THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 193
Closets and homophobes
I have been thinking about the situation that arose for David Laws and want to try to explain my take on why gay people sometimes decide to stay in the closet. And to ruminate on the rights and wrongs of that position.
First of all - regarding David Laws. I do not believe there will be one gay person in the country who does not fully understand exactly why he was in the closet - nor any gay person who would criticize him for that. It is very understandable for straight people to think that homosexuals are accepted everywhere these days. They are largely accepted - that is an incredibly wonderful truth of today. But it is also true that many gay people find good reason to stay in the closet. There may be some gay people who disagree with staying in the closet - and they would probably be drawn from among the younger gay men and women - but no gay person, I am sure, would fail to understand why he took that position.
So lets look at why gay people stay in the closet. Let us take the case of an ordinary gay man - brought up, say, as a Roman Catholic - who has a religious mother. Obviously he will also have Roman Catholic friends in his early years. To all of these he continues his life as normal - and people assume that he is ‘normal’ heterosexual man.
It may be that he discovers that he is gay in his adolescence or later. In view of the religious condemnation of homosexuality in his household he feels it is difficult to disclose his sexuality. So much so that he finds it advisable to maintain a heterosexual front to the world. Time passes and his ‘secret’ continues through the years as far as his family is concerned. Is there any gay man who would not understand that? It has happened to many gay men. Most people who discover they are gay have to face whether and who to tell - and when. Only a handful of people are overtly gay from a very early age - a fact that is usually then apparent to and accepted by his family.
So at some stage - probably in his late teens or early twenties or later - our hypothetical gay man decides that it is better to continue to let everyone think of him as ‘normal’ that is, heterosexual.
Let us pause there. That may seem odd to some people - especially heterosexual people for whom their sexuality has never presented any problems of acceptance by others. They have never had to guard what they said or how they appeared as regards their sexuality. But if you grow up in a Roman Catholic (or other religious) household where homosexuality is considered to be ‘disordered’ (i.e. sinful, unnatural etc), and where heterosexuality is presumed to be the norm for everyone, then of course you will be very guarded about revealing to anyone that you prefer men to women (or women to men if you are a girl!)
So here we have a man who knows he is gay but who presents himself as a ‘normal’ heterosexual male to everyone around because he thinks telling people would cause too much hassle and trauma. What business is it of theirs anyway! He moves away from home and goes into some other world - university, the big city or wherever. That transfer affords him a degree of release. No longer has he to pretend to the same degree. Now he can be himself. Now he can pursue the kind of life he desires.
I am not suggesting that this is the path followed by David Laws. I have no idea of his particular pilgrimage towards being a fully active gay person, nor do I think it right to speculate about his history. But I know that this is the route for many gay people.
The point is that the task of going against the prevailing atmosphere of anti-gay at home - an attitude sustained and bolstered by, for example, the Roman Catholic Church - appears just too great a task to some gay people. Release occurs for them when they get away from home circumstances - but then they have to face whether at some future point they let it be known back home that they are gay. More often than not, I guess, it is easier to let matters ride - to not disturb the peace at home by revealing the fact that they are gay. It might force loved ones to face reality. It might also be just too big a gamble to risk - the consequences are uncertain. They prefer to let sleeping dogs lie. With the aging of their parents, it is easier to continue to live life in two separate compartments - a heterosexual one at home and a homosexual one elsewhere.
It is hard to convey to a heterosexual person the sense of guilt that may attach to a gay person through religious condemnation of homosexuality. If the gay person has been brought up as a Christian they will have ingrained values that condemn homosexuality. That was the position of most of the churches until recently. People have been taught that homosexuality is wrong. They know that there is a huge discussion going on in church circles about the issue.
The fact that the Roman Catholic Church condemns gay people as being disordered is, however, only part of the problem. Equally difficult is the fact that many Roman Catholics - especially those of the older generation - accept the existing religious viewpoint without question. To them it is not in issue. Of course homosexuality is wrong - a disorder. The Church says so; the Pope has spoken against it; it must be correct to say that gays are disordered. Their minds are closed on the subject.
So what are the various causes of this desire for privacy that gay people have?
1 As we have seen, one cause is the religious condemnation that attaches to homosexuality for some religious people - especially Roman Catholics. Religious people of other faiths also have problems with homosexuality.
2 Then there is the problem of the settled views of friends and family. If your family thinks you are ’normal’ (i.e. heterosexual) then you are upsetting existing relationships if you present them with the fact that you are gay. How will they react? Do you want to put them through that experience? Will they continue to be friends - or will some of them be so attached to their religious teaching (Roman Catholic or other) that they will have nothing further to do with you? At the very least it will change your relationships.
3 Then there is the question of your public image. Especially if you hold some public office or are in the public eye. Will people turn away from you when they discover that you are gay?
4 The question arises of whether your being known to be gay will affect your situation at work. Is your employer anti-gay?
5 Then there is the fact that one can easily encounter blatant homophobia - which is to be distinguished from mere disagreement with homosexuality.
For all these reasons (and others) it can be seen that a gay person who has decided to stay in the closet has little incentive to come out into the open. It is very easy to decide that the best way forward is to keep things as they are. To admit being gay to yourself and perhaps to a few friends, but not in any outward form to people generally.
The maintenance of this dual aspect of being gay and yet not being gay at the same time can lead to problems for the gay person. It can lead to a secretiveness that may be detrimental. Clearly keeping one’s sexuality hidden will take a deal of emotional energy.
It is all very well for sophisticated types from the big city to say that nobody cares any more about whether you are gay or not. Maybe not in London - but elsewhere it often depends on the age of the person you are talking to! The truth is that there are many people in British society today - probably middle aged or older - for whom homosexuality is still an uncomfortable idea. For such people, gays are not yet ‘normal.’ It is true, of course, that many young gay people today have no fear of coming out - it is no longer an embarrassment for them, in fact it seems to be a cool thing to do!
It is obvious that the role played by the churches is important in this situation. While churches sit on the sidelines or take up some anti-homosexuality viewpoint, this will delay some people being able to accept gay people as ‘normal’. For some there still remains that overhang from religious objections. That is one reason why it is so important that the churches come out as clearly accepting gay people.
So far I have only referred to those in society who are genuinely unsure of whether being gay is entirely acceptable. There is however another group of people in society and it is important that we understand what they believe and why they believe it. This is the group of people with homophobia - the homophobes.
Homophobia is that cast of mind that hates all matters connected to homosexuality. It has various forms but in essence it depends on an unreasoning dislike (or even hatred) of homosexuals themselves or of anything to do with homosexuality. When someone says that they hate the idea of homosexuality - there you may have homophobia. Wherever you find an unreasoning attitude towards gay people - there you may have homophobia. It is not just disagreement about homosexuality - it is feeling of antipathy towards it.
It is the homophobes who plant bombs in gay pubs (as in the West End a few years ago). It is homophobes who take a gay man and tie him to a fence and beat him to death (Matthew Sheppard in the USA). It is homophobes who attack someone they think is homosexual as they walk in London (the recent attack in Leicester Square).
Sometimes these homophobes - who, incidentally, are often not even aware that they are homophobes - are in churches. They may be very respectable people - may even be Christians with a real spiritual experience. Yet they have an unreasoning attitude towards homosexuality and they will fight against any acceptance of gay people in the church because of their deep seated antipathy towards homosexuality.
I think there is little one can do about homophobes, except perhaps to be aware of their evil influence. Their attitude is settled - often caused by childhood training, by early experiences or by some other past incidents in their life. They are not amenable to argument or reason.
Most gay people have experienced homophobes in one form or another at some stage of their life. They are one cause for some gay people being in the closet. Hopefully, with time, those with a marked antipathy to homosexuality will diminish and the general experience of accepting gays in society will continue to be positive. In time we should see fewer and fewer gay people staying in the closet. After all, what is so different about a gay person? Christ died for us all, whatever our colour, age, sexuality or country of origin. We are all sinners saved by grace!