Does lying in the closet count?

It may be that philosophers of the past were not pansexual enough (if one loves everything, how can one think something?) to ask themselves whether lying about one’s own sexuality to others counts at all, or as much, as the other lies we entertain to each other. Kant: we must not lie — sure, but what would the German philosopher, for whom we credit a few homophobic remarks, know about the need to lie about one’s own secret truth? “Does lying in the closet count?” is therefore far from a question strictly connected to the lives of queer persons, and, based on its universal merits, it can shed light on gaps left behind by ‘professional thinkers’ (ironically, Kant’s own satirical term for philosophers) from whom we have inherited our notions on truth and lies.

Let us consider a question asked to a gay man, whose mother, seeing how happy he seems to be with his long-term ‘girlfriend’ (his decoy), asks him the yes-or-no question: “You’re thinking of marrying her, aren’t you?” The gay man, his mother’s fragile heart in hand, and unable to banish too far away her dream of grandchildren, therefore doses up the smile on his expression and offers what he later feels to be a disproportionate answer: “Actually, yeah, I have.” The concession involved here — and its implications, including its conjuring of more lies within the now-ecstatic mother’s head — brings us to see the gay man as not merely lying to his mother, but really, really lying to her. He could have said, “no mom, not yet,” (sort-of lying?) or “no mom, I am not” (not lying!) but he opted for a more imagined (and therefore more fantastic, more lie-ish) lie, one that saves him from arousing the hitherto dormant suspicion of his mother.

But how much of a lie is it? Take a child that lies about the vase he has broken to avoid trouble — his lie is as self-serving as our gay man’s answer, except that the child did break something; his speech follows an act of which he is the primary author; no one else was in the room, and the vase is an inanimate object. There is no such personal vacuum with our gay man, who remains innocent before himself first, but who decides to lie to his mother to preserve her innocence too. Parallels include a young man that lies to his partner about the (innocent) texts he received to avoid needless confrontation with them, or a boss that lies to her employees about her illness to avoid disrupting their morale at work — in either case, there is no deed of which the liar is the main author prior to the lie; the deeds are texts received from someone else or a disease sprouted on its own accord. Like the gay man, these two receive news or queries from the outside, and, upon reception, it is more a matter of crisis management than crisis-making.

Whether there is an external party involved, or complacent, in the context of a recorded lie (or recorded offense) is a crucial part of any history, or legal case, one wishes to reconstruct and ultimately understand. The gay man tells his mother “actually, yeah, I have” because his mother has (wrongly) supposed that he is straight and willing to marry the girl; similarly, the boss at work, when casually asked to relate the results of her mammography, opted to refrain from telling the truth (“oh it’s all great”) precisely because there is a prior assumption that she was all fine from the start. Questions of continuity and cohesion here are crucial to understand the context of lies: if a lie cast within a linear sequence is set to disrupt it altogether (the mother’s tears, the fear of the employees), then the question is not whether the lie itself ‘counts or not’ but rather we must ask ourselves if it is not the continuum itself that lies to us, its illusion that events, and speech, follow a linear (straight!) line.

The gay man is lying to the mother only because he was confronted with a limited framework in which the lie felt to be truer (to the continuum) than the truth itself. It is not that the “you’re thinking of marrying her, aren’t you?” of the mother is merely a presumptuous question that invites false answers to indulge its presumptions — we must regard it more critically as the turning cog within a more general system of lies in which truth is not merely brushed aside but even targeted, chocked, and destroyed.

Consider that years later, the mother, now more suspicious, asks her son: “so you’re never marrying her, aren’t you?” The gay man, happy about the loss of hope but still cautious about exposure, might retort: “I don’t know, mom, it’s unclear to me.” How come this lie (he does know) feels less of a lie than the first answer years earlier? The gay man himself has not changed his attitude of defense — it is the mother who, now more lucidly, abstains from jumping into conclusions (as mandated from the linear system or rigid index in her mind) and she offers a question that is not merely less presumptuous but also less disingenuous. Freud: well, the mother knew the truth all along; she had repressed it, but now she is less resistant about it. Great — so is it the mother that is lying to her son? If the son’s lie is a lie waged against a primary lie, we are therefore not dealing here with a lie as we typically define it — lies waged against true premises — and such a distinction begs a critical question: is the opposite of lying then not truth but, as it were, more lying?

Intuitively, hearing someone closeted lie to others rings to our ears as ‘more okay’ than other fictions. That may be so because indeed parameters of truth outside the closet do not exist. There is truth inside it, since the gay man knows, however partially, himself. But to be automatically assumed as heterosexually-inclined, in the outside world, becomes perhaps the most fallacious of lies, precisely because we are not sure who started the fateful rumor, who lied first. It is not the mother, because the assumption precedes her; she is merely continuing the lie or the myth; and in doing so, her query into her son’s personal life is an extension of an illusionary continuum of lies that culminates, very unfairly, with the one person that, for sure, we can tell to have lied — the gay man.

What is unfair is the anonymity of all those who have lied before him (or against him) and what is true, if there is such a thing as truth, lives more in the lie that he himself is not convinced about than the fantasies that constitute society as a whole. Does lying in the closet count? Not so much, it appears to me — there are enough potent lies on the table as-is, what harm would the indulgence of a mistaken mother’s heart do?

Rayyan Dabbous is a Lebanese author. His recent books include DIY Creative Activism: A Handbook (2019) and Psychoanalysis of a Teenage Novelist (2020).