Ian Parker, writing in The New Yorker, says about Tyler Clementi, “there was no posting, no observed sex, and no closet.”
Writing at the same time, Angus Johnston, of the website Student Activism, says, “‘Out’ is not a binary concept, and it’s not at all unreasonable to describe Ravi’s actions — telling his friends Clementi was gay and posting the news on a public Twitter account — as ‘outing.’”
I suspect that most gay people, reading Ian Parker and Angus Johnston, would agree with Johnston. A person can be in different stages of being “out”—all at the same time, with different groups of people.
Our premier news-and-commentary magazine disagrees with the conventional wisdom in the gay community about a common word—what does the closet mean—and somebody ought to be turning to a late-edition dictionary of English to update themselves. It’s worth our trouble to get us all on the same page when we’re describing the same thing.
The gay community is lax about the way it uses the word, too. Sometimes, as when we describe Tyler Clementi’s life just before he died, we’re willing to recognize that coming out is nuanced and has many stages; at other times, like when we describe gay men or women who are married to the opposite sex, or gay kids who haven’t yet told us that they are gay, we seem unable to use any word but “closeted.” That’s wrong too.
Closeted, coming out, outed are all powerful words and powerfully useful words. The concepts they point toward are even more powerful and useful. It is worthwhile to use the occasion of Dharun Ravi’s trial to contemplate our confusion over these words and concepts.
This is the first of several posts on this subject.
For The New York Times on March 17, 2012, seek here.