Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Homosexual visibility and beyond the concept of "coming out of the closet"

The rising tolerance of the existence of homosexuality has perhaps invalidated, or at least significantly modified, the expected experience of LGBT people's lives. Homosexuality need no longer be hidden in as many social mileux as it once was, prompting academic author Steven Seidman to describe contemporary western society as gradually becoming a "post-closet society".

In his book, Seidman uses "closet" in a way that I don't often see these days: a "closeted homosexual", per Seidman, is someone who has accepted their homosexuality and engages in same-sex relations, but conceals it totally from people in their everyday, "normal" life. In my experience, most times "closet case" these days instead refers specifically to someone who still hasn't admitted their own sexuality to anyone at all, perhaps not even to themself. I find the evolution of language telling: there is less of a need for a term to describe someone who accepts their homosexuality but conceals it from everyone. Is this because such a thing is gradually ceasing to exist?

Perhaps such total concealment is getting phased out, but this is not to say that concealment is no longer necessary. In fact I think the situation now is more complicated that a binary closeted/out dichotomy can properly describe. Jon Lasser and Deborah Tharinger performed a study of LGB youth, published in the Journal of Adolescence (volume 26, issue 2, April 2003, pp 233-244), called Visibility Management in School and Beyond: A qualitative study of gay, lesbian, bisexual youth The concept of "visibility management" that they came up with seems to offer a richer understanding than that of the traditional concepts of the closet and of coming out.

Visibility management differs from coming out of the closet in several ways. First, where coming out is an event, visibility management is a proces: "While 'coming out' functions as a common expression for simple disclosure of one's sexual orientation, visibility management captures the complexity of the strategic and continuous process that GLB youth employ over time" (Lasser & Tharinger 2003, p237).

This is as much about non-verbal cues as it is about verbal announcements of one's sexuality. Dress and speech were all described by the study participants as influenced by how visible they wanted their orientation to be: "participants modify dress, speech, and body language to manage their visibility. They use subcultural symbols, euphemisms, humour and references to pop culture to manage their visibility" (Lasser & Tharinger 2003, p238)

Second, visibility management occurs on a continuum: "the extreme points of the continuum are most restrictive visibility management and least restrictive visibility management ... most participants (N=16) placed themselves between the endpoints" (Lasser & Tharinger 2003, p238). Rather than being "closeted" or "out", the youth studied had disclosed their sexual orientation to some people, but not to others. Further, and logically, they had to monitor and manage their disclosure in order to ensure that only people that they wanted to know about their sexual orientation would know about it. This of course further entailed decisions about who they wanted to know, and why.

Lasser & Tharinger didn't go into specific detail about what influenced these decisions, beyond describing it as an outcome of their interactions with their environment. This is a pity, as I think it's important, and should be a part of any more general theory of how LGBT people engage in visibility management.

Examples tI've come across in my day to day life of the kinds of pressures influencing the decisions of LGBT people about how to manage their visibility include: issues of safety, the issue of "why is it other people's business anyway?", the desire to dispel myths and fears about homosexuality by being open about it with friends and acquaintances, or simply the desire to let a potential significant other know that you swing the same way they do. There are almost certainly others, and I'd be interested in finding out what they are.