Lesbian and Gay Parenting Questions & Answers Column With Arlene Istar LevDear Ari

A column by Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

The Glass Closet

Posted By on September 9, 2010

Dear Ari:

I am seeking advice on a very dear loved one who I have no doubt is a lesbian but has chosen not to come out of the closet. We grew up together, she was the maid of honor at my wedding. We are both now in our early 30’s and have remained close. I think she is inwardly torn between her sexual orientation and her deeply held conservative Catholic beliefs. Everything about her suggests that she is a lesbian, she has lived with a female partner for years (but with “separate” bedrooms), they behave like a couple, not roommates, they travel together, etc. Outwardly, to me, her friends and her family, she condemns homosexuality, says it is a sin and against her religious beliefs, and says she is waiting for the right man, but the truth is I’ve known her all her lie and she has never had the remotest interest in any men.

As her friend, this internal dishonesty of hers seems so unhealthy. Every time I hear her say she is waiting for the right guy, I feel sick of being lied to. I have tried to indirectly discuss the situation with her by pointing out other gay people we know and telling her how brave I think they are and that I support them. She always objects and condemns their behavior. My question for you is, how can I be a good friend to her? I feel like if I ask her directly she will be insulted. I’m tired of the charade. If she is afraid to come out of the closet to everyone we know, why can’t she at least be honest with me? I would like to treat her partner like a partner and part of the family, rather than a “roommate”.
—Tired of the charade, Sarah

Dear Sarah:

This sounds like such a challenging situation. It is obvious that you deeply care about your friend. You ask: “If she is afraid to come out of the closet to everyone we know, why can’t she at least be honest with me?” I think the answer to this question is that she cannot come out to you because she hasn’t come out to herself yet.

This is a phenomenon I have long referred to as the “glass closet,” meaning that everyone can see into the closet and is aware of what is happening, but the person in the closet does not realize that they are being seen. You know we all grew up that great Superman image of Clark Kent running into the phone booth, and emerging as Superman, but supposedly no one knew that Clark Ken and Superman were the same person. Wow, amazing that the entire city of Metropolis never made that connection.

Coming out is no small task. For a person reared in, or immersed in, a fundamental religious community, it can be especially daunting. To believe in your heart and soul that you are condemned by God to a life in Hell for your sexuality can make it very very difficult to act on your sexuality, or feel good about yourself if you do act upon it. It is even more challenging when we acknowledge the immense power sexual desire has in our lives. Those of us who are out often forget how difficult a barrier the closet is to cross, because once we are on the other side, like the proverbial house landing in Oz: you realize that Kansas was a pretty flat view of life’s possibilities (with no offense intended to those reading from Kansas, of course.)

Closets, for some of us, remain locked and bolted. For some people they remain that way for their entire lives, regardless of the immense changes of the gay (LGBT) rights movement. I have worked with many clients over the years that are in long-term lesbian relationship, have gay friends, and identify as liberal in their thinking, who have never, ever come out to anyone about their relationship, including close gay friends!

One time I met with two women, who were both ex-nuns. They had lived together for two decades, and owned a home together (with separate bedrooms). There presentation was so “roommate-like” that even I didn’t want to make an assumption about their relationship. I asked them, cautiously, “Are you two involved?” The silence in the room was thick and one woman answered in a quiet, ashamed voice, “I guess you could say that.” I later used the word “lesbian” to describe their relationship, and the other woman, turned beet red, and burst out saying, “Oh my God, are we lesbians??!!” They had actually managed to keep that from their conscious awareness, despite having sought out a known lesbian therapist. Perhaps that story sounds unbelievable, but closets can be very solidly built, and sometimes nearly impenetrable.

All that to say, I’m not sure if your friend knows she is in a lesbian relationship. I do not think she is keeping that information from you, as much as she may be keeping it from herself. As you can well imagine, the toll on intimacy and closeness for this couple can be quite intense.

This is what I would suggest: You begin to treat her and her partner as “family.” Use expressions like, “You two are just like family…just like a married couple,” without any connection to gay identity, or lesbian relationships. Continue to honor their “friendship,” their closeness, their caring for one another. Treat them as a “couple,” without linking it at all to anything gay. At the same time, continue to acknowledge gay friends and gay actors on television, and continue to express your support for gay rights and gay relationships. There may come a time when it is easier to “link” these ideas, “Since your friendship is just like a family and couple, you should probably have the same legal rights as a gay couple would.”

One thing to bear in mind is that most of us think about intimate relationships as revolving around our sexuality. It is actually possible that your friend is not in a sexual relationship with her “roommate,” but then again many people – straight and gay – are not in sexual relationships with their lovers, partners, and spouses. I’m personally not sure that is anyone’s business.