In the jargon of contemporary homosexual culture, those who hide their sexual identities are referred to as either closeted or said to be in the closet. Revealing one's homosexuality is referred to as coming out. Clinical experience with gay patients reveals hiding and revealing behaviors to be psychologically complex.
In the developmental histories of gay men and women, periods of difficulty in acknowledging their homosexuality, either to themselves or to others, are often reported. Children who grow up to be gay rarely receive family support in dealing with antihomosexual prejudices. On the contrary, beginning in childhood--and distinguishing them from racial and ethnic minorities--gay people are often subjected to the antihomosexual attitudes of their own families and communities (Drescher et al., 2004). Antihomosexual attitudes include homophobia (Weinberg, 1972), heterosexism (Herek, 1984), moral condemnations of homosexuality (Drescher, 1998) and antigay violence (Herek and Berrill, 1992). Hiding activities learned in childhood often persist into young adulthood, middle age and even senescence, leading many gay people to conceal important aspects of themselves.
Closeted individuals frequently cannot acknowledge to themselves, let alone to others, their homoerotic feelings, attractions and fantasies. Their homosexuality is so unacceptable that it must be kept out of conscious awareness and cannot be integrated into their public persona. Consequently, these feelings must be dissociated from the self and hidden from others.
If and when same-sex feelings and attractions can no longer be kept out of consciousness, the individual becomes homosexually self-aware. Individuals to whom this happens can acknowledge some aspect of their homosexuality to themselves. While homosexually self-aware people might consider accepting and integrating these feelings into their public persona, acceptance is not a pre-determined outcome. For example, a religious, homosexually self-aware man may choose a celibate life to avoid what, for him, would be the problematic integration of his religious and sexual identities.
Individuals who are either consciously prepared to act on their homoerotic feelings or to reveal a homosexual identity to others usually define themselves as gay or lesbian. To be gay, in contrast to being homosexually self-aware, is to claim a normative identity. In other words, defining oneself as gay usually requires some measure of self-acceptance. A gay person may choose to come out to family or intimate acquaintances. Others may come out to people they have met in the gay community while keeping their gay identity separate from the rest of their lives.
Another homosexual identity is the non-gay-identified individual. These people have experienced homosexual self-awareness, may have acted on their feelings, and may have even once identified as gay or lesbian. However, such individuals find it difficult, if not impossible, to naturalize their same-sex feelings and attractions. While recognizing their homosexual feelings, these individuals reject the feelings and, despite the low odds of success, may even seek to change their sexual orientation (Shidlo et al., 2001).
The above classification of homosexual identities privileges the role of self-definition. These identities are not mutually exclusive; there is often overlap between and differing motivations within them. They are shaped by individual and cultural factors. Consequently, when individuals become homosexually self-aware, there is a wide range of psychosocially constructed attitudes and responses they may develop toward their own homosexuality. For example, a homosexually self-aware man may initially identify himself as gay but then regret that decision and return to his earlier practices of hiding. Another may choose a non-gay identity, attempt a "sexual conversion" therapy, but then later decide to accept his homosexual feelings and come out.
What psychological mechanisms facilitate separating one's sexual identity from the rest of one's persona? Sullivan's (1956) concept of dissociation may be illuminating, particularly its most common aspect: selective inattention. A ubiquitous, nonpathological process, selective inattention makes life more manageable, like tuning out the background noise on a busy street. However, through dissociation of anxiety-provoking knowledge about the self, a whole double life can be lived and yet, in some ways, not be known. Clinical presentations of closeted gay people may lie somewhere in severity between selective inattention--most commonly seen in the case of homosexually self-aware patients thinking about "the possibility" that they might be gay--to more severe dissociation--in which any hint of same-sex feelings resides totally out of conscious awareness. More severe forms of dissociation are commonly observed in married men who are homosexually self-aware but cannot permit the thought of themselves as gay (Roughton, 2002).
Self-Esteem and the Closet
Some closeted gay people can reflexively speak without revealing the gender of the person being discussed or without providing any gendered details of their personal lives. Sedgwick (1990) called "'Closetedness' ... a performance initiated as such by the speech act of a silence--not a particular silence, but a silence that accrues particularity by fits and starts, in relation to the discourse that surrounds and differentially constitutes it." Toward that end, a gay person might avoid references to gender altogether: "I went out last night with someone I've been dating for the last few weeks. We went to a movie in their neighborhood. We talked about the possibility of going to the beach next weekend." A heterosexual listening to these words might automatically assume a heterosexual relationship was being discussed.
It can be painful to keep significant aspects of the self hidden or to vigilantly separate aspects of the self from each other. Constant hiding creates difficulties in accurately assessing other people's perceptions of oneself, as well as recognizing one's own strengths. Dissociation's impact on self-esteem can also make it difficult to feel one's actual accomplishments as reflections of one's own abilities. Transparency, invisibility, losing one's voice, and being stuck behind walls or other barriers are some of the terms used to describe the subjective experience of dissociative detachment (Drescher, 1998).
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