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The Closet Is Still Killing Us

The Closet Is Still Killing Us

Filmmaker Michael Rohrbaugh explains why his searing new short about internalized homophobia, American Male, is needed now more than ever.

I first heard about MTV's Look Different Creator Competition through a friend who works at Logo. The competition is part of the network's larger campaign exploring issues of privilege and discrimination. Immediately, I thought that this was a perfect opportunity to depict the closet and the havoc it wreaks.

Many straight people aren't aware of internalized homophobia as a concept, nor how deep it runs. My goal was to create a cautionary tale that explores this trauma. See what our main character is putting himself through? This is the trickle-down effect when words like "faggot" are so casually tossed around. This is what happens when young people harbor such intense shame.

My short film American Male explores the stubbornly persistent lie that gay is wrong, gay is weak, gay is less than. Sure, a lot has changed in the past five to 10 years. "Gay" has reached the mainstream, and that's fantastic. But large swaths of our country remain convinced of this toxic lie. As a result, many LGBT youth grow up in a world that teaches them to be ashamed of who they are and how they love, leading to depression, anxiety, and rates of suicide that far exceed the national average.

As a gay man coming of age in the '90s, I bought these lies hook, line, and sinker. I was convinced that there was something wrong with me, that I wasn't normal, that I needed to be fixed. I wanted to be at the head of the class, get the gold star, and make my parents proud. But my sexuality seemed directly in conflict with these goals.

I constructed an identity that would never raise suspicion, mimicking the behavior I saw being rewarded and minimizing that which was condemned. Of course, gay or straight, we all engage in this process. Hello, it's called the game of life. But individuals forced into the closet dance this dance at the next level, policing their behavior in a way that's both unhealthy and unsustainable.

Eventually, in my mid-20s, I came to realize I had been lied to, and grew angry at myself for being such a sap. I was angry at those around me for perpetuating the lie and angry at the world for letting an innocent little boy feel like a monster. Queer psychologists refer to this anger as the "velvet rage." As I approached my 30s, my thinking started to change. After all, why get angry when you can get even?

Some people who have seen the film wonder aloud whether homophobia is still an issue that needs to be addressed, which makes me worry that perhaps a film like this is no longer relevant. Perhaps things have changed, and I'm just living in the past. But then I'm reminded that we continue to live in two very different Americas: one that accepts LGBT people and one that continues to reject us.

This film is for older generations of LGBT Americans who came of age in a completely different climate and for younger Americans still struggling in less accepting regions of the country. It's for anyone who's driven through a small town, stopped for gas, and felt on the defensive. Last but not least, it's for the person I once was: a young man who lived in fear and policed his every move.

With the absurd rise of Donald Trump, our culture, perhaps now more than ever, is awash in lies and falsehoods. Thank God for the arts, which are a powerful tool for exposing, dissecting, and debunking. I hope American Male plays a role in deconstructing these myths.

MICHAEL ROHRBAUGH is the filmmaker of American Male, a winner of MTV's Look Different Creator Competition, which invited emerging filmmakers to create groundbreaking films on the topic of privilege. His upcoming projects include a network documentary exploring LGBT issues in American sports and a feature script, American Grunt, a military drama set during the final days of "don't ask, don't tell." Learn more at

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Michael Rohrbaugh