We’re both old enough now that virtually all of our LGBTQ friends are out of the closet, so sometimes it’s easy for us to forget that this isn’t the everyday reality for everyone. Many LGBTQ folks are still struggling to figure out their sexuality and testing the waters to see if it’s safe to be open. Whether someone’s coming-out process takes days or decades, it’s a season through which no one should be rushed. And because it’s such a complex and stressful time of life, we’ve been asked by readers: Should I even date someone who’s still closeted?
I touched upon this conflict earlier in a post about the difficulty of LGBTQ Christian dating. I even gave it a fancy name: The Khalaf Self-Disclosure Discrepancy Theorem. Essentially, the more disparate you and your partner are in the stages of self-disclosure, the more stress it will impose upon your relationship. All of which is to say, if you’re out and he or she isn’t, it should elicit a yellow flag: Proceed with caution.
Whenever you start to date someone and are excited about your new romance, you want to share it with the world. You want to shout it from the rooftops. But if your partner is closeted, you can’t do that. The secretive nature may seem exciting at first, but will eventually grow into something constraining. You’ll find yourself in emotional shackles, unable to speak as freely about your relationship as you would like. Furthermore, there will be strict boundaries on how much of your partner’s life you get access to. You may not get to meet family or church friends; your partner may lie about you to others. It might seem as if your partner is embarrassed or ashamed about you, but they’re trying to protect themselves. Guarding their secret takes precedence over your relationship.
Conversely, if you’re the one closeted, your partner will probably begin tugging at you, urging you to be more open. That may be a healthy thing if you’re ready for it, but it can be terrifying if you’re not. At some point it may feel as if your partner is crossing boundaries, inserting himself or herself too much into your life. There may be instances in which you are nearly discovered and find yourself in a panic. Your relationship will always have an undercurrent of fear while you are still closeted. Ultimately, living a double life will wear you down. No one can keep that act up forever—a split identity wreaks havoc on the soul.
Constantino and I faced a very mild version of this early on. He was fully out when we first started dating, and although I was out, my sexuality wasn’t information I had offered up to certain circles of my life (I call this “closeted by omission”). So the first few months of our relationship were very uncomfortable in that I was essentially forced to come out to dozens of people in my life, many of whom I had known for years. This was ultimately a good thing for me, because I was ready to be out, and our dating gave me the reason and visibility to do so. In a situation like this, dating someone was one of the healthiest things I could do.
This is much different, however, than a relationship wherein one partner is out and the other is fiercely closeted, whether wholly or in some segments of his or her life. For example, we have one out friend dating a man who is strictly closeted to his family and church, but who promises to come out when he isn’t financially dependent on his parents—in two years. That may be a prudent move on the part of the boyfriend, but it’s a risky investment for our friend to undertake for such a long period. Despite whatever good intentions the boyfriend has, few coming-out stories (or financial goals, for that matter) go exactly as planned, and a two-year timeline could easily slip into three, four, five years.
If you’re out and you’re thinking of dating someone who is closeted, understand that your relationship will always be in a kind of limbo until your partner comes out. As important as it is to be sensitive to someone else’s process, you have to decide for yourself if you are willing to wait for that person to come out, and for how long. Many of us have spent years hiding, and dating someone closeted may feel like being sucked back into the closet all over again. Being kept a secret can feel disrespectful, and even shaming. And it may leave you feeling (justifiably) uncertain about your partner's commitment to the relationship. No one wants a partner who's a flight risk.
For people engaged in a “mixed-disclosure relationship,” straightforward communication and practical talk about the future can help ease the stress, even if it won’t completely dissolve it. Discuss questions such as: When will the closeted partner come out? Will it be in stages and, if so, when and to whom? What people or life situations are keeping the closeted partner from coming out, and how can they be resolved? What small steps toward disclosure can you make together (close friends, a trusted family member, etc.)? Is the open partner willing be complicit in hiding the relationship in certain situations and, if so, what are those circumstances? How long is the open partner willing to wait for the closeted partner to come out?
There’s no right answer when it comes to choosing whether to date someone who’s closeted. Most of it will depend on the particular circumstance and your own tolerance for being secretive while patiently seeing someone through a difficult transition. Many people already know that’s not for them—they’ve been through the crucible of coming out and they’re not willing to suffer it again. Others won’t find the idea so harrowing, but they should go into it with eyes wide open. Whenever you are someone’s secret, you are also their liability, and that adds a degree of tension to a new romance that may prove difficult to weather.
David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland.