Coming Out Of The HIV Closet
What is a closet? Why do people have them? What is its purpose? I’ve spent a lot of time asking myself these questions. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why the term was used when someone finally gained enough courage to put his or her sexual preference on display for the world to see. Then I realized that the significance of a closet in its physical form wasn’t very different from the closet space that exists in our minds. A closet is a place where we keep things out of view from our family, friends, visitors – everyone. We store things that we love, things that are useful, and also things that we can’t depart with – refuse to let go of. This closet keeps our belongings contained and safe. It can be messy or organized. It’s the first place we think of to hide – both when we were young playing the game of hide and go seek and when we’re older in dangerous situations.
My closet represented a place of safety and security both as a child and as an adult. As a child, I would hide from my alcoholic Father. The moment I sensed he was drunk and things would get out of hand I headed for this special place.
As I grew older the closet grew; I needed more space to fill it with all of the things I had gathered along the way- that I couldn’t depart with and refused to let go of. These were my secrets, my very big secrets that filled my closet full. I would proceed to guard and protect this closet as if it were filled with gold. That’s the irony, because it was shame that I was coveting. For if anyone knew what was really in that closet, I’d be exposed as the fool, the liar, and the pathetic one that wasn’t worth anything, let alone gold. My closet held my deepest fears, my deepest desires, and my darkest secrets.
When I discovered I was gay, I hid it in this closet, out of view from my family, friends, and visitors – everyone. When I was diagnosed with HIV, I hid it in this closet. Because of growing up gay in a small community that really did not understand or accept my sexuality, I discovered at a very early age how to hide things. For gay people, this closet is a place to feel safe as they process and deal with their internal turmoil of feeling less than because of perceived society, family, friends, co-workers, students, teachers, coaches or any number of people’s thoughts about homosexuality.
Inside my closet, I was able to be me and not hide who I was. I could be alone with my thoughts. I could talk to myself and ask myself questions that I so desperately needed the answers to.
For my family, the closet was a place for us to hide from our small community. We hid our family issues centering around alcohol abuse and mental abuse that existed when the drinking occurred. My Father’s alcohol abuse was something that my family worked very hard and often failed at hiding from our neighbors, friends, and family.
For myself, I carried out this facade with my neighbors, friends, and school children, that we were this normal family who didn’t have any issues. I figured hey, if we didn’t talk about it, then no one would find out about it. At least that’s what I thought in my mind…that this closet was a place where I could find comfort in THINKING that no one knew the real truth about anything.
I experienced early on the cruelty of prejudices and judgment of others. As I mentioned earlier, I lived in a very small town where everyone knew everyone else’s business. And in this small town USA religious institutions and their beliefs were highly acknowledged and valued. I want to add here that I do not judge anyone’s beliefs and understand the value of remaining open to all possibilities that exist in a world of unknowns. In this context it is meant to provide the landscape that shaped my thoughts and beliefs from an early age.
It was in these religious institutions that the mention of one’s sexuality, when of the same sex, was considered wrong and a sin and abomination. I was told over and over about how being gay was one of the biggest sins one could commit and by being gay you are a bad person, and I believed them. So I hid for fear of being exposed, hated, and treated poorly and most importantly not being loved by anyone including my own family. I lived with these thoughts within my closet walls and tried dearly to protect my true authentic self.
My biggest turmoil came from the teachings of my church. It was here that I was told that I was an abomination, a sinner, a defect in society. Time and time again this perceived sin as it was called led me to think that there was definitely something wrong with me. I fought this inner turmoil as I continued to attend these religious institutions hearing over and over again from its leaders and congregation that this sin was the worse of all sins that there could ever be. This message played over and over in my head as I made my journey through life and still to this day we hear it all too well.
It was in another truly American “classic” environment that this sexual discrimination once again surfaced. I was visiting my Father and his wife at the time. They were discussing an individual who was part of the rodeo circuit that they were also a part of. Now mind you, rodeo is about as country as you can get and if you are in the rodeo you are either a rough and tough male or you’re not accepted. It was during a BBQ that they were chatting about this one fellow. I can remember the words uttered from my Father’s wife as if it was yesterday, that this particular gentleman “had done turned gay!” INSTANTLY I felt scared of being exposed so I chose to not participate in the conversation. Instead, I excused myself from the room as they continued to bash this individual due to his sexual pre-disposition.
Whatever this closet was, it was a place where I could be me and no one could harm me and no one could pass judgment on me. Unfortunately, being alone with my thoughts, I discovered that the only person passing the judgment on me was me. I soon discovered that I was my own worst critic. As I became my own worst critic, I became harder and harder on myself. It was here that I learned to not love myself, not respect myself.
I found myself continually passing judgment…being critical of my actions: how I looked, how I talked, how I spoke or how I carried myself in public. It was here that I developed patterns of self-deprecating behavior. I developed a skill set of someone not learning to love himself unconditionally. I started to hate myself on the outside but most importantly I hated myself even more on the inside.
As much as my closet was my security, it was also my prison. Inside this closet I was a prisoner in the worst way, I was a prisoner of my own thoughts. My thoughts were not those of self-worship or adoration. Instead, they were thoughts of not feeling good enough, feeling less than. Feeling not worthy of all the good things in life that I did have.
Each day I experienced internal conflict. I lived in a world where I was virtually programming my life for failure. As much as I wanted to think and feel good about myself – I couldn’t. I was programming my thoughts for very negative outcomes, which made manifest showed up in my world.
It was years later that I learned one very important law of the Universe – our thoughts, emotions, and beliefs create our reality. As for now, I was listening to what my outer world was telling me about myself and I was beginning to believe it as truth. This closet however, became a place that I would come back to for many, many years, no matter what it was that I was going through. As safe as I felt in my closet, I intuitively knew it was dangerous. It was a prison I could not escape. (The process of exposing the closet, I felt, would help many more people than just those that were hiding their sexual status. All people go through many challenges in their lives and utilize the closet for one reason or another. For some, even more so, whether it be the experience of cancer, marital issues, alcoholism, rape, incest, spousal abuse, and a host of others. A truism…When the dirty laundry remains in the closet it can never become clean.)