What is the Glass Closet?

Mary McMahon

Some people use the term “glass closet” to describe someone who is gay without being “out.” In other words, someone in the glass closet openly lives a gay lifestyle, but refuses to comment on it or to confirm impressions about his or her sexual orientation. Cases of people living in this way are most commonly seen among celebrities.

In the 1920s and 1930s Hollywood studios worried that gay actors would be rejected by movie goers.
In the 1920s and 1930s Hollywood studios worried that gay actors would be rejected by movie goers.

This slang term references the idea of being “in the closet” about one's sexual orientation. When someone is in the closet, it means that he or she has a sexual identity which is totally concealed, as opposed to someone who is out of the closet or “out,” openly confirming a gay sexual orientation. Being out often comes with social and political consequences, leading some people to stay in the closet to advance their careers or to avoid controversy.

In a sense, the glass closet is a median between being fully in the closet and being openly out. Someone in the glass closet might, for example, live with someone of the same sex, and be commonly seen in the company of that person, in what could be viewed as a transparently gay relationship. However, if asked to comment, the person would neither confirm nor deny claims that he or she is gay. People in the glass closet may also be less likely to acknowledge their partners publicly, for fear of attracting attention.

Many Hollywood stars in the 1920s and 1930s lived in the glass closet, because Hollywood studios feared that gay actors might be rejected by the public. As a result, these stars generally lived a very “out” lifestyle, but insisted on personal privacy in publications, sometimes even establishing sham marriages with other gays and lesbians to make it look like they were in heterosexual relationships.

Some people who are partially closeted don't mind speculation about their sexual orientation, enjoying their status as someone who is partially out without having to deal with the social consequences. Others become vehemently angry if they are described as gay in the media, or if they are asked about their sexual preference by interviewers. In some cases, people may even sue for defamation if they are “outed” in the media, an action more commonly associated with people who are fully in the closet.

Some activists dislike the glass closet, arguing that partial closeting harms the gay community. Under this logic, if people living this way were to openly out themselves, the public might have a more positive perception of gays and lesbians because they would learn that a number of people in a variety of industries identify as gay or lesbian. Other people feel that sexual orientation is a private matter, and that people who wish to stay in the glass closet have very valid reasons for doing so.

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