The Ins and Outs of the Closet

Sambira's first book, a Bildungsroman about the transition from closet to open air, will be of interest to anyone who has undergone or is about to undergo a similar process.

Shloshim khodshey ahava" ("Thirty Months of Love"), by Gali Sambira, 157 pages, NIS 63.

In the 19th century, the closet a rectangular construction the purpose of which is the storage of clothing became a code word that symbolizes a closed, dark territory where deviant sexual behaviors that are best not spoken about occur. Thus, the gay man or the lesbian had to hide "in the closet," even though the fact that they were in there was in fact known to everyone. Thus, the closet served as an enclosure of shame that concealed explicit talk and the deviant behavior, but allowed for the flourishing of gossip and indirect and ambiguous speech. Toward the end of the 20th century this enclosure of shame was broken through and the process of coming out of the closet gradually became the thing to do. Today, hiding in the closet usually characterizes the early years of adolescence for the gay person whose sexual identity is still taking shape.

This autobiographical first novel by Gali Sambira, "Thirty Months of Love," describes the formation of the self-awareness of a girl who realizes that she is trapped in the closet, and the process of coming out of it. The categories "in the closet" and "out of the closet" are very clear and distinct in the book, and they are described along two parallel axes of time: The first, the "closet time," is a collection of Gali's memories from the period when she was not yet aware of her sexuality, but was perplexed by her difference. Gali was a tomboy, apparently critical and asexual, who channeled her difference into a military career. The memories from this period, which mix together in no particular order early girlhood and late adolescence, are printed in a narrower font that emphasizes, if we like, the vague and dark consciousness of this period. Thus, the other time, the illuminated "the out of the closet time," is written in a standard font and describes a clear chronological sequence of events, the end of which is known in advance.

The "out of the closet" time is known and it can be quantified: 30 months of love; 30 months that describe the meeting with Shani, Gali's first mature love, and her official induction into the lesbian world. With Shani's help, Gali realizes that "there are other women like her," and from there the way to revealing the secret to friends and family is, of course, short and obvious.

Object for love Shani's role as tutor is so clear and emphasized that only towards the end of the novel does Sambira begin to characterize her as a full subject with specific characteristics. Until that point she is only an object for love, even desperate love. When Shani begins to move away from Gali and the 30 months approach their end, Shani is revealed as a person with contradictory and complex desires of her own and Gali, who remains alone, quickly trades in her pain for maturation into the world of chat rooms and bars. The process of coming out of the closet and the novel, which move forward together, also arrive at their end together.

All done? A process of transition from darkness to light, in a number of senses, is completed in 30 months? Sambira's first book is indeed a Bildungsroman of coming out of the closet, which will be of interest to anyone who has undergone or is about to undergo a similar process. However, for anyone for whom the issue of coming out of the closet is not crucial anyone who has not been compelled to be locked into it or has long been free of it it appears that the linear process, even with no connection to the qualities of the writing, is liable to look a bit thin. Altogether, it appears that a substantial part of the discourse in gay-lesbian circles tends to entail further musings on the character, role and structure of the coming out process. The transition from the closet to the open air is no longer judged only as a wonderful transition from shame to pride.

Michel Foucault, apparently, was the first theoretician who in the 1970s addressed the formation of modern homosexuality in the 19th century as a social-political category. Foucault showed that during that period, what had been identified as an individual's sexual preference became a basic and crucial element of his identity. Thus, a plethora of varied and dynamic sexual behaviors were subsumed under a single monolithic identity homosexual or heterosexual. Following Foucault, contemporary theoreticians are criticizing the existence of these social categories, as well as the process of coming out of the closet, and arguing that in this political act there is a reaffirmation of the gender definitions of the past. Sexual elusiveness and non-stasis around a single "identity," they say, are the true radical political protest.

Closing off possibilities Following these theoreticians, is it possible to read Gali's history in a different way? If we turn to the second axis of time in the novel, the one that describes the pre-lesbian Gali in a non-chronological way, we can, ostensibly, find such hints. Gali, for example, chooses for herself a military trajectory as a combat officer and thus puts into question the gender order in the elite units of the Israel Defense Forces. Also as a tomboyish girl there is something subversive about her. But despite these examples and others, it would appear that, ironically, the process of coming out of the closet gradually closes off the wealth of interesting and implied possibilities. Gali's unusual military career is exchanged for the obvious psychology studies, the intra-familial arguments give way to reconciliation and acceptance, and the confused and truncated time axis of the past coheres into the orderly and chronological time axis of the present.

Gali dreamt of a bald head? A sign that she wanted to be a lesbian. Gali wanted to depose her father form his exalted status in the family? A sign that she wanted to be "the man" in the relationship with Shani. Gali, as a girl in Be'er Sheva, by chance heard a talented girl called Yehudit Ravitz playing the guitar in the window of her home? A sign right you are that one day Gali will come out of the closet.

But is all this necessarily bad? Is bitterness at the blocking of more interesting possibilities that Sambira could have developed only academic and literary over-indulgence? "Thirty Months of Love" is, as noted, a lesbian Bildungsroman, and as such its main force is in the level of identity it can arouse among those who are trying to gather their courage and come out, like Gali, into the formative journey of modern homosexuality.

Haim Finkelman is a critic of literature and culture