Photograph by William Mebane
When Edie Windsor, the victorious plaintiff in the landmark case that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, said, “As we ‘came out,’ people saw we didn’t have horns and we were human beings like everybody else,” people understood exactly what she meant. With the phrase “coming out” she deliberately evoked the “the closet,” the metaphorical place where gay and lesbian people could hide their sexual identities. But how did “the closet” become the metaphor for the hidden, shadowed lives that these Americans were compelled to lead?
In an absorbing fall lecture at the Barnard Center for Research on Women, Henry Abelove, Wilbur Fisk Osborne Emeritus Professor of English at Wesleyan University, offered insights into the origin of the term. Coeditor of The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, Abelove is well known as an eminent scholar of queer theory. He is the author of The Evangelist of Desire: John Wesley and the Methodists and Deep Gossip, and has taught at Harvard, Princeton,Yale, Brown, New York University, and Trinity College; this lecture was part of a book project about the intellectual and cultural dimensions of the gay-liberation movement.
Abelove framed his discussion of the emergence and development of the phrase and concept of ‘coming out of the closet’ through a close exploration of the 1950s literary critic, Francis Matthiessen, who killed himself a few years after the death of his longtime lover and partner, Russell Cheney. “Matthiessen adhered to reticence about sexual matters,” said Abelove. “Any public mention would result in a grave loss of professional status and even civil punishment.”
Although the specific term, “the closet,” was not known to Matthiessen, the effective hidden aspects and “emotional loneliness” would have been familiar to him or other gay men and lesbian women at the time. “When did Americans come to believe that reticence was a closet?” asked Abelove, curious about “the power of that figure of speech.” He argues that the term, evoking “a dark place, airless and suffocating,” came to American attention in 1958 in poetry—specifically a work written by Frank O’Hara, a gay Harvard student who knew Matthiessen and was affected by the suicide.
In the poem, “Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets,” composed of two-line stanzas, O’Hara writes, “and utter disparagement turns into praise as generations read the message/of our hearts in adolescent closets who once shot at us in doorways.” To Abelove, even though O’Hara didn’t invent the term, that was the moment when “the figure of the closet emerged into American experience and language...O’Hara’s figure of speech, ‘the closet,’ took wing, first through his friends, who were prominent in New York culture, and second, through its publication in [the groundbreaking anthology] The New American Poetry, in 1960.”
There were other reasons the term took hold. It was easy to move from “the closet” to “coming out of the closet,” said Abelove, “in self-presentation to others in a sexual and gender nonconforming setting. The closet is gender neutral, as a place of sexual confinement.”
The concept of “the closet” prompted other reactions during the Q&A session that followed Abelove’s talk. Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan, Barnard’s new Anna Quindlen Writer- in-Residence, who was Abelove’s student at Wesleyan in 1979, said that as a transgender woman, she had always associated the closet with “the place where the clothes were.” It was in the closet, she said, where a trans woman might go to find some way to illicitly express the things she felt in her heart. Boylan also noted that she associated the phrase “coming out” with the debutante balls of society. Abelove agreed that emerging publicly as gay echoed that sense of entering society, and noted that in some English circles, the highest form of a society introduction was “coming out to the Queen.”
As director of BCRW, Prof. Janet Jakobsen said in a subsequent e-mail, “Professor Abelove’s lecture continues the long tradition at BCRW, since at least the 1982 Scholar & Feminist Conference, of taking seriously the importance of milestones in the politics of sexuality. He shows the ways in which a term that we now take for granted, ‘coming out of the closet,’ developed during the shifts from early twentieth century reticence about sexuality to movements for gay liberation that focused on such reticence as harmful to the joys of living one's life fully and openly."