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Thirdspace: Re-imaging The Closet

Written April 2016

The word 'closet' appeared in Middle English between 1150-1500, referring to "a private room for study or prayer" (Oxford). A modern understanding of the word, recorded in the early 1600’s, suggested a "small side-room for storage." Historical definitions of the word closet refer to a geographical space where items can be stored, contained, and organized. However, in the late 1960's a metaphor emerged; “the closet” came to denote a condition or state of secrecy or strategically guided privacy to conceal the identity of gays and lesbians (Brown, 2). This essay will explore the discourse of systems of power and how they are used to oppress those who fall outside the margins of society’s manipulated normal. It will also consider how the concept of othering has materialized in the form of a metaphorical closet. Finally, this work will briefly reflect on Henri Lefebvre’s thematic trialectic, as well as Edward Soja’s Thirdspace, suggesting how these applications intersect the narrative of gender and sexuality by offering a space for social tension and limitless potential as we navigate the continuum of a new normal.

Soja's intent of Thirdspace encourages us "to think differently about the meaning and significance of space and those related concepts that compose and comprise the inherent spatiality of human life: place, location, locality, landscape, environment, home, city, region, territory, and geography" (Soja, 1). This is a far-reaching invitation to enter into a space of individual interpretation and creative expression. Yet, this kind of hybrid exploration does not come without risk. Places and spaces are not inherently powerful; they are made so by human beings. To further state this, we must consider Foucault's notion: that what and how one knows something is already an exercise of power (Foucault). Power and knowledge are always lurking somewhere in space. As in the case of “the closet,” power and knowledge are materialized in this space to oppress and marginalize that which deviates from socially constructed norms.

The identity of spaces and places, as well as the people who embody them, are emergent and free-flowing. This fluidity of identity and identifications, of places and spaces are "inextricably intertwined with the issue of the religious identity (or identities) of those who participate in such spaces and places and images" (Kinnard, 5). As we see by definition, the closet was initially designated as a place to study or pray. This delineation signifies an assumed intentionality for this space that includes some religious associations to the space and/or the person employing it. Much later in Places in Motion, Jacob Kinnard says "to define a place - or an object or a person - is also, always, to define what it or he or she is not" (188). To define something, by assigning meaning, or earmarking its identity, in essence, means to apportion that object or person into a socially constructed genre, rooted in power hierarchy, to maintain order.

The closet has been used for years to deny the presence and sexuality of gay, lesbian bi-sexual, transgender and queer ( persons. In line with Kinnard's definition, the metaphor "describes their absence - and alludes to their ironic presence nonetheless - in a society that, in countless and interlocking ways, subtly and blatantly dictates that heterosexuality is the only way to be" (Brown, 1). Spaces and spatial relations can conceal and deny in very complicated ways but they can also offer essential security. Creswell articulates this idea when he suggests this particular metaphor “is both a place of secrecy and a place of autonomy and safety." (105) It is for this very reason, I found the closet to be a deeply sacred space. On one hand it was the safest place I could find when the very core of my identity, my faith, was cast into the darker realm of sin and evil by outside influences. It was in this space that society, with its shaming repugnance of my identity, left me alone and isolated to confront my pain.

The closet is a rhetorical figure of speech that conveys one meaning through the comparison of another. It is also a spatial metaphor - a way of talking about power that makes sense, as Michael Brown points out, "because of a geographic epistemology that is largely taken for granted" (3). Particularly noteworthy, the study of human geography signifies that our orientation, how we place ourselves, is always in orientation to our bodies (Smith). When a person is oriented as being in the closet, they are marginalized and renounced for their identity. The ontological demands of the closet are oppressively burdensome: we cannot be of this world, or function in this world, unless we become something we are not. This not only points to a lack of being in the world, it also marks the inevitable subjugation we face if we "come out." Yet, when one “comes out” they do experience some form of liberation.

Claude Levi-Strauss's notion of the sacral suggests individuals give meaning and value to an object or place, but their interpretation is not universal: "the sacred is a value of indeterminate signification, in itself empty of meaning and therefore susceptible to the receipt of any meaning whatsoever" (Kinnard, 3). The closet was a space of deep seclusion that provided me with sanctuary; a space out of harm’s way to give voice to my anger and speak of the pain I endured as a result of lying, hiding, and shaming. The closet was a border flanking the repudiation of my family, admonishment of the church, and reproach from society. Nonetheless, it was this very refuge that I re-imagined my place in this world as one of powerful advocacy.

Lefebvre articulates a thematic trialectic of social space in his work, The Production of Space. He offers "three moments of social space" that have significant influence and common ground with Soja's trialectic of spatiality (Soja, 65). Lefebvre defines spatial practice as "the process of producing the material form of social spatiality, is thus presented by both medium and outcome of human activity, behavior, and experience" (66).

Spaces that are experienced socially are described as perceived space; they are open, to some degree, for evaluation and specification. The closet is a manifestation of heteronormative and homophobic powers as society has disseminated through the decryption of this space. This social construction of such oppression takes form in othering, “a means by which we produce an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ - and a ‘them’ that, frequently, needs to be dominated" (Kinnard, 188). Moreover, acting in time and space, the manifestation of materiality then oppresses the other. This discourse is essential to Soja’s redefined concept of firstspace (Soja, 66).

Representations of space are subsequently introduced as conceptualized spaces where significant tension is experienced. This conceived space is also tied to the relations of productions, and especially, to the order or design that they impose (67). As early as 1869, one hundred years before the Stonewall Riots, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a German homosexual rights advocate, introduced the idea of self-disclosure as a means of emancipation. His claim, that invisibility was a major obstacle in changing public opinion, urged homosexuals to reveal their identities (Stiftung). His moral ideology suggested the existence of what Kinnard describes as "an arbitrary line that defined not just territory, but, in very significant ways, identity" and with that classification comes all the complexities of association (189). The obligation to reveal, oneself supports the notion that this particular space was socially constructed as a means of control and exploitation.

Creswell articulates a common assumption, that heterosexuality is the accepted normal in society. To the straight person, and to the white, male, heterosexual, Christian, this is all invisible. To the heterosexual, "all space is straight space” and therefore this frivolous line separates and persecutes all others (105). This violent appropriation of space by one group, is an exercise in power, makes the others feel out of place. On the other hand, homosexuals see heteronormative behavior everywhere and through this they experience their own sexuality as radically out of place (104). This differentiation is another metaphor but accurately portrayed in Kinnard’s analogy: “a fence, a wall in this case, is also a walling out, a means of separating and defining - this, after all, what definition is all about - and this separating is more often than not likely to give offense, likely to be perceived, by someone who finds themselves on the wrong side of the wall" (188). This kind of dominant thought fuels epistemological power. This primary space of utopian thought and vision by an individual or group is what Soja refers to as secondspace (Soja, 67).

Spaces of representation, or lived space, as redefined by Lefebvre, are distinctly different yet contain both spatial practices, Soja’s firstspace, and representations of space, Soja’s secondspace. Lived space is how we occupy space and because we occupy it so vastly different it is a tangled realm defined by its complicated social and cultural relations. Michael Brown's work explores the power, knowledge, and space of the closet at the intersection of its materiality and its metaphor (Brown, 7). This is also Soja’s thirdspace. Just as fences and walls are not static, lived space is constantly evolving, and influenced by changes in firstspace. Lefebvre suggests a culture of "counterspaces," where "spaces of resistance to the dominant order arise precisely from their subordinate, peripheral, or marginalized positioning" (Soja, 68). It is in this space that LGBTQIA activism is grounded and in which the discourse of the continuum of gender and sexuality derives momentum. Creswell too, hints to spaces of representation, or thirdspace, by articulating "other kinds of sexuality - gay, lesbian, bisexual - commercial - threaten the links between space, meaning and practice that make up 'place' and suggest other ways of being - other possible meanings - new kinds of place" (109).

Firstspace epistemologies attend to the characterization and articulation of material spatiality, or perceived space. In Secondspace epistemologies, or conceived spaces, the conceptualized geography tends to become the realistic, with the image or representation coming to define its order (Soja, 79). Thirdspace epistemologies arise from the deconstruction of the firstspace-secondspace duality in a concept Soja refers to as thirding-as-Othering (81). It is in this relational space of infinite possibility that I find perpetuity for the continuum of gender and sexuality. Rather than viewing the closet as a container of oppression, we can envision it as bi-product of space. Gender and sexuality cannot be compartmentalized. Soja's Thirdspace is an engaging and auspicious summons to move beyond the binary framework. This new base will benefit our understanding of the world in so much as we are open to re-imagining our own understanding of human beings and their embodied potentials.


Creswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2011.

Brown, Michael. Closet Space: Geographies of Metaphor from the Body to the Globe. London: Routledge, 2000.

Foucault, Michel.

Kinnard, Jacob N. Places in Motion: The Fluid Identities of Temples, Images, and Pilgrims.

Smith, Jonathan Z. To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Soja, Edward W. Thirdspace: Expanding the Geographical Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.

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