Inside and Outside the Closet: Coming Out and Binary Social Structures

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Inside and Outside the Closet: Coming Out and Binary Social Structures

Jessie Payson


The act of "coming out" is a complex political tool. Its use is open to ambiguous possibilities, ranging from subverting social order to reinforcing those power structures. Of course, it is undoubtedly an empowering act for many non-heterosexual persons to identify themselves as such. Even if the categories of "heterosexual" and "homosexual" are entirely socially constructed (as Michel Foucault argues), that does not mean that they are not real categories of thought that shape the way we live our lives. Indeed, my computer is entirely constructed, but is still undeniably real. Since many non-heterosexual people do live their lives identifying differently from heterosexual people, they may find "homosexual" (or a similar label) an accurate description of their identities and daily lives, however socially contingent that description is. That said, I do not wish to make a judgement call on whether or not someone should or should not come out. Rather, I wish to examine the complicated space represented by "the closet" and the multifarious effects that "coming out" has on the larger social structure.

On one hand, it is tempting to say that the space of the closet, and the resulting ability to come out, is a necessarily radical weapon. Our social structure is based around insides and outsides: "any identity is founded relationally, constituted in reference to an exterior or outside that defines the subject's own interior boundaries and corporeal surfaces" (Fuss 234). Homosexuality serves as the foil to heterosexuality something that heterosexuality can define itself against. It is "a transgression of the border which is necessary to constitute the border as such" (Fuss 235). Heterosexuality becomes that which is not homosexuality. The secretive space that the closet provides, though, complicates this binary structure. By providing the ability for an "outsider" to pass as an "insider," it serves as an ambiguous space that is neither clearly inside nor outside. It is a contradiction in itself, in that it is both inside and outside simultaneously. Furthermore, it points out the instability of society's larger inside/outside structure by including both inside-ness and outside-ness in the same space: the closet is a site where it is possible to be homosexual and inside, and heterosexual and outside, all at the same time. This possibility that anyone can spring out of the closet at any time and declare her/his ruse destabilizes the tenuous boundary between inside and outside. The act of coming out is subversive also because it points out all of heterosexuality as performance. If one person can act heterosexual, it illuminates heterosexuality as an act, implicating all of heterosexuality as a performance.

On the other hand, it is also possible to interpret the closet as a reinforcer of inside/outside categories. The closet is a space of secrecy. If someone is "in the closet," s/he is pretending to be something that s/he is not. This secret indicates that two oppositional identities at work the one that is kept hidden, and the other that covers for it. The closet also reinforces the places designated for these two identities. The "real" identity which is kept in the closet is "private," whereas the presumed identity, outside the closet, is "public." Moreover, the concept of the closet emphasizes the hierarchy inherent to these binary oppositions. That one identity must be hidden implies its shamefulness and inferiority to the opposing, public identity.

Clearly, coming out can have extremely disparate effects, or at least differing interpretations of those effects. In order to determine whether or not coming out is a successful political tool, we must evaluate how the act influences the actor's relationship to power. Here it is useful to turn to Foucault's definition of power. For Foucault, there is no single, monolithic power force (e.g., the government). Power, rather, is exerted in the way we produce discourse the way we form knowledge which then creates what we regard as "truth." Starting in the eighteenth century, "the confession became one of the West's most highly valued techniques for producing truth" (Foucault 59). The "confession" here can take place between any two people with an investigative relationship, for example, between doctor and patient, teacher and student, or parent and child. Power, then, is not simply divisible between the dominators and the dominated. It is exercised in interchanges, and forms not a single oppressive force, but rather something closer to an inescapably dense web. There are particular sites of power where power relays are more salient: sexuality is "an especially dense transfer point for relations of power" (Foucault 103). Still, these power locals are interconnected within a broader power system.

Under this definition, power is inseparably linked to the ability to participate in the formation of discourse. Coming out, unfortunately, does not provide this sort of authority. Indeed, it merely exposes homosexual-identified people to the power structure on a more personal level. The individuals in society who can speak authoritatively about homosexuals are not gays and lesbians themselves, but rather, individuals who simply espouse the dominant discourse which is already in place ideas that everyone already accepts before they are even said. Coming out does not enable homosexuals to claim "back from them a certain interpretative authority over the meaning of [their own] words and actions" (Halperin 13). On the contrary, coming out exposes a gay person on a personal level others can talk about her/him personally with no fear of being discredited so long as they are asserting the "truths" of dominant discourse (Halperin 13). This lack of power is illustrated by the typical heterosexual response to a homosexual coming out: "Are you sure?" Those within the dominant discourse (those who are "inside," in Fuss's terms) have the ability to refute what the "outsiders" are saying about their own identity. It is hard to imagine this scenario with someone claiming a more benign label such as "I am a vegetarian." This identity statement does not prompt the response, "How long have you known? Are you sure it's not just a phase? Maybe you just haven't eaten very good hamburgers yet." Sexuality is by far a much more poignant locus in which power relays may be articulated; these relays reveal the authority held by "insiders."

At the same time, however, it is important to note that staying in the closet will not bring you greater power either. Though a closeted homosexual may gain some privileges usually reserved for heterosexuals, s/he does not have authority over the discourse that creates her/his identity that Foucault recognizes as power. In the closet, a gay person does not know what others think about her/him, if others have "caught on," and is thus still servile to other people's knowledges. S/he is merely attending heterosexuals' requirement that homosexuals not reveal themselves. If this need is met, heterosexuals can maintain a distance from the "outside," and keep the so-called secret of homosexuality unacknowledged. Of course, homosexuality is hardly a secret, as Foucault argues extensively the concept of homosexuality is a product of a complex social system; at the same time that homosexuality was constructed, it was understood as a secret. "What is peculiar to modern societies, in fact, is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret" (Foucault 35). When homosexuals refrain from communicating their sexuality, they present themselves as something that does not need to be acknowledged. "To 'closet' one's homosexuality is also to submit oneself to the social imperative imposed on gay people by non-gay-identified people, the imperative to shield the latter not from the knowledge of one's homosexuality so much as from the necessity of acknowledging the knowledge of one's homosexuality" (Halperin 29).

The closet, then, reinforces the dominant discourse in another way by allowing silence. For "silence itself the things one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers is less the absolute limit of discourse... than an element that functions alongside the things said... There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses" (Foucault 27). The need for heterosexuals to remain silent on the topic of homosexuality is yet another reinforcer of their dominant status, and the space of the closet allows this silence to exist unquestioned.

Coming out disrupts this aspect of discourse-formation yet this does not necessarily mean that claiming a homosexual identity is liberating. Since the concept of "the homosexual" is socially constructed, no one identified her/himself as "homosexual" before s/he was told what it means that her/his sexual behavior supposedly meant something about her/himself. "Not only did [society] speak of sex and compel everyone to do so; it also set out to formulate the uniform truth of sex... we demand that [sex] tell us our truth, or rather, the deeply buried truth of that truth about ourselves which we think we possess in our immediate consciousness" (Foucault 69). However, sexual identity cannot reveal any deep, hidden, personal truths since it originates from a social process, not from one's own person. Furthermore, the claiming of a socially constructed identity, even if meant to be a rebellious act, is exactly what is needed in order to solidify the creation of that identity. As already established, no one could have identified her/himself as homosexual before some social authority told her/him that s/he was. The act of repeating back the identity with pride "I am gay, and I'm proud about it!" is the resistance required to complete the power relay. "[H]omosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or 'naturality' be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified" (Foucault 101). One cannot have power without having resistance, and this resistance is vital to the power relays which produce identity.

However, it is not necessarily the case that identities must be performed exactly as dictated. "[T]he argument that the category of 'sex' is the instrument or effect of 'sexism' or its interpellating moment... does not entail that we ought never to make use of such terms, as if such terms could only and always reconsolidate the oppressive regimes of power by which they are spawned. On the contrary, precisely because such terms have been produced and constrained within such regimes, they ought to be repeated in directions that reverse and displace their originating aims" (Butler 123). Resignification may be possible in the space between what we are assigned and what the range of possibilities are that we can do instead. Whereas Foucault posits a direct reverse discourse, where individuals are only able to throw back the authoritative discourse's own language, Butler finds that it may instead be possible to intervene in the discourse, shift the meanings, and influence one's own identity. "There is no subject prior to its constructions, and neither is the subject determined by those constructions; it is always the nexus, the non-space of cultural collision, in which the demand to resignify or repeat the very terms which constitute the "we" cannot be summarily refused, but neither can they be followed in strict obedience. It is the space of this ambivalence which opens up the possibility of a reworking of the very terms by which subjectivation proceeds and fails to proceed" (Butler 124). For example, if lesbians are looked down on because they are supposedly "unnaturally" masculine, how does this notion change if a woman, denying the negative connotation, lauds this very quality in her female lover? If used self-consciously, perhaps this kind of language can simultaneously address and counter the dominant discourse that means to assert these concepts in negative terms.

Even if it is impossible to be in control of the production of truth, inside or outside of the closet, it is important to become involved in the discourse that establishes knowledge, and this is only possible outside of the closet. Utilizing Foucault's definition of power, it may be quite impossible to be liberated, if "liberation" means free of all forms of power. Foucault makes clear that power is an incredibly extensive structure, that, in the closet or not, one cannot escape power. However, coming out does provide an important resistance. When one comes out, s/he is trading one set of power relays for another: but this does not mean that the act is not ultimately freeing. One is still entrenched within the power system, but coming out presents a different form of power relations in which one can reverse, resist, and react against the social discourse.

Works Cited:
Butler, Judith. "Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion," from Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex." New York: Routledge, 1993. p121-140.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (Vol. 1). New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Fuss, Diana. "Inside/Out," from Critical Encounters: Reference and Responsibility in Deconstructive Writing. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995. p233-240.

Halperin, David. Saint Foucault. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc, 1995.


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