Closets I Have Known
When I came out, everyone was in the closet. I would have never occurred to me to ask someone, “Are you out to so and so?” You only came out to people you suspected might be a little funny.
The bus driver was one of them. I was in college and had no wheels, so if I was going farther than my bike would take me, I’d grab the bus. If I timed it right the woman driver would be working. I say “the” woman driver because in the mid-sixties women were not hired for strenuous jobs like sitting in one place all day steering a bus. This driver was so butch I imagine the personnel office would not have dared to discriminate. I mean, she was tough-looking, dressed in pants and uniform shirt, mumbled out of the side of her mouth, and gave me the look like she was inviting me into a club.
Which she wasn’t. After months of getting up my nerve, I stuttered out some inane question to her probably along the lines of, “Is there a gay bar in town?” The woman didn’t even look at me. It was as if my words turned her to stone, which she probably was anyway. Never looked at me again, never mumbled to me again. She slammed her closet door so hard I could feel the draft.
Another typical way to reach someone in our queer underground network happened when I went for driving lessons. I got a guy instructor. He was young, good-looking and very, very friendly. I looked kind of like a more androgynous Harry Potter. I was totally shocked when this guy asked me out at the end of the first lesson. What was he thinking?
I found out. He’d been scoping me out for the girl teacher. It took a few lessons for Grace and me to murmur enough innuendoes to each other to come out. When we did I not only learned that it took getting inspected by an intermediary to enter her circle, but that she’d actually been married to the guy who owned the driving school and still used his name. Walk-in closet.
Can you imagine? It was like wearing a virtual burka twenty-four/seven. Out to my family, friends, to neighbors, teachers, employers? Forget it. You just did not tell. Or ask.
And gay people still do this. I still do this. My early training went deep.
It’s a lot more complex now. In my twenties I knew I could only be out on weekends around other gays. During the week the gay part of me (all 99.9% of it) simply disappeared. Pouf! I’m a normie. Now navigating the world is like walking across a checkerboard and knowing that some of the red squares are too dangerous to step on.
My general policy is to be out to everyone. Doctors, lawyers, the accountant, these kinds of people have to know. But the bank tellers? Does one describe one’s beneficiary as a friend or domestic partner? Loan officers? Realtors? I’m still a little nervous around these folks.
I was out looking for a place to live with a realtor recently and we drove by a house in a “nice” neighborhood. I explained the geography of gay to her.
Sometimes, nice neighborhoods are family value neighborhoods. If a butch lesbian shows up on moving day with a retinue of little red dyke trucks and women who stack cartons of books three high in their arms, the welcome mats get pulled inside. The realtor said, “But I thought we were good about that kind of thing here.” “It only takes one,” I told her, “and I’d rather live in a quirky old fixer-upper than a neat closet.”
I’ve left many closets behind. The newly-out closet where every square looks red. The post-Stonewall closet where danger was just another word for excitement. The bar closet where I almost drowned in alcohol. The job closet which required incredible maneuvering between overly-curious straight ladies, oblivious men on the make and little power-hungry bosses for whom difference was a weapon. In the nineties the right wing tried to herd us into closets the size of concentration camps.
Adolescence was a closet all its own where by turns I cowered and flaunted my newly discovered gayness. Now I’m in the gray-haired closet where I have to practically carry a queer badge to be noticed, much less threaten anyone’s sexuality. Yet I read a horror story about a lesbian in a nursing home. None of the staff would bathe the dyke.
That makes me want to build a vault. Or tear down every closet on earth.
Email Lee Lynch at email@example.com.