After I came out at the Christian college I attended, one of my friends, Nate, became lovingly concerned with how I would manage post-college life. He was a couple years older than me, so he was experienced in the challenges of that transition. Nate had recently reconnected with some high school friends who had a cousin that shared my name as well as my interest in other men. He thought it would be a good idea for me to hang out with the other Tim, and he was right; I learned a lot about myself.
I also learned a lot about what the world had already decided about me based on the simple fact that I desired intimate emotional and physical relationships with other men.
Once, when the other Tim and I were hanging out, he said that I had a lot to learn in order to get my “gay license.” I don’t recall exactly why he said this, but he was probably shocked that I didn’t listen to a certain pop star, or didn’t like musicals, or hadn’t seen Mommie Dearest.
It’s a sentiment that has followed me everywhere I have gone. From new cities to new jobs to graduate school, a wide range of individuals routinely have decided they know exactly who I am, what I like to talk about, what I find funny, how I like to spend my time — all based on one part of my identity. And if they find out I don’t fulfill their paradigm, I’m dismissed as someone who isn’t sufficiently “gay” — that I don’t yet understand the “gay experience,” or that I have internalized homophobia, or if I go to enough gay bars I will find my true self.
I spent 20 years of my life being told by the church who I should be, just to have this new culture tell me who they think I should be. It often feels like I stepped out of one closet only to have thousands of hands at my back, trying to push me into another one that feels just as oppressive.
Sure, being gay isn’t a sin in this new closet, but it comes with a plethora of new sins: not having a body hot enough for sex, hot having the most desirable skin color, not wearing the latest clothes, not driving an expensive enough car, not Instagramming yourself at the coolest clubs, not having enough money to travel all over the world, not caring about pop culture, not completely rejecting any notion of God or faith. In the same way that religion and masculinity built that first closet, the second is constructed by race, class and vanity, and can lead to depression and anxiety just the same.
While the majority of health-related research on gay men tends to focus on sexual health, new research is beginning to give us a glimpse of the mental and emotional effects of both closets. In January, American Journal of Men’s Health published a report examining depression and suicide amongst gay men and offering implications for health care providers. Among the usual suspects — concealing identity, harassment, workplace discrimination, physical violence — the authors identify “a lack of acceptance and rejection from the gay community” as a factor that can increase the risk for depression in gay men. “Particularly at risk of rejection from other gay men,” the report says, “are men living with HIV as well as men from racial/ethnic minority groups.”
The idea of this “second closet” is beginning to garner attention. In February, Attitude published an opinion piece entitled “Saying Goodbye to Mean Gays: It’s Time to Cheer Each Other On.” In March, Highline published an extensive exploration of the “epidemic of gay loneliness,” recounting stories of men who expected complete and total liberation once they had come out and found a community where they could be themselves, only to find stress, anxiety and isolation. And in April, Vice published “Gay Bars Can Be Mind-Bogglingly Racist” highlighting the danger of a “lack of intersectionality” in mainstream gay culture.
Last month, protests from a new activist group called No Justice No Pride brought that lack of intersectionality front and center at one of the most basic tenets of mainstream gay culture: Pride. NJNP interrupted Pride parades in the United States, most notably Washington, D.C.’s Capital Pride, as part of their mission to “end the LGBT movement’s complicity in systems of oppression that harm LGBTQ2S [Two Spirit] communities.”
The group took aim at Capital Pride for its acceptance of corporate sponsors like Wells Fargo due to their part in destroying native lands to build the Dakota Access Pipeline, the welcome participation of police at a time when black people are routinely gunned down by officers in cities around the country, and a lack of trans women of color on the organization’s planning board.
Regardless of one’s opinions of NJNP’s methods, they shine a light on the second closet with urgency. They show us, perhaps in the only way we will pay attention to, that we’ve too narrowly conceived of our identity, and it’s having negative consequences for those on the margins. They remind us that our community is diverse in many ways. They remind us that this community and its rights are multifaceted and go beyond acceptance into the institution of marriage. They remind us that all of these things make this community beautiful and brimming with power to make a real difference across the world. They show us that by narrowly focusing our identity on a few different “ideal” ways of being, centered around vanity, materialism and status, we remake the closet and miss out on experiencing true freedom.
There’s obviously no such thing as a “gay license,” so it’s time to stop acting like there is. Instead, we need to view being gay as a passport — a gateway to discover other ways of being human, other ways of thinking about ourselves and others. And then, with those experiences, fight like hell to protect the dignity and freedom of those we’ve encountered because we understand our own dignity, and freedom depends on it.
Featured image by Marjan_Apostolovic via iStock