Graduation Year

2008

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Ph.D.

Degree Granting Department

Communication

Major Professor

Arthur P. Bochner, Ph.D.

Keywords

Sexuality, Gay men, Coming out, Autoethnography, Narrative inquiry

Abstract

Gay identity is inextricably tied to the metaphor of the closet. This tie is best exemplified by the act of "coming out of the closet," an act when a person discloses a gay identity to another, an act of self-identification and confession that others can motivate but never force, an act typically thought of as necessary, dangerous, and consequential, and an act often viewed as a discrete, linear process. Gay identity is also frequently framed as a self-contained trait thus making coming out a one-sided, personal affair.

In this project, I use autoethnography and narrative inquiry, life story interviews of four gay men, life writings by gay men, mass mediated accounts of the closet, and my personal experience to describe three epiphanies-interactional moments that significantly change the trajectory of a person's life-of gay identity: (1) "Learning the Closet," a moment when a person first becomes familiar with the metaphorical space; (2) "Living the Closet," a moment when a person privately acknowledges a gay identity but publicly discounts this identity by saying and acting as if it does not exist; and (3) "Leaving the Closet," a moment when a person discloses gay identity to others.

I conclude by describing the "double-bind of gay identity"-the dilemma that forms when a person cannot escape the closet-and argue that once a person identifies as gay, the closet becomes a formative influence on her/his life; a gay person can never live outside of the metaphorical space again, can never live as an out gay person everywhere. I also use a relational perspective to understand how gay identity and the disclosure of this identity implicate others in a gay person's social network. A relational perspective removes gay identity it from the individualistic realm and situates it among beings-in-interaction. In so doing, the experience of the closet becomes removed from the exclusive burden of the self-contained gay person to one in which coming out becomes a shared responsibility by all individuals involved in a relationship.

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