The closet still stands. And few recent films remind us of its tricky dynamics as cogently as Ben A. Williams’ The Pass. The film is about a footballer (Jason, played by Russell Tovey) who believes the closet is the only way he can achieve his dreams.
The closet always exacts a price, but our footballer is happy to pay for it, I mean, literally pay for it. Whenever rumours become too insistent or scandal seems inevitable, he actually has to pay “people” to create an alternative bit of news, so that his homosexuality remains out of the public eye. Or he has lawyers who will sue whoever spreads rumours on Twitter. The film implies “everyone knows” he is gay, and as years pass he becomes careless, but this is OK as long as there is not some authorized public discourse about it (think Cristiano Ronaldo here, who Jason resembles a bit in the externals). He is aware of the compromised life he needs to accept, but, hey, this is about being rich and famous, this is about being an icon, an idol of the masses. The price seems worth it. And he is the kind of idol who cannot, will not possibly be gay.
So he pays a woman to record a sex tape with him and upload it to the web, to dispel rumours, and he will violently threaten a guy he has humiliated with legal action should he post any comment. And years go on and life slips by. Then he remembers, or maybe he has never forgotten, a moment of tenderness, ten years earlier, with another footballer, when they were both teenagers. And feels somehow he needs that back. To the end, he will insist the price of the closet is worth it. He gets more than what his sacrifices imply. And in spite of everything (at this particular point of his life so many things keep slipping through his fingers and his future looks grim) he cannot face the fact that maybe some things he is not considered. The film seems to suggest the closet is not really worth it if what you give in exchange is your whole life, the possibility of emotion, of happiness.
Then again, is the closet worth it? To many people it has been, to many people it still is. You hope you will keep your secret under control, you hope sexual urges will fade away and you’ll be left with a perfectly sound life. And it is the nature of the closet that you believe these things, because the closet keeps you isolated from so many things. The trick is always to keep telling yourself that you can handle it. Some societies make the closet very easy as a fantasy. Everytime I hear about gays in Italy, for instance, I feel that this is an example of a cynical approach that seems to make the closet preferable but not too stifling: you’re inside, you can have an easy life protected and still enjoy the fantasy offered by patriarchal society. Being out limits you so much. And, in the end, even if the information becomes public (and the trick is not to make that moment too shocking), nothing very serious will happen. It is an example of benevolent closet. “Benevolent”, that is, when compared to so many places where being revealed as a homosexual will mean the end of your reputation, your career, your loved ones or your freedom. I can’t help thinking that benevolent closets are part of the larger idea, that benevolent closets in Western countries reinforce imposed, restrictive, threatening ones elsewhere.
But even benevolent, even when one decides to take the compromise freely and without too much fear of consequences, one needs to agree the closet if bad for a society. It can be tempting, but it is irresponsible to encourage it. Because, as Jason in the movie, one never really knows what he’s getting into. Accepting the closet as a lesser evil means we are encouraged, kindly, to stay there. If we continue with our metaphor of the closet as a price you pay to a certain idea of society, it follows that each individual payment adds up to the force of the institution. So the closet gains force in numbers: more and more people paying (what they regard as) small prices, means that still a great deal of life capital accrues to support the institution. Beware of the benevolent closet. When it is strong enough it can become fiercely inflexible.
Does Jason have an option? He could come out and lose his career ambitions. But this outcome is coming anyhow. At the end of the film he is bitter. He will overcome his frustration, maybe, and try to find success elsewhere. Or he could cynically give up any risk of discovery. Are those options open to everyone? The closet is something that, as most things, matter less when you can afford it. Most people can´t and what happens is they are putting their lives in the hand of an institution that promises to protect them but that they can do nothing about. As a structure, the closet can easily get out of control and demand a higher price than the one initially agreed. In life one does not know what one is agreeing to. On the other hand we could take a stronger stand. The issue is that the closet is not an individual choice, it’s a social one. Paying the price is like feeding a social illness.
The film is aware of those things. It does not say any decision will be easy, but at least does not claim easier is better.