The expressions "closeted" or "in the closet" generally refer to undisclosed Human sexual behavior, sexuality or sexual orientation. The most common of these are homosexuality or bisexuality but also include the gender identity of transgender and transsexual people and individuals who engage in kinky sexual behaviors such as BDSM or fetishes. The closet is a "life-shaping pattern of concealment" where gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex individuals hide their sexuality/gender-identity in various areas of life, with family, friends, and at work. Individuals may marry or avoid certain jobs or social situations in order to avoid suspicion and exposure. "It is the power of the closet to shape the core of an individual's life that has made homosexuality into a significant personal, social, and political drama in twentieth-century America".[1]

The term 'closet' is also used in a more general way for any behavior that is potentially embarrassing or controversial, and thus kept hidden. (e.g., "He's a closet drinker" or "I'm a closet Trekkie".)

History of the closet metaphor in reference to sexuality

"The word closet was first used to mean secret or unsuspected as early as the 1600s, but not in relation to a person’s sexuality. Closeted also came into use around the same time and meant to keep something hidden or secret from others. Closet case, closet queen, or closet homosexual began to be used during the middle of the 20th century to mean that someone was hiding their homosexuality from others. Similar terms used around this time period were canned fruit, cedar chest sissy, and dry queen, which have now fallen into disuse."[2]

The closet, as it is now used, dates from 1950s post-war America, when the deliberateness and aggressiveness of heterosexual enforcement increased. "Gay people in the pre-war years [pre-World War I]... did not speak of coming out of what we call the gay closet but rather of coming out into what they called homosexual society or the gay world, a world neither so small, nor so isolated, nor... so hidden as closet implies".[3] In fact, "using the term 'closet' to refer to" previous times such as "the 1920s and 1930s might be anachronistic" (Kennedy 1996).[4]

Connection between the closet and neurosis

Both scientific research and popular culture have purported the notion that there is a connection between being "in the closet" and neurosis.

In 1993, Michelangelo Signorile wrote Queer In America[5] in which he explored in depth the harm caused both to the "closeted" individual and to society in general by being in the closet. Signorile promoted the practice of outing: publicizing, intentionally or unintentionally, the sexual orientation or gender identity of another person who would prefer to keep this information secret. Often "outing" is used solely to damage the outed person's reputation, and has thus been controversial. Some activists{ex: Barney Frank, Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts} argue "outing" is appropriate and legitimate in some cases—for instance, if the individual is actively working against gay rights.

Classic models of homosexual identity development (i.e., Dank, 1971; Cass, 1984; Coleman, 1989; Troiden, 1989), and most prominently, the Cass identity model, have perpetuated this suggestion in the social sciences. In the early stages of the coming out process, homosexuals are labeled confused and maladjusted in society. Only by going through this process, these models purport, can one become a well adjusted homosexual.

Closeted individuals have also been reported to be at an increased risk for suicide.[6]

Classic research studies pertaining to "the closet"

The Tearoom Trade

Laud Humphreys' classic Tearoom Trade experiment investigated the lives of men in the 1960s who engaged in sexual activity in public restrooms. After observing the behavior, he arranged to interview these men in their homes and found that, other than their homosexual activity, there was little to distinguish these men from typical adult males.

Related terminology

  • "Coming out of the closet" (often shortened to coming out) describes voluntarily making public one's sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • "Being out" means living a life in which you do not hide that you are not heterosexual, or more generally that you do not hide your sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • "Passing" refers to the practice of a person pretending to be of a sexual orientation other than their real one, usually a homosexual or bisexual person who is pretending to be heterosexual.[7]
  • The Glass Closet (Harlow, 2006) refers to those who may not be out, even to themselves, but whom others can plainly see are, in fact, in the closet.
  • A person who is in the closet may be referred to as "closeted" or a "closet case." Calling someone a closet case is generally meant to be disparaging, and usually refers to someone (male) who seems to go to great lengths to prove or assert his masculinity.
  • The term closet has been extended to indicate any identity or affiliation that a person keeps secret for fear of persecution or exclusion Acts of coming out are sometimes held back due to stigmas still present in today's society. (e.g., because of one's religion, lifestyle, political affiliation, etc.).
  • The term "fire hazard" refers to a flamboyant or 'flaming' man who is, for whatever reason, not out and still in the closet.

Criticisms of the closet metaphor

Seidman, Meeks, and Traschen (1999) argue that "the closet" may be becoming an antiquated metaphor in the modern day for two reasons.

  1. Homosexuality is becoming increasingly normalized and the shame and secrecy surrounding it may be declining.
  2. The metaphor of the closet hinges upon the notion that stigma management is a way of life. However, stigma management may actually be increasingly done situationally.

See also


  • Chauncey, George (1994). Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books. Cited in Seidman 2003.
  • Humphreys, L. (1970). Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places. Chicago: Aldine.
  • Kennedy, Elizabeth. "'But We Would Never Talk about It': The Structure of Lesbian Discretion in South Dakota, 1928-1933" in Inventing Lesbian Cultures in America, ed. Ellen Lewin (1996). Boston: Beacon Press. Cited in Seidman 2003.
  • Seidman, Steven (2003). Beyond the Closet; The Transformation of Gay and Lesbian Life. ISBN 0-415-93207-6.
  • Seidman, Steven, Meeks, Chet, and Traschen, Francie (1999), "Beyond the Closet? The Changing Social Meaning of Homosexuality in the United States." Sexualities 2 (1)



  1. Seidman 2003, p.25
  2. The Coming Out Project-Dallas/Fortworth
  3. Chauncey 1994, emphasis added
  4. ibid, p.25 and 214
  5. re-released in 2003 by University of Wisconsin Press, ISBN 0-299-19374-8
  6. News
  7. The Questia Online Library

Further reading

External links

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