This week I found myself trying to explain “the closet” and “coming out” in a bit more depth than is usually given the subjects, as every water cooler and blog in the country resonated with some form of the search phrase “elena kagan lesbian”:

Now we have Eliot Spitzer, among others, assuring us that the next Supreme Court justice is straight. This is completely plausible; it is likewise plausible that, for some reason or other, she is queer but has chosen not to disclose that fact. The kerfluffle raises a number of questions, including why we care, why it seems acceptable to ask about a single, female court nominee’s personal life in a way that we wouldn’t ask about a married, male nominee’s. I’d like to write just a little bit about disclosure and hiding based on my own experience, which I imagine is different from Kagan’s in a thousand ways.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick refers to the closet as “the telling secret.” In her great essay “The Epistemology of the Closet,” she writes,

Even at an individual level, there are remarkably few of even the most openly gay people who are not deliberately in the closet with someone personally or economically or institutionally important to them. Furthermore, the deadly elasticity of heterosexist presumption means that, like Wendy in Peter Pan, people find new walls springing up around them even as they drowse: every encounter with a new classful of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets whose fraught and characteristic laws of optics and physics exact from at least gay people new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not; it is equally difficult to guess for any given interlocutor whether, if they did know, the knowledge would seem very important.

Let us take this as our text for the day.

There’s a widely accepted phrase in queer circles, “coming out to yourself,” that describes quite nicely my first act of coming out. Before I came out to myself, I had had a growing awareness, certainly since puberty but really before then, that I “liked guys” and not girls in, you know, that way. The more I experienced the physical and psychological manifestations of my attraction to other males, the more horrified I became that I might be a member of what my religious, familial, and local culture (I grew up in a metastasized railroad stop/tuberculosis ward/weapons depot in the American West) defined as an alien group — the homosexuals. I remember around the age of 10 or 11 or 12 a dawning understanding of what that word meant, coupled with a nagging sense that it was important especially to me; these realizations soon enough became simple dread, an avoidance of self-knowledge.

It was only in college, after a humiliating attempt at a makeout session with a girl I’d professed a crush on to hide my total lack of interest in girls, that I first said the words to myself: “I’m gay.” The relief from the tremendous burden of self-deception brought by this subvocalized admission took some time to become apparent, but the relief came. The next night, I came out to this poor girl. She understood much less about being gay than I did, and we continued to “date” in a totally chaste, hand-holdy way for another couple of weeks before we admitted how absurd the situation was.

That was my junior year of college. During my senior year, I came out strategically: to my parents, because I didn’t want them hearing it from someone else. To an email list-serve I was on, because I knew they’d be understanding, and most of them lived hundreds of miles away. Then to some close friends, whose caring and understanding responses against the grain of their (our) conservative religious upbringings still make me tear up a bit.

Was it a surprise to anyone? I remember a conversation with one friend a few weeks after I came out to him. He said, “You know, I was completely shocked at first. Then today I was listening to you talk about recipes with [some girls in our student ward (congregation)] and I realized it had been kind of obvious all along, if you knew where to look.”

Like Sedgwick said, the closet is “the telling secret.” More often than not, it’s an agreement not to talk about someone’s sexuality, rather than a complete lack of information about the topic. In the most homophobic milieux, such as Brigham Young University where I first came out, this “telling secret” is aided by the great stigma attached to homosexuality. Calling someone gay is slander — keep things discrete, don’t rock the boat, and no one will want to say such a horrible thing about you, at least not in public. Even in our post-Ellen media culture where “not that there’s anything wrong with that” attaches to any discussion of sexuality, the news media generally do not report that someone in public life is gay unless that person has him or herself placed that fact into the public discourse.

I came out to a few people in college but was very careful to stay closeted to most. At BYU, some friends told me, the administration sometimes expelled students simply for saying they were gay, whether or not they have engaged in “immoral acts” as defined by the Mormon sexual code. After leaving, though, I felt freer to come out. In grad school I ended up teaching a course on gay and lesbian history, culture, and philosophy, and the professor who passed the course on to me told me I should first be sure I wanted to be marked a “professional queer” on my academic résumé. I didn’t see the harm — I was pursuing a career as a philosopher and was quite confident that I could make my way in the academy as an out homosexual just as well as if I were a semi-closeted one. I’ve spent years now in odd professional/administrative jobs in the big cities of the Northeast and never felt discriminated against.

And my next move, going to law school, has maybe already been aided by my being out. I wove the issue of my sexual orientation into my personal statement, and I suspect it may be one of many criteria law schools look at when trying to construct a diverse class. Next year I’ll be attending the law school of which Elena Kagan was recently the dean, and by all accounts it’s a great place to be out. The types of jobs I’ll be pursuing on graduation are likewise about as free from sexual-orientation-related discrimination as you can find.

So in my professional life, being out has been a pretty costless decision. As Sedgwick says, though, it’s rare for someone to be completely out. I’m often taken for straight when I meet new people. In part this is due to what Sedgwick calls “heterosexist presumption,” the assumption that everyone is straight until proven otherwise; in part it’s because I have mannerisms, speech patterns, and (relative lack of) fashion sense that code as more-or-less straight. So I’m often faced with the choice of whether or not to come out to the new person. Will they be someone I see again? Might we become friends? Will it be uncomfortable to come out to them? Should I leave it be for now and hope they just find out from a mutual acquaintance?

There are also people who’ve been in my life for a long time I’m not out to. My one remaining grandparent: it’s not a conversation I feel like having with her. Some of my relatives: it’s more of a “telling secret,” something some of them are fine with and others are wary of, and I don’t really see them except at big gatherings where I don’t want to make a scene.

There’s also the question, we might call it the question of abstraction. When I’m single, coming out might strike some people as TMI: “Why do you want to tell me about who you like to sleep with when it makes no difference as to whether you’ll be bringing a plus one to my party?” In most ways, it’s much easier to come out when I’m dating someone: “Can I bring my boyfriend along? I’m sure he’d love to meet you.” On the other hand, that sometimes feels like relying on another person (the boyfriend) as a crutch or an excuse for doing what I ought to be doing anyway.

Coming out happens again and again. It gets easier, I find, and it’s almost always worth it. In fact, I have to admit I don’t really do it for political reasons, although I support the logic that says it’s a political act. I do it because I find living in the closet stressful and find talking openly about my life liberating. If I had been born just a few years or decades earlier, I suspect I’d be more comfortable with the old order, the days of the open secret and the need for propriety above all else, the pleasures as well as the strictures of the closet. As it is, though, I’ve had to read history books to understand how all that used to work.

I realize that I conduct my self-disclosure based on my own needs and feelings about safety and openness. I get judgmental about gay celebrities who won’t come out — these are people, after all, who are making millions by projecting a certain image that includes some degree of straightness, and who have calculated that a reduction in straightness would also lead to a reduction in profits that’s not worth the help they could be to the gay kid growing up in a culture that might be a bit more gay friendly if the celebrity came out.

But Kagan isn’t a celebrity. And of course we have no idea, and may never know, whether she’s in the closet about being gay. To the extent Kagan’s sexuality is something to be whispered about, however — and this is a matter of her lack of disclosure, partly, but much more a matter of how she has not followed the heteronormative feminine script, either because she’s a lesbian or because she’s a tremendously smart and ambitious straight woman who simply hasn’t married and had children — there is some kind of closet in place that can protect as well as harm.

16 responses to “Out”

  1. There’s a reason for coming out I’d add to the list including “political act” and “less stressful/liberating” though it’s a self-indulgent one. What I mean is a the now dimly recalled (because my comings out are so routinized and uneventful now) nigh erotic thrill of self-disclosure.

    Putting aside the first few times, when it was mostly terror because it was something I’d never practiced, and because the audience was people like my family whose reactions could have caused longterm up-fuckage in my life, I’m thinking of the time I told a close friend in a letter and the time I sputtered it out at a new friend I was a tiny bit in love with. There’s very little I will say in my life that will feel so much like the bucket of water in the Russian room at the baths being dumped over my head, you know?

    This was great to read. I felt like I might have written it, if not so well.

  2. Dave says:

    Yes, F.P., those early comings-out were completely thrilling, particularly at BYU. I like “nigh erotic thrill” and the comparison to a bucket of cold water at the Russian Baths.

  3. LP says:

    Ditto 1: This is an amazingly great essay, Dave. It rings so true in every respect, but especially in the acknowledgment (perhaps a revelation for many) that the coming-out process never stops.

    When I first realized I was gay – in fact, just before kissing a girl for the first time – I remember having a very specific thought: If I do this, it means that for the rest of my life, whenever I meet someone, I’ll have to decide – do I tell them? Or do I not? The thought of it exhausted me.

    That was in the mid-80s, when admitting to someone that you were gay was a much scarier prospect than it is now. The process was pretty bumpy, and one thing I learned quickly was that you never knew how a given person would respond, even if you thought you knew them pretty well. Now, given the place I live and the circles I socialize in, it’s not likely that I’ll run into any problems revealing I’m gay to someone. But there’s still that little flutter of angst when I casually mention my girlfriend to a work client, or the plumber comes over and sees pictures of her and me around the house. Coming out truly is a never-ending process.

    For Elena Kagan, this issue should be moot – no matter how much Andrew Sullivan, who by the way squawked mightily when his own personal life was made an issue a number of years back – claims otherwise. She may be gay or she may not be. She may be so removed from her own sexual life that she doesn’t even know herself, or care. It is simply not a factor in whether she will be a good justice or not.

  4. This is a very well-written piece, Dave. I’m not sure I have anything to add to it, just wanted to let you know I appreciate it.

  5. LP says:

    I just thought of a case in point — something that happened just last night: RB was playing cards with someone she didn’t know. The guy noticed her engagement ring. The following conversation ensued:

    “You’re engaged?”


    “Does he treat you well?”

    “She treats me very well.”

    Theatrically: “OOOOOOOHHHH! SHE!” Pause. “Let me ask you something, seriously. Have you ever fantasized about being with a guy? Like, when you’re with a girl?”

    These types of exchanges happen all the time, and depending on your mood (and the mood of the inquisitive male stranger), they can turn into anything from an educational moment to a passing annoyance to a threat.

    RB’s response: “Let me ask you something. Have you ever fantastized about being with a guy when you’re with a girl?” Fortunately, the people at the table seemed to be behind her, letting out a collective “Oooooh!” to that comment, so the discussion pretty much ended there. But I’m sure she felt that uncomfortable flutter, yet again, of wondering whether this coming-out might end badly.

  6. Tim says:

    You go, RB! That was the first thing that came to my mind when I read the first part of the exchange. I’m so happy that she said it. All the same, of course, what a crappy thing to have to deal with from strangers. There will still probably be a million “I-should-have-saids”.

    Thanks for this, Dave. It’s a good reminder of the internal and external struggles that the gays among us, even those who are out to everyone they know, undergo on a daily — if not hourly — basis. Even well-meaning straights who are on your side (and who are offended by that card-player’s comment to RB) can sometimes forget about the minefield of heterosexist presumption that lies all around us.

  7. Stella says:

    Dave is such a smarty!

    I remember when I came out that I realized after a few weeks that I thought about my sexual orientation every day. And wondered if that was weird. But then realized you can’t not think about your minority identity every day when you have define yourself again the every norm. And yep, probably thought about it every day since.

  8. A White Bear says:

    Coming out is one of those things I have conflicted feelings about. Most of my male gay friends have been, like you, guys who “pass” for straight and so find themselves in the position of coming out all the time, explicitly. But my best friend in college, while not feminine in any way, was the sort of guy who performed his out-ness all the time. At times I wondered why his out-ness was so insistent, so “loud cocksucking joke in a bar.” I think for him, that was the way to avoid the awkward speculation and whispering. It renders the “Are you two… ‘together’?” question pointless. (I think he also thought it increased the likelihood of one or the other of us getting hit on when we were out together. No one assumes we’re a couple.)

    I often wish I was that brave. I guess if I had to say I was something, it would be bisexual, but that seems to imply some self-image that I don’t really have. I’ve had sex with men and with women, but only one relationship with a woman that lasted more than one night. When I’m in that position of people speculating about my sexuality without asking me directly, I don’t know how to come out, or whether I should. On one hand, I feel cowardly, in that maybe I don’t talk about it because I don’t want to deal with the aftermath, but on the other, I sort of feel like it’s a Kagan-like situation–why do you need to know the genders of people I’ve had sex with for me to do my job? If I’m actually friends with someone, I’m happy to talk about my experiences, because my sex life is an important part of how I interact with people. But when it’s not a matter of introducing a girlfriend or a boyfriend, like with a class I’m teaching, or with my co-workers, it feels almost like a political decision not to talk about my sex life, and instead to talk frequently and openly about gay and trans rights.

    But God, that hostile speculation stage is stressful.

  9. Rogan says:

    I’m arriving at the party a day late, but I still wanted to express my appreciation for this essay. I have these strange memories of Dave’s coming out, which I learned about through the grapevine. Dave and I ran in mostly different circles at BYU, but ones whose orbits often intersected. I remember one morning my roommate told me that “Dave” had come out of the closet, had had a huge alcohol-fueled party, and had abandoned his religion. As Dave has since noted, the reality of what I heard was somewhat different. The friend, who I later began to suspect was gay himself, was furious about all of this, and his attitude left me wondering why-the-hell he even cared about Dave, who both of us primarily knew tangentially. I think he cared because he himself (I believe) was struggling with his own internal conflict of mutually exclusive identities — am I Mormon or am I gay? The friend, who is really now a former-friend (our friendship became impossible shortly after (and I believe as a result of) my own crisis of faith, which ended in my formally abandoning my religious affiliation), went on to marry a woman and sire a family. I still think he is gay (a conclusion I came to in retrospect, after putting together a number of pieces from living with him for a couple of years, including his irrational interest in Dave’s coming out), and he has become increasingly unhappy (which I know, because I continue to read his blog posts, in spite of our friendship status). Where Dave liberated himself from his faith, and embraced his nature, this other person chose a life of perfunctory religious and familial duty, and is continually angry.

    Well this has become a weird comment. I guess I’m saying that I’m happy for you Dave, and your post is sure an elaborate way to share with the world that you will be attending Harvard Law in the Fall. Congrats on that as well!

  10. marleyfan says:

    For years I used to read TGW every day, now I check-in once or twice a week. I’m not certain if the quality of the posts and responses has changed or if it is me, but this is exactly the type of post that brings me home. It’s personal and “real”, it reads like a song sung by a singer who has passion about the song he/she is singing. Thank you Dave!

  11. swells says:

    Sorry to be late to the thread, but I have to agree with Marleyfan. Between this post and Stella’s menstruation memoir, this is why I love TGW. I am fascinated by what you describe, Dave, and the commonalities between these experiences between so many people. Separate but together in the same internal debates. I’m glad the discussion gets less covert for the lucky few who have a liberal enough support system not to have to work through it in total isolation.

    I’m sure you’ve seen the article being circulated on FB about whether the fact that Kagan plays softball indicates that she’s gay. It’s heartening to see such things so roundly mocked and forwarded by so many people as outlandish. Another interesting note that has intrigued S. Godfree and me this week: our conservative local paper today ran its third day in a row of a front-page spread on the Gay Pride Parade this weekend, plus two pages of photos inside and several articles about the fears and anxieties of being closeted at work, church, military, home, etc. I haven’t even seen any nasty letters to the editor about it. Hallelujah!

  12. J-Man says:

    …and have you noticed, those of you who read it, that Sunset Magazine has been running an ad that features a gay couple enjoying their new GE Monogram six-burner gas range? I was pleasantly shocked and surprised that any but the most lefty mag would be so bold. Perhaps people are starting to change for the better after all….

  13. Rachel says:

    Wonderful meditation on “outness,” Dave. I followed your own coming-out story with deep interest and identification, not only because I was there for some of it, but also because your whole background & perspective are a lot like my own. It’s still strange to be on situations of “coming out” years after the initial project is done. As recently as this week, I was quoted in the student newspaper as a “professional queer”–I had given an interview about how new partner benefits will affect faculty, and me in particular. Even though I’m out at work (and obviously knew about the article in advance), it was still a bit of a shock to identify myself in print, for all my students to see. (Usually I only bring it up with students if it becomes relevant to my teaching; in general, I’m pretty private.)

    A far as Kagan is concerned, I’d like to say sexuality doesn’t affect what makes her a good judge, but really I’m not so sure. It plays such a huge a role in the formation of a person and his/her sense of justice and/or entitlement. If Scalia gets to be Catholic on the stand and Thomas gets to be black, obviously any future justice who is gay gets to be gay. Pretending that justices don’t have identities isn’t fair–it erases how open the current justices get to be about who they are.

    Kagan shouldn’t have to dignify prejudicial assumptions, and for now it’s no one’s business, but I for one would be elated if she were to come out somewhere down the line.

  14. and what about David Souter?

    From a review of a recent biography:

    “Yarbrough thoroughly and effectively details Souter’s background, his years in the state attorney general’s office, his key decisions as a New Hampshire judge, the hearings over his confirmation, and his tenure on the Court. For inquiring minds who want to know, although he is a bachelor who gives Washington hostesses little opportunity to play the role of match-maker, Souter seriously dated women during his college years and is not gay. He dresses meticulously, enjoys hiking but is not especially athletic, is such a serious Episcopalian that, as a youth, he considered becoming a priest, . . .

    (The Preisthood? that’s as gay as softball!)

    . . . drives run-down cars, is frugal, and has a good, albeit not rollicking, sense of humor.”

  15. Farrell Fawcett says:

    Hey Dave,
    What this post keeps making me think about is the different kinds of closets that I still live in. (I’m sorry that I’m about to dilute the term closet and coming out). But I was thinking about Mormonism and just how embarrassing it is for my colleagues to know anything about that part of my identity. I’ve been at my job for four years–and although many of the therapists and doctors I work with have discussed their religious upbringings in the lunch room or in the hallways, I have yet to discuss my religious past. This, despite the fact, that I have had to actively divert several conversations when trying to explain why I speak fluent Spanish or why I visit family living in Utah. Oh, so awkward! I wonder, Dave, if over your lifetime, divulging your Mormon past will be more difficult to discuss than your sexual orientation.

    The other closetedness that I deal with is my interest in illegal drugs. I recently attended a conference in California about the current state of research in psychedelic drugs. Since I am reimbursed at my job for conferences (travel expenses and paid days off) I decided to submit my request. It was a difficult decision. And now 4 or 5 people in my office are aware of my interest in this subject and in fact two of them have referenced my attendance at the conference by making jokes about whether I brought back any “stickers” from the conference tables. Get it? Haha! It is another part of my identity–my drug curious, drug tolerant side–that I find very uncomfortable to share with people. I have almost regretted making it a public part of me at the office. But, I feel like the movement needs more openness. So, big deal. Being “out” is how things change. Anyway, just thought I’d bring this to the conversation. Forgive the diversion. An excellent post, Dave. Good luck this fall!

  16. Dave says:

    What a great slow-burning comment thread. A couple thoughts:

    Farrell, I think it’s perfectly appropriate to start from an analysis of the gay closet to start to think about other closets that exist in our culture. Eve Sedgwick writes elsewhere about coming out of the closet as a fat woman, which is an interesting idea when you consider that nobody who met Eve could help but notice that she was fat. It’s interesting what we feel we can’t talk about. I don’t mind talking about having been Mormon, usually, but recently I was at a prospective law students’ event where our nametags had our undergraduate institutions and graduation years on them. I felt I had to explain away “Brigham Young University” when I met people — although of course they probably didn’t really care. (It was even weirder that my year of graduation was twelve years earlier than most of the prospective students’.)

    I’ve also been thinking about AWB’s comment. I think identifying as bisexual is quite a bit different in terms of public identity than identifying as gay or lesbian. The latter is much more straightforward, definitely easier for people to process. “Mom, you can give up on the idea of my settling down with a person of the opposite sex. Seriously.” Bisexuality is much more, well, not ambiguous, but maybe shifty, harder to pin down. In addition to the cost of publicly identifying as queer, a bisexual has to take on the cost of not fitting into a convenient box when it comes to many people’s thoughts about sexuality.

    Even the political ideal of coming out is problematic. There’s the Harvey Milk logic, which I generally subscribe to, that coming out to people you know will help people become more comfortable with queerness and will make it easier for other queers to be out. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the power of refusing to be labeled. “It’s none of your business” is, in some contexts, a startling demand to make, and perfectly within a private citizen’s rights.