A Case for Closets

This is part of an on-going series that will concern itself with storytelling as it concerns the queer community. A Case for Closets will put forth some of the issues to consider concerning coming out of the closet, though it is by no means exhaustive.

We as a society have created a system whereby there exists a distinction between identifying one’s own sexuality and presenting it. When we do present it, we’ve come to label it coming out of the closet. When happening involuntarily, it becomes passive, the person is not actively seeking this: Denis was outed. In many ways, sexuality has come to be linked to performance; one is free to ‘act more gay’ upon coming out of the closet.

In gay media there exist a lot of coming out stories. As I mentioned in my last post, there are as many different coming out stories as there are people who can tell them. In 1979 Vivienne Cass presented a model (Cass Identity Model) for treating gay people as normal in society, rather than an aberration of society. The six stages in sequential order are: Confusion, Comparison, Tolerance, Acceptance, Pride, and Synthesis.

This model has its problems, however. The final stage assumes that one must be integrated into the gay community and create social spheres primarily in that realm. It is also a linear format that would seem to suggest a maladjusted individual if this is not the order in which an identity is mapped. This model also does not take into account anything but sexuality, existing in a world that only seeks to identify itself through sexuality. Finally, it does not suggest anything for bisexuality, which has its own spectrum of identification and acceptance based on how we as a society treat it, particularly since the LGBT community can be strangely biphobic. In other words? The Cass Identity Model is a bit too specific.

Yet, in most coming out media, it seems this model is rather closely followed. My first suggestion? It can be a useful guideline for its overarching themes concerning identity, but should not be seen as a bullet-point list of topics on which to hit every time.

If one addresses a coming out story, one should decide whether or not one wishes to be more specific or abstract in the approach. In the case of the former, this will usually assume that the character’s coming out is something we, as consumers, will experience. Otherwise, it could merely be something to which can be alluded, or something that was likely a nonevent or had small impact (i.e. coming out to an accepting world, society, community, etc.).

However, to include a character does not mean that we have to directly focus on that character’s coming out unless it impacts the story itself. What I would caution is that it is still something that should be taken into consideration; crafting any character should take into account significant events in that character’s history, as it pertains to the story itself and the personality one is trying to craft.

Considering the personal stance behind coming out, it serves as a moment of revelation and defiance. The tone of this defiance is marked by the method in which one steps out of the closet (i.e. writing a letter to people, gathering important persons to tell, etc.). This goes a long way in describing who this person is and how he or she has dealt with communicating a difficult subject to a specific community. It is also important to note to whom this person has come out, and if he or she remains closeted to certain persons.

Then there is the other point to consider. Was this person outed? Was he or she thrust into a situation not actively sought? In this case, the character’s handling of the situation gives us an understanding of how the character handles duress. Not only is there potential opposition from those that would not be comfortable with said outing, but there is the possibility of animosity that may occur between the character and the ‘outer.’

In both cases there is a potential falling out and one must take into consideration the character’s methods of dealing with this. In the Cass Identity Model, this may well lead to secreting one’s self away in a community based around this sexuality. Unless a game wishes to be labeled in a niche category, this is likely not the path to be taken for an overall game, but perhaps a sidequest. It does provide for a conflict of interest if the game’s conflict does not stem within that community itself. Which is where the suggestion would come in that to focus on a gay character and to consider coming out, one does not have to make it entirely about ‘gay life’ or the ‘gay community.’

While they should certainly be factors, gay issues do not have to be the center of that character’s social interactions and inform everything the character does. The moment the character’s only personality trait is his or her sexuality, something has been miscommunicated. Sexuality is not a personality trait. What is a personality trait? Societal expectations and an insular culture which seeks to sustain itself and create its own traditions, which one accepts or rejects.

If one does go the route of showing the character in the gay community or interacting with it post-outing, it brings into question what that character obtains from this interaction. Is it a community? Is it a safe space? Does the new social circle have a romantic interest? These are questions to contemplate as to what the character sought to gain by enfolding his or herself into the gay community. They are not mutually exclusive, either, but can be present in varying levels.

The film that caused me to reflect on most of the coming out stories I saw was the Canadian film C.R.A.Z.Y. In this story, we see the character struggle with his identity based on his interactions with his family and the cultural influences of his time (David Bowie, Bruce Lee, pot, etc.). In his search to find out who he is he does travel and we do see the character interact with gay clubs in a foreign land. However, the central motif of the story remains that of his family (the title comes from the first initial of all five sons), around and against whom he defines himself.

His sexuality is a factor, especially the fear of it, but it does not seek to inform his decisions. Through the course of the film he deals with his own identity as a person, eventually adding, bit by bit, the ingredients concerning his sexuality. The ultimate triumph is displayed in the last scene, years later. At this point he is able to discuss his sexuality with his father, who sent him to therapy to make sure he could be cured. By the end of the film, we are left with a fully developed character who has grown into himself and has not only identified who he is as a person (note, not a gay male), but has been able to proclaim such to those that matter most.

However, people are subject to change, depending on other, later significant events in one’s life. To assume that a person is the exact same as the moment when he or she stepped out of the closet is to deny that the person has progressed in any fashion. People are able to evolve their own methods and thoughts, and unless one is making a statement, stagnant characters are not particularly compelling as anything but one-note stereotypes or symbols. Instead, a character’s coming out should serve as a base from which the character has moved.

About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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2 Responses to A Case for Closets

  1. Not to totally miss the point here, but I’ve always had my concerns about the notion of “coming out,” and the connotation that heterosexuality is to be assumed in people. It seems to me that this connotation is inescapable when using terms such as “coming out.” In my mind, it also serves as a function of defining individuals by their sexual orientation. Having come out of the closet, an individual becomes a gay person. They are not gay in the same way that they are tall, or curly-haired. They are gay in the same way that birch is a wood.

    I’m very familiar with the notion that a character’s coming out should be linked to their sudden movement into a community which reflects their newly-admitted sexual preferences. I can’t recall a story which involved coming out in which that didn’t happen, except perhaps the plotline of this year’s series of “Skins.”

    The show wasn’t particularly well-written, and the coming out plot itself involved some fairly heavy-duty cheese, but it serves as an interesting counterpoint to my other experiences of coming out in storytelling.

  2. Denis Farr says:

    Spencer, while I would like a world post-coming out, I don’t think most people who are to include gay characters in their fiction will look at such an ideal. Such will only be looked at in a utopian society, or one completely alien to our own.

    As for the examples you give, the difference is one of visible and intangible characteristics, isn’t it? If I am tall or curly-haired, that is normally visible (unless I shaved my head), whereas my sexuality is assumed heterosexual until I state otherwise. It is hard for people to envision a world where we don’t assume heterosexuality of a person, especially in any society where the product of adulthood is to enter a relationship and produce children through copulation. Until that barrier is struck down, we can’t progress to think of a society in which coming out is something that is a non-event because it would be a moot point.

    The Cass Identity model does speak a lot for how stepping out of the closet one does become slightly antagonist and defines one’s self by what one has rejected. Whether or not one defines one’s self as gay becomes difficult to ascertain. I’ve known people who embraced the community, others who did it in concert with genderqueer, punk, and other tendencies (something I will address further on, I believe).

    The thing about the phrase is it is used in any case now where one deviates from the established norm (coming out as transsexual, genderqueer, et cetera). It all lies in the LGBTIQ spectrum, however. One can even ‘come out’ as a feminist who establishes him or herself as not wanting to fit into the traditional nuclear family model.

    I’ve not seen <>Skins<>. What is it?

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