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Criminalize the Closet!

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Follow me, if you will, on a little thought experiment.

All around the world laws are made to protect people. The legislative bodies hold hearings, seek input, draft and vote on laws with the (presumed) intention of improving society and the lives of their constituents. Most, but not all, criminal laws require a mens rea, or guilty mind -- the intention to do harm; but not all do.

Many laws provide for criminal liability for negligent or reckless behavior that results in a crime. Imagine that you go out to your local bar. You enjoy several drinks and even more laughs with your buddies. You part from your friends at the bar and get behind the wheel of your car. Before arriving at home, you unintentionally smash into an innocent young teenager who was walking on the sidewalk at the side of the road, killing him instantly.

In such a case, you will very likely be arrested, charged, and convicted of involuntary manslaughter. You may explain to the prosecutor and the judge that you had no intention of killing the innocent young man, and they will explain to you that it doesn't matter. Your behavior was reckless, or at the very least criminally negligent, as you know that you should not drink and drive. Drunk driving endangers other people. Now you know, and you can reflect on this new knowledge during the coming years while you are in prison.

This is why drunk driving is punished, even if you don't actually hit anyone.

Here, then, is my modest proposal: let's criminalize the closet. Let's make it illegal to lie about your sexuality, and let's punish the offenders.

The argument goes like this: being in the closet contributes to the negative perception of homosexuals as timid, dishonest, and deceitful, thus placing a direct cost on the livelihood of other people. Closeted people set a bad example for our youth. Because you remain in the closet, gay lifestyles are less acceptable than they could be. People suffer as a consequence, emotionally, in their human dignity, and often financially.

Being in the closet is not just a passive state of cowardly hiding; it invariably involves actively lying about who you are and whom you love. Lying about your sexuality creates the impression that said sexuality is bad, that such a lifestyle disreputable or shameful, that such a life is hopeless, and that those who are gay are doomed to a dishonest shadowy existence in the underbelly of society.

Being in the closet reduces the number of positive role models for LGBTQ people. The lack of positive role models has two immediate consequences: hate crimes against other gay people (think of Matthew Shephard) and suicide of LGBTQ persons. In the extreme, just like with drunk driving, the consequence of your closet is another's loss of life. Thus, being in the closet constitutes reckless or negligent behavior. (Note that I am not equating being gay with drunk driving; I am simply saying that lying about who you are can have unintentional consequences, i.e., harm to others.)

The idea is not so ruthlessly ridiculous as you may think. Many people who have recently come out of the closet were -- in their own words -- prompted to do so because of a string of well publicized teen suicides.

The law would have wonderful consequences. Imagine, if you are still with me, that being in the closet became illegal starting tomorrow. Thousands of people would suddenly admit that they are gay, or at least partially attracted to the same sex. Depending on which study you believe, 40 percent of the male population, and an even higher percentage of females, has had sex with the same gender. Twenty percent of the population does so regularly or exclusively. Even if you don't call yourself "gay" or "lesbian," admitting to same-sex experience or attraction will help improve the level of acceptance. That's a lot of closet doors to swing open overnight.

Such a massive onslaught of honesty would be a clear signal to our youth: there is nothing wrong with being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, or simply "inclined to dabble" or "bat for the other team." There is nothing wrong with being different, period, whatever your choice. It's being dishonest about it that does the harm to others. Being out enables you to lead a more fulfilling and productive life, without fear, without the need to hide or lie. Almost all the consequences of this law would be positive. You might get beaten up, lose your family or job in the short term, but in the long run, discriminatory practices and hate crimes would disappear if such a law were enacted.

Is it an intrusion into people's private lives? You bet it is! But so is not being allowed to drive under the influence of alcohol, to smoke, or incite people to bash in the heads of unwanted individuals. We live with the law 24/7, and the law intrudes on our private behavior from every side.

Criminalizing the closet does not make the sexual behavior itself public. It simply punishes the deceit -- it makes the fraud of your closet a public fraud. Fraud is harmful, even if no link to a specific victim can be established. In a way, the closet is like tax evasion. We all need to pay taxes for the greater good. Tax evaders balance the negative impact to themselves (paying taxes) with the legal requirement to contribute to society. The man or woman in the closet does the same.

An aspiring actor may chose to stay closeted, because a gay person, the studios seem to think, is less credible as a leading character in a blockbuster movie. (Personally, I think a closeted actor is even less believable as the upright Hollywood hero, but hey, that's just me.) Coming out of the closet is a personal cost, which must be weighed against its benefit to society. The decision is often influenced by irrelevant factors, and too often delayed or abandoned. An anti-closet law would make it easier for closeted people to decide what to do.

And that's all the room for fantasy we have. I doubt we'll be seeing a draft law anytime soon, even in the most progressive of countries. A slightly mischievous part of me would like to see closeted people, especially those with influence, such as actors, politicians, etc. behind bars or at least hit with a hefty fine for deceiving the rest of us and setting a bad example for our youth. I am sure $10,000 per head for being a spineless coward would do wonders for the federal budget, too.

Marten Weber's latest book, Gabriel, deals with coming out in a business environment and the challenges of intercultural communication. Visit www.martenweber.com.