by Hermia Lyly
When I was a kid, I was terrified of monsters in my closet. Each night before bed, I had to make sure that the sliding doors on my closet were closed so that I would be protected from the monsters inside. If I forgot to close the doors, I would stay up for hours huddled under my blanket, staring at the abyss of darkness. I was too terrified to stop staring at my dark closet, but I was also too terrified to get out of bed and close the closet doors myself. After all, I also believed there were monsters under the bed, and they worked in concert with the monsters in the closet. If I got out from under the safe haven of my blankets and walked to the closet, the monsters under the bed would surely reach out and get me.
I don’t think I ever really believed that there were actual monsters in my closet—I had a pretty healthy grasp of reality, and I knew that the fantastical monsters I imagined to be lurking in the darkness simply weren’t real. But no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that there was nothing truly scary inside my closet, I couldn’t help but be terrified by the complete darkness that I saw there. So on those unlucky nights when I forgot to close my closet doors, there was nothing to do but stare into the shadows until my fear finally exhausted me and I fell asleep.
***transition into clichéd sexuality metaphor***
I’m sure that most of you in the LGBTQIA community are sick of hearing closet jokes or closet metaphors, and frankly I am as well. But before you leave this post (“Oh great, here’s another belabored attempt at forcing an overly-simplified allegorical reading onto tiny rooms that store clothes…”), I’d like to consider the connection between the idiomatic phrases, “monsters in the closet,” “skeleton in the closet,” and “closeted.” In each phrase, the closet is a scary, secretive place that contains something too awful to release.
This is how I felt about myself a few years ago when I first realized I might be queer. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s still how I think about myself. As a born-in-the-Church Mormon girl, I had frequently heard lessons at my Sunday School, Primary, and Young Women classes about “protecting the family” from the “attack on the family.” Sometimes my teachers told us about how pornography, premarital sex, or the media was attacking the family. But most often, the “attack on the family” was just another way of talking about homosexuality and gay marriage. As a teenager, I knew that gay marriage and homosexuality were wicked because they were a distortion of the traditional, natural family that was modeled in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” One of Satan’s greatest tricks was to take something good and make a counterfeit version of it, I was taught. That’s what gay marriage was: a counterfeit version of the traditional, natural family unit.
For years, I made sure that I stayed on the side that protected “the family,” so that I would not be fooled by Satan’s counterfeits. My political views were dutifully pro-life and traditional marriage, and I did my best to practice skills that would help me be a perfect stay-at-home mom (some of my teachers told me that working mothers were attacking the family too). At times, I even tried to suppress the parts of my personality that didn’t fulfill the traditional American gender roles that were idolized at church.
When I finally realized that my attraction to other women—an attraction that I dismissed as an odd phenomenon resulting from puberty and hormones—was not going away, I began to panic. Throughout my entire life I had trained myself to attack the enemy. It was my job to save and protect the family, and that meant looking past all the sappy mumbo-jumbo about equal rights and same love, and seeing same-sex couples for who they really were: destroyers of the family. “Don’t get sucked in by their sob stories,” I would tell myself, “They are either deceived by Satan or they are willfully trying to deceive you, and they do not deserve to get married!” It was easy to demonize “the gays” as long as I saw them as foreign and inhuman.
But what was I to do when suddenly, I was one of the people who did not deserve to get married, one of the foreign and the inhuman?
What was I to do when I discovered that I was the one attacking the family?
What if the monster in the closet was myself?
I kept those closet doors shut for a long time. Just as I did when I was a child, I made sure the doors were closed tight, and only then I could sleep at night. There was a definite, true darkness inside of that closet, but if I kept the doors shut, then I wouldn’t have to see it and I could pretend it didn’t exist. Continuing to date men kept the doors shut. Avoiding the women I was attracted to kept the doors shut. Increasing my prayers and fasting, reading scriptures about Sodom and Gomorrah, pleading and bargaining with God to make me straight–all of these things kept the doors shut. I couldn’t make my monstrous sexuality go away, but at least I could keep the doors shut and protect the family from my awful, wicked self.
Maybe this is what is truly terrifying about being closeted, about being afraid to share one’s sexuality. Yes, the isolation is awful and the stress of keeping such a weighty secret is burdensome, to say the least. But the reason why we suffer through the isolation and the secrecy is to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the monster in the closet. What if we are the monsters? What if we emerge from our closets, timidly hoping for love and acceptance, only to be scorned as “unnatural,” “an abomination,” “wicked,” or “monstrous”? What if we are the enemies, and we are the ones who are deceived? Why should we ever deserve love, companionship, family, acceptance, or equal rights if we are the monsters responsible for destroying the family, the most important unit of society?
For many of us in the Mormon community, the closet functions as a quarantine. We have been indoctrinated in the beliefs that homosexuality is evil, destructive, possibly even contagious. Out of love for our families and friends, we protect them from ourselves by staying in the closet. When the closet becomes unbearable, some of us tragically think we can protect our families by killing ourselves. After all, we were taught to protect the family. We were trained to defend the family at all costs. Even if it means seeing ourselves as the monsters, we will find those who attack the family, and we will eliminate them.
Oh God, when will this stop?
I remember waking up one morning when I was about twelve or thirteen and noticing that my closet door was wide open. It was harmless in the light of dawn; I could see my clothes and shoes in there, absent of monsters or all-consuming darkness. I had seen that sight hundreds of times before, but what truly caught my attention was realizing that my closet door had been open all through the night, and that I had never once been afraid of it. I hadn’t even noticed it. One night it was terrifying; the next night, it simply wasn’t. It seems silly to say it now, but it was so liberating at the time to know that I was no longer afraid of sleeping with the closet door open. It was so exhilarating that I’m pretty sure I slept with the closet doors wide open every night for the next year. Even now, I’m not sure if I can adequately describe the feeling of staring my closet monsters in the face and no longer being afraid often.
I’m not sure if I can say that I’m no longer afraid of what is in my metaphorical closet, however. The monsters in this closet appear much more real and more dangerous. I wish I could say that I’m no longer afraid of going to hell for acting on my sexuality, but sometimes I worry that’s exactly where I’ll end up. There are nights when I can’t sleep because I can’t stop thinking about how many lives I am ruining if my sexuality is truly an abomination, if my relationship with my girlfriend is actually Satan’s plot to destroy the family. And then there is always the very real threat of being ostracized, disfellowshipped, or excommunicated by the Church. The closet that these monsters reside in is very large, and its doors are very thin. Please don’t fault me if I try to shut the doors and lock them when it becomes too much to bear.