping through – I didn’t want my friends to catch me in my curiosity. If I recall correctly, as soon as the librarian saw me looking at it, smiled, and began to walk over, I darted away like the little Capri-sun-sucking coward I was at fifteen. I was shook by so many emotions at once. I shuffled back to break the computer’s firewall and watch Flash animations of Foamy the Squirrel like a normal sophomore.
But the simple notion of the book merely existing struck in me such an intense certainty and resolve that I daresay I would be a very different person today if I had never seen it.
Merely by existing this title destroyed the following walls that had been built up by those around me, brick by brick:
- Homosexuality was a choice.
- Homosexuality was a recent trend.
- Homosexuals could easily make a different choice, but they’re sticking to their guns because they hate society, and family, and more specifically the religious nuclear family.
- Homosexuals were, by their very nature, promiscuous troublemakers.
- More homosexuals were “popping up” because, like a virus, this “problem” was “spreading.”
- At no point was homosexuality ever acceptable until today. We’re just a tolerant society now, which is why we allow them to exist.
- Marriage was always a man and a woman. No other “civil union” has ever existed and thus even that too was unacceptable.
Now, writing that out, these notions seem pretty … disgusting. Fairly gross. But early ‘00s America featured a lot of conversations churned from these axles of thought – gears, spinning wheels. Only 38% of Americans said that gay and lesbian relations were “morally acceptable” in 2002, compared to 63% today. People had pivoted their focus from race issues (in which there was no choice, and hence it was considered unethical and immoral to treat people badly based on something they had no choice over – which isn’t to say there was not racism, of course there was, but that’s a whole other can of cognitive bias worms) to sexual ones (in which people thought sexuality was a choice).
People were discussing and battling out each one of these points in turn in a variety of arenas, from academic communities to talk shows. And one of the unfortunate consequences of the LGBTQ+ community making a fast dart for acceptance in the late 90s and early 00s was that now a certain lexicon of new words had wandered into the mouths of “yer dad”’s across American dinner tables. Mine was no different.
“You know what?” my own father had said when I was around sixteen. “I do want gay people to get married!”
I was astonished – I had argued with him and his Catholic family for years at this point on the notion of civil unions being okay. (Getting them to refer to it as “marriage” was absolutely out of the question.)
“Yeah?” I asked him.
“So they can get divorced!”
(His own divorce had cost him tens of thousands of dollars and resulted in extreme emotional turmoil.)
He smugly smiled and ate a forkful of peas.
After being a part of this and so many other painful conversations, I’d realized all these narratives I’d been sold were just destroyed with one image: the words “homosexuality and civilization” on a cover of a book with nearly 700 pages of evidence.
Homosexuality was something found in nature, going back millennia, often at a fairly consistent rate. Homosexuals are unable to “choose” differently, are consistently and often members of important, structured society, often extremely accepted or even encouraged or enforced in certain cultures, and were often in a position where long-term partnerships were perfectly normal.
It’s hard to put into words how much it relaxed me. For a moment, I could raise my hands against the wall and fight it.
In an instant, I could stuff my heel into solid ground, turn, lift up my hands, and say, “No, homosexuality isn’t a new, hot thing. Erasure, antagonism, and oppression of homosexuality is the new, hot thing.”
But sometimes, evidence, confidence, and persistence isn’t enough.
Sometimes, when faced with evidence to the contrary, numb repetition becomes willfully ignorant, hateful rhetoric.
Even when I went to college, I still saw brochures for conversion therapy camps at my campus church. I would not come out as bisexual for another 10 years. To certain family members, I’m still not “out.” Some people even within the LGBTQ+ community are not super understanding about why I came out so “late.” (After all, my situation wasn’t so bad, right? No one beat me or threw me out of the house … these small things people said didn’t really matter. Most gay people are forced to accept who they are. Why is bisexuality so different?)
But ignoring the repeated phrase “this is gay; this sucks” from my peers and the quiet refusal to accept new ideas from my family members, the absolute worst part of my road of discovery wasn’t any outside force; it was self hate and repression.
Not being out is mentally, emotionally, and even physically exhausting. It was a daily weight that hung in my guts, my everyday thoughts a double-, triple-, even quadruple-think labyrinth. I frequently kid that “repression is a hell of a drug” these days, but what I mean is that policing homosexual urges, thoughts, micro-expressions, eye contact, reactions, curiosities, and actions was a consistent active role that a part of my brain was constantly dedicated to. It made my own brain an unsafe place to be in, where bad thoughts were landmines and one wrong step could land me in a spiral. I was a master at compartmentalization, and queen of rationalization, and after a while various aspects of myself genuinely began to break down – first my emotional well-being and mood, and then other aspects of my “self.” I suffered from depression, anxiety, even intense physical symptoms like exhaustion, muscle tension, and IBS. The body can only hold in so much repression at once.
In short, I was forced to internalize twin beliefs: that I had homosexual urges, and that homosexuality was bad, even evil, and thus… logically, I must be evil.
When I look back at the tapestry of late 1800s, early 1900s Western culture, I know for a fact that I was not alone in my assessment of myself … that others, for better and for worse, made the same exact logical conclusion.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)…
- LGBTQ individuals are 3 times more likely to experience a mental health condition.
- LGBTQ teens are six times more likely to experience depression symptoms.
- LGBTQ youth ages 10-24 are 4 times more likely to “attempt suicide, experience suicidal thoughts, or engage in self-harm.”
- Those who faced rejection after coming out to their families were 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than those who had gained acceptance after revealing their sexual orientation.
- Nearly a third of the LGBTQ population abuse substances, compared to 9% of the population.
- Rates of mental health issues “are particularly high” in bisexual, questioning individuals, as well as those who do not reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity.
At the end of the day, the “just don’t think about it” rationality and the belief that homosexual urges are a choice and the hope of “maybe it will go away” or “maybe I can train myself to not be gay” caused me to take on an intense cognitive workload, one that other people never had to take on, one that I was taking on for no good reason.
The dark closet of the mind turns normal coats into bogeymen and perfectly average needs into demonic forces; it takes your own body and makes it a terrifying place to be in.
But, listen, I am not trying to say my experience was uniquely hard…
I am living in 2019 and shit’s legit. We have LGBTQ+ sci-fi best-seller lists and Steven Universe and smash-hit fantasy authors who use they/them pronouns and fucking UNHhhh and ContraPoints and gay children’s books about penguins and queer theory classes in colleges that produce excellent books like Homosexuality and Civilization. Sure, my friends and family said dickish things, and being bisexual was hard to embrace, but life’s pretty fucking grand.
It’s not like I’m living in a time where you would be put in jail for having homosexual sex (anymore).
But speaking of the historical homosexual experience, can you imagine what it would’ve been like to be bisexual a hundred years ago?
Besides the sheer terror of being caught and the likelihood of discovery, can you imagine all of the internal pressures of the dark closet of the mind truly having no release? Could you imagine going through what I’ve gone through, but having no real way of crawling yourself out of it? No one to relate to, and no way to find other people like you? Believing that you were evil and debased, that your natural thoughts, which naturally turned into obsessions the more you tried to repress them, made you horrible?
Can you imagine internalizing the belief that you were evil so much that you eventually became that? If your pansexuality made you feel like a constant freak? And yet when you continued to find other people who were also sexually experimental, you began to believe everyone was a freak? You went around manipulating and abusing people for your own amusement, because the entire world to you seemed like a sick joke? You decided to abandon all notion of morality, because it was all a lie anyway, right? People had lied about this being wrong, about this feeling good, about this being okay, after all…
And what if you just … never came out? Never acted on anything? Kept up the game of that cognitive workload, never really being comfortable in your own skin, over-crafting every single word? What if history has totally lost all notion that you could have possibly been bisexual – what if beyond the occasional slight hint in a poetry verse or a strange passage in your autobiography or a odd exchange via letters or a few oddly specific circumstances in your later years, there was no real notion of the possibility of it being the case, besides the head-scratching of a blonde bisexual woman 100 years later who may relate intensely to many of these specific experiences – the obsession with masks, for instance – and consider them to be quite … odd for a straight man of his time?
The thing about LGBTQ history is that, unfortunately, there are blank gaps for obvious reasons, and “proving” someone is bisexual is always dependent on the energy and focus of an LGBTQ researcher. In other words, it’s the unfortunate fact that people are assumed straight until proven otherwise, and even then most times that different reading will not be embraced until an enormous amount of evidence has been piled up.
There have been, and will always been, hundreds of historical people who stayed trapped in the dark closet. There was no Homosexuality and Civilization tome for them. There was no pulling out of that frightening mindspace. There was no evidence of their existence in the dark closet, just the hallmarks of the suffering, doubts, and experiences that tend to come with it.
And it’s almost impossible to drag them out. It’s a well-designed research impasse; LGBTQ+ people of certain eras were forced into the closet for their own safety, unable or unwilling to share or record any of their other sexual experiences, and modern communities will refuse someone’s alternative sexuality unless there is ample and excessive proof behind the claim.
And even now, quietly suggesting that that person could have been something other than straight might result in intense negative reactions or personal attacks to the author.
At the same time, a fictionalized account of a story such as this might be necessary for another young person to pick up, inspect the cover, fiddle with, and decidedly run away from.
Maybe it will secretly mean the world to them.
2 thoughts on “Trapped in the Dark Closet”
Beautiful, powerful piece. I hope you find the world more accepting now.
Thank you so much!