Derived from the French closet, itself from the Latin word clausum (shut), the English word closet, meaning a private room, appeared first in the fourteenth century. Starting in about 1400, the meaning was extended to include any secret place, real or metaphorical (i.e., the closet of the conscience). A storage room, the common North American meaning, arose in the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as did other specialized meanings, such as a room used for private devotion or a bathroom (water-closet). The phrase closet-sins can be found in seventeenth-century texts, while the phrase skeleton in the closet (a dark secret) did not appear until the mid-nineteenth century. The idea that a forbidden sexuality is the secret in the closet first appeared in the mid- and late-twentieth century, in phrases such as to be in the closet and come out of the closet, closet queen, and closet case (though probably the colloquial use of such phrases predates their use in written form). George Chauncey, in Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (1994), suggests that the social experience of closeting is largely a post-World War II phenomenon.
The closet was crucial to twentieth-century gay/lesbian politics, with coming out of the closet into visibility constituting the major strategy of gay liberation. While sociologist Steven Seidman argues in Beyond the Closet (2002), a study focused largely on the United States, that the closet no longer remains constitutive of lesbian/gay experience, almost all queer lives still begin within the closet of nuclear families (especially in Europe and North America) that assume the heterosexuality of their children, and coming out remains an integral part of most gay/lesbian/bi/trans lives.
The closet is central to queer theory, largely because of the work of critical theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet (1990). Sedgwick analyzes the ways in which a late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Euro-American sexuality emerged and was shaped into the binarism of homo/heterosexuality. She shows how sexuality was (and remains) especially charged around questions of knowledge and ignorance, secrets and their disclosure. The closet is, for Sedgwick, a "curious space that is both internal and marginal to the culture: centrally representative of its motivating passions and contradictions, even while marginalized by its orthodoxies" (1990, p. 56). Related to Sedgwick's work is literary critic D.A. Miller's analysis in The Novel and the Police (1988) of the open secret, a secret generally known but unspoken.
While Sedgwick focuses on the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, she acknowledges that the specific attachment of epistemological questions to homosexuality is the culmination of a long Western association of sexuality with secrets and unspeakability. Saint Paul admonishes, "But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you" (Ephesians 5:3), and later Christian writers reiterate and elaborate this taboo. In the Middle Ages unnamability was closely attached to sodomy, as professor of religion Mark Jordan shows in The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (1997). A good deal of medieval and early modern scholarship—e.g., Karma Lochrie's Covert Operations (1998) and Richard Rambuss's Closet Devotions (1998)—has focused its attention on the construction of erotically charged closets.
Chauncey, George. 1994. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. New York: Basic Books.
Lochrie, Karma. 1998. Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Miller, D.A. 1988. The Novel and The Police. University of California Press.
Rambuss, Richard. 1998. Closet Devotions. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Seidman, Steven. 2002. Beyond the Closet: The Transformation of Gay and Lesbian Life. New York: Routledge.
Steven F. Kruger