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‘In the closet’: A fate worse than death

Zachary Phillips

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Illustration by Madison Holmes

Illustration by Madison Holmes

I’ve hated the word “closet” ever since I learned it was more than a place for storing shoes.

Of all the phrases people could have conjured to describe hiding one’s sexuality out of fear and shame, they picked “in the closet,” as if I had just spent half of my life hanging out in the dark with a couple coats and jackets.

I never spent a single day in a closet.

I was in a locker room. For six years I rushed past rows of lockers, head down, eyes at my feet. I was embarrassed, ashamed. I would have rather gone to class smelling like a donkey’s ass than step one foot into those showers.

Looking back, that locker room was a minefield, and I the heavy-footed soldier. I’d seen what it was like for the boys that couldn’t hide as easily as me. One misstep and everyone knows your secret. One screwup, and your whole world is blown to hell.

“In the closet.” I should be so lucky. I never set foot in a closet.

I sat in a church pew. For eleven years, every weekend, I sat in the front row and listened to my pastor call out what most gays know as “The List.”

Murderers, thieves, adulterers, homosexuals: What fine company I had kept.

Looking back, that church pew felt like an electric chair. When he read from that list, my body seized. The hair on my neck and arms bristled. Rage shook me like a thousand volts vibrating each individual cell.

Hatred was the electrode humming over my head, my own fears the leather straps restraining my wrists and ankles. Eventually my rage cooled to bitter resentment, and the tender flesh of my faith hardened into a callus: rigor mortis of the soul.

I found every possible excuse there was to stay away from that church, but I never found my way into a closet.

I found my way to senior prom. Flower on my lapel, corsage on her wrist, I kissed her cheek. I told her she looked beautiful. We danced so close that her foundation left a silhouette on my shirt, a cameo pendant for a false lover.

Looking back, that room didn’t feel like a dance hall. It was a gas chamber. The last eight years had been a slow, silent asphyxiation, and I was my own executioner.

Hiding my sexuality had become second nature. It was easy, like lying down on the chamber floor and falling asleep. Even then, I knew that if I didn’t find a way out, this would be a sleep that I would never wake up from.

I wish I could say that since coming out I’ve never looked back, but I have. I look back every day and think about how it felt to be “in the closet.”

I look back and wonder if I could have lived one more day walking through that minefield, strapped to that chair, lying on that chamber floor.

I look back and I pray that no one else would have to spend one more day there either.

Zachary Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or @ZachSPhillips on Twitter.

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‘In the closet’: A fate worse than death