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Essay

The Closet Case, Left Without a Room of His Own

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 13, 2004; Page C01

The closet is weird. It used to be a normal refuge (and deeply personal place) in which gay men and lesbians could live their entire, long, parallel lives, and it sometimes went by the quaint name of "privacy." But the closet has evolved in the post-gay 21st century as a place to find the strangest and most pitiable of the modern queer realm, and there's a name for him, a rude and despicable name, usually uttered by hip, out, mostly well-adjusted gay men to describe the sad, latent gay man we've met time and time again:

Closet case.


New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey with his wife, Dina Matos McGreevey, announces his resignation and that he is gay. (Brian Branch-price -- AP)

_____N.J. Gov. Resigns_____
MCGREEVEY Video: Gov. James McGreevey (D-N.J.) announced his resignation effective Nov. 15.
Transcript: N.J. Gov. McGreevey Resigns (Associated Press, Aug 12, 2004)
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A closet case is often thought to be beyond help, even once he comes out. He's missed the boat. (He missed all the boats, for decades.) He's like a confused teenager in a 47-year-old's body, way behind on his homework. He is twice or three times the age of people going through what he's ostensibly now going through, which makes him suspect: Why so long? What else is he hiding? In latecomer lore, he winds up living for a while in a Hampton Inn somewhere, until the divorce is final. His kids can't stand him. Closet cases come with really sad stories: discovered affairs, addictions sometimes sexual or otherwise, lost jobs and fortunes, former lives, buried childhoods that were compensated with trophies and student council presidencies.

There's no way to get it all done during a single press conference.

But that's exactly what New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey seemed to be doing yesterday afternoon when he resigned, delivering a statement that sounded partly like a late-night phone call from a dorm room, or an Oscar moment in a film about a closeted gay pol, but also like the cry of a genuinely broken soul: "At a point in every person's life, one has to look deeply into the mirror of one's soul and decide one's unique truth in the world, not as we may want to see it or hope to see it, but as it is," he said, and then finally came out with it:

"And so my truth is that I am a gay American. And I am blessed to live in the greatest nation with the tradition of civil liberties, the greatest tradition of civil liberties in the world, in a country which provides so much to its people."

He came out as if by the guiding forces of the teleprompter, in the Oprahfied language of politics, in "this, the 47th year of my life," he admitted, "arguably too late to have this discussion. But it is here, and it is now."

He came out mostly so he could tell us that the story gets worse. McGreevey revealed that he'd been having an extramarital affair, with a man, cheating on his second wife. (And the Associated Press chimed in last night with an unnamed source who claims McGreevey has been threatened by his ex-lover, "a former government employee," who demanded "an exorbitant sum of money to make it go away.") Such failure as a straight American now leaves this gay American -- and his office -- in jeopardy. So he came out, resigned, and stepped into the sky, Wile E. Coyote-style. This is what happens to closet cases in 2004: They get out of the closet only to find the whole house is gone.

But it is here, and it is now. Thursday was a curious "now," given that across the country on the same afternoon, nearly 4,000 completely out gay and lesbian couples were learning that a California court had voided the marriage licenses the couples had so giddily obtained earlier this year. If journeying to San Francisco to get hitched six months ago represents a kind of advanced degree in homosexuality, coming out amid scandal in high office seems terribly remedial.

Because he'd publicly disagreed with his Roman Catholic faith on its teachings against same-sex relationships and he helped put New Jersey's domestic partnership law into effect this year, McGreevey can reasonably expect a smooth transition into gayland, if he wants it.

But it's going to be hard to throw the guy a coming-out happy hour tonight at Ye Olde Gay American Pub (where, frankly, your typical closet case has been drinking and cruising for years). Some lines have been drawn in these line-drawing times, and the message seems to be that either you're out or you're in but you can no longer be both: Gay activists are trying to out perceived closet cases on the Hill who toil for Sen. Darth Vader (R-Death Star), and even that kind of desperate political action seems so 1991, once the staffers retort with something like: "I told him I'm gay, and he says it's okay, and I've chosen evil, now leave me alone."

McGreevey is like other married men who wait way too long to tag and name the fuzzy animal hopping around in their sexual brains: Who will be their friend now? Who has time to hold the hands of these hopelessly outmoded fools?

Here's who: the loosely united, sometimes cruel, but always mysteriously cohered gay community, of course. There is room to love the fallen governor -- after a period of reflection. "As a young child, I often felt ambivalent about myself, in fact, confused," McGreevey said in his announcement yesterday. "By virtue of my traditions, and my community, I worked hard to ensure that I was accepted as part of the traditional family of America."

Yes, yes, yes. Gay men and lesbians know that story. They lived it, sweetie, and told it over and over again 20 years ago, in college, at the family Thanksgiving table, to suspicious but loyal prom dates of the opposite sex.

Old-fashioned as it seems, the coming-out story still holds powerful drama. (Especially when spilling from the mouths of politicians.) Someday the world will be safe for movie stars and football players. And so, governor, a glimmer of hope, and a reminder: You're not the last gay man in America to stumble tardily and embarrassingly out of the big, bad closet. You're not the lowest of the low. You may only feel like it.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company