Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Corrosive & Distorting Power of the Closet ~ by Karen Kavey

Dear Ray,

Thank you so much for your recent YouTube "It Gets Better!" video!

Your words and those of all the participants who have stepped forward with such powerful witness and encouragement will help countless young people.

In honor of the project, I would like to write a bit about the corrosive and distorting power of the Closet.

As you know, the "Closet" is a metaphor used to describe how people hide important parts of themselves, typically their sexual orientation or gender identity. We know that many LGBT folks cannot be open; the world is just too unsafe for them right now. Families and friends of LGBT people can also find themselves in a kind of Closet, as they may fear that telling the truth will expose them and their loved ones to harm.

The Closet can protect people, but it also inflicts great harm on the world, as those within it are rendered silent and invisible. Individuals and communities may express hostility to LGBT people or indifference to homophobic prejudice because the Closet prevents them from seeing the pain that they cause. Others may even exploit the power of the Closet, knowing that their hostility will further drive LGBT people and their loved ones into silence.

Regardless of a particular person's motive, those who do not appreciate the corrosive power of the Closet fail to realize that it leaves us all with an incomplete and distorted view of our communities and the world.

The influence of the Closet on members of the church (both LGBT and straight people) has been particularly powerful.

The Closet has always impeded understanding in our faith community, replacing thoughtful study with a series of repetitious and divisive interactions. Ministers who have freed themselves or helped free others from the Closet and all those ministers who courageously dare to treat LGBT persons as equals face censure, lawsuits, and other forms of pressure. The message to those who remain in the Closet is painful and tragically clear: Stay where you are, silent and invisible.

Clarity, mutual understanding and the Closet simply do not go well together.

Certainly the power of the Closet is understood by those who use it strategically and by those who have felt its weight and burden, keeping them anxious and intimidated.

However, I think many Presbyterians are unaware of the magnitude of this power, given the Closet's silencing effect. And most importantly, it is not clearly understood that the power of the Closet is NOT a spiritual one.

It is a potent secular and cultural force, based on fear; it relies on the human need to survive and negotiate within one's world. All institutions that exclude LGBT people, both adults and teenagers, use the Closet as a tool.

And it is not a benign tool.

Insisting that some people feel shame and guilt for a core part of their identity and existence (much less for living and thriving on an equal footing) is - at its heart - an act of aggression.

This is true whether or not one acknowledges (or is aware of) this dynamic or whether its negative consequences are intentional or unintentional.

Teaching young people (be they heterosexual or LGBT) that there are two groups of humans - one group that is entitled to full equality and inclusion, and one group that is not - is especially damaging.

The outcome may even, as we have recently witnessed in these teenage suicides, be deadly.

For the Closet's existence is based on powerful manipulation; BUT it is also a means of control that is diminishing in the world at an increasingly rapid pace.

It is breaking apart in a seemingly sudden way. And as it fades, it releases its relentless grip on all of us: gay and straight, open or not, conservative or liberal or in-between.

For we have ALL been influenced by the Closet, as it has distorted our view of the world and of each other.

As the Closet crumbles, we will see how this change will affect our lives, our denomination and the lives of the younger generations who will, we hope, live in a world without it.

Those who have opposed equality within faith communities (and within the secular world) are perhaps beginning to realize that some of the "success" they have enjoyed historically may not have been due to the strength or accuracy of their ideas, but rather owes much to the Closet, which has left countless people silent, invisible, and afraid.

Elie Weisel has stated so clearly:
"Silence never helps the oppressed. Only the oppressor."

Understanding the basic fact that most people are heterosexual and some people are not will be a necessary part of the way forward. Without the distortion of the Closet, this fact is becoming more apparent with each passing day.

I agree that thirty years clearly is a long time for Presbyterians to study this reality and still be so baffled and at odds with each other.

The confusion has probably been compounded by the oft-repeated, defensive notion that "No one is being forced into the Closet around here! We don't know what you're talking about."

This is actually just another layer of the classic "Silent Contract" of a troubled relationship: "Don't 'name' what has actually been happening."

Because we know that whenever it IS safe, people (both LGBT folks and their families) are usually open. When LGBT people and their loved ones are intimidated into silence, it only adds insult to injury to pretend that no one is being manipulated.

In spite of all this, I remain optimistic! Thanks to you, and your courageous colleagues, the world will be a safer place for the upcoming generations. The "It Gets Better!" initiative is creative, life-affirming and generous.

Perhaps in some way it will help the church break free, recognize the Closet for what it is, and make it a relic of an ungracious and often cruel age, replacing age-old distortion with clarity and a spirit of openness.

Warm regards to all,

Many thanks,
Karen Ellen Kavey
Non-ruling Elder, PC(USA)
Confirmed May, 1958.