Closeted life causing mental health concerns

While faced with quarantine, LGBT community members are required to further hide their identities and orientations, leading to increased mental health concerns

Angela Ide, Opinions Editor

Illustration by Micky Flores-Nieves

For some, it is like they have become the skeleton hiding in the hallway coat closet. Everyone can see them, but no one will admit that they are there. No one will talk about why their child, brother, sister, mother, or friend have buried themselves under unused winter coats and long lost gloves and scarves; but they pound on the walls of the closet, asking for their loved one to “come to their senses” and return to “their real self”. The pounding never stops and the denial builds, with no end in sight.

The fact that people are put into positions where they have to divide their identities between the part of them that family accepts and the part of them that is undeniably true is deplorable; it can only lead to disaster.

In a meta-analysis of 142,510 participants aged 12–25 who identify as LGBTQ+ with experiences of self-harm, suicidal ideation, and attempt revealed, “High prevalence of victimisation (36%) and mental health difficulties (39%) within these populations. Our review shows that these experiences were respectively 3.74 times and 2.67 times higher among young LGBTQ+ people than their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts.”

For me, it was like finding a lost key in the house I just moved into. The key fit inside a lock somewhere, and I could hear a disembodied knock echoing in my mind; but no matter where I looked, the lock remained unfound and the knock remained unanswered. Since no one else could hear the knocking and no one else had a key like mine, I knew that this was to be kept a secret. I only hoped that I could find the lock, answer the knock, and find something unimportantly wonderful inside.

Living a double life, whether or not you realize it, is harmful and dangerous, but the reason that this is so prevalent in the LGBTQ+ community is that the alternative is worse. Coming out to a homophobic and abusive family can mean physical harm, admission to “conversion therapy”, or being kicked out of the house, just to name a few.

Now imagine facing that situation every single day at home, with no escape, no space to be yourself outside of the house, surrounded by those who deny your existence the most. In a global pandemic, mental health issues and difficulties have been deepened by the isolating hopelessness that prevails in quarantine, but when you have to constantly battle between being your full, genuine self and your own safety and preservation, what little hope might have been now becomes lost.

The CDC found, “During June 24–30, 2020, U.S. adults reported considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19. Younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation.”

It is clear that every age group, every minority, and every person living in less than healthy environments are being deeply impacted by COVID-19 in ways that could make the difference between of life and death. It is extraordinarily true for LGBT youth.

But they need to be seen and heard, now more than ever.

As the years went on, I decided that this secret lock to match my secret key wasn’t meant to be found if it was so well hidden. I grew up, I moved out, and I went to college. Then, quarantine hit. Since I was going to be alone with myself for the foreseeable future, I decided that searching the depths of my psyche and doing some mental spring cleaning was the best way to spend my time. Wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I started looking for something else, I finally found the forgotten lock.

I discovered a door that only a child could fit through. It had been tucked into the shadows so nicely behind boxes and piles of lost toys and memories that I didn’t even know that my mind went that far anymore. Little did I know that I would find the other half of myself there, pleading to be let out into the free air. I barely even recognized the woman I saw before me, and yet, I knew that she had listened to our life play out through the cracks of the door.

This experience of dividing one’s self from the other is a trauma response that shapes the lives of LGBT people every day.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, American academic scholar of gender studies of the ‘90s and author of “Epistemology of the Closet” explained, “The gay closet is not a feature only of the lives of gay people. But for many gay people, it is still the fundamental feature of social life; and there can be few gay people, however courageous and forthright habit, however fortunate in the support of their immediate communities, in whose lives the closet ís not still a shaping presence.”

The gay experience that will never truly stop influencing those of the LGBT community and the effects that it has is clearly detrimental to the health and well-being of those who reside there. Whether or not, someone knows that a part of them is living in the closet, the reality of living two lives at once, has always been true.

Finally, after years of searching, we took each other in like two strangers stuck in an elevator together, unsure if it is better to talk or just wait in silence for this interaction to end. As I have become reacquainted with myself, I am learning to stand a little taller, smile a little wider, and walk back into the light again.

So, treat every person with the human decency of listening to their needs and welcoming them, no matter how they measure up to your expectations of them. If someone prefers they/them, she/they, he/they, or any other non-cisnormative pronouns, use them. Acknowledge their identity as they are constantly trying to do within themselves. 

If someone tells you that they are struggling to find their identity and they think they are something other than straight, celebrate with them and affirm the hard process that they are working through. If they aren’t ready to tell you, don’t take it personally. There will inevitably and quite predictably be more than a few people who I do not intend to share this newly realized part of my identity. It is not because I want to lie to those people; it is because I cannot bear the thought of showing those I love my true self just to be ignored at best and hated at worst.

For people who have gone through mental health struggles, it is clear that the smallest actions make the biggest difference, and just being seen and acknowledged can change someone’s world.

As Sedgwick puts plainly, “Even at an individual level, there are remarkably few of even the most openly gay people who are not deliberately in the closet with someone personally or economically or institutionally important to them.”