Closeted in plain sight

Yale law professor Kenji Yoshino talks about his new book, Covering, inspired by how gay people hide themselves in public—to the detriment of our fight for equality

BY Regina Marler

January 30 2006 1:00 AM ET

Do you kiss your
boyfriend at the airport? Correct the salesperson who
assumes your spouse is someone of the opposite sex? If you
instinctively draw back in situations like these, you
understand “covering”—out Yale
law professor Kenji Yoshino’s term for all the ways
in which gay people and other minorities willingly
closet ourselves in the interest of conformity.
We’re covering when we tone down our self-expression
in an attempt to “pass” through the
world without conflict or confrontation. And the world
rewards that choice. In his book Covering: The Hidden
Assault on Our Civil Rights
(Random House, $24.95),
Yoshino points out that while many basic civil rights
have been extended to gays, the courts still punish
those who “act” gay.

there’s no one way to be gay, he
argues—finding a place at the table for both
Larry Kramer and Andrew Sullivan—we can’t
achieve true equality until we resist demands to
conform. It has to be OK to “flaunt” our
authentic selves, even if we choose not to. Yoshino’s
discussion of significant civil rights cases is
interwoven with a memoir of his own coming-out in a
Japanese-American family and in academia, and the stages
by which he came to value himself “over the
world’s opinion.”

In arguing that forced conformity damages our selves and
our civil rights, you seem to presuppose that we
have already achieved basic equality.

This book was turned in about a year and a half
ago, before the country took this sharp turn to the
right. If I were writing it now, it would probably be
more cautious. But I’m an optimist by nature.
Worldwide—among the nations that we would
consider peers—there’s a seemingly inexorable
trend to greater civil rights. Still, so many people say,
“I’m not against gay rights, but I
don’t think they should marry,” or “I
don’t think they should kiss on the
street.” And that’s inconsistent.
That’s what we see again and again in these
covering cases.

So the demand that we “cover” exposes the
underlying prejudice that lingers even though laws
have changed?
Exactly. There’s a distinction made between
people who are “flamboyant” and those
who are “discreet.” So you could be fired for
having a private religious marriage ceremony with your
partner, because that’s perceived as
“flaunting.” Evidence of pride in one’s
identity brings on backlash. And the savagery of that
backlash shows there’s a huge reservoir of
prejudice and bad feeling.

In your book you talk about how gay activists interrupted
the meeting of the American Psychiatric
Association in 1970 and were granted a place on
the podium the following year. The strategy seems to be:
First, shake up your oppressors;
next, reassure them that you’re not so
different. Where does “covering” fall in
this continuum?
Refusing to cover does seem like part of the resistance
strategy. But it could also be an act of reassurance,
because the only way you sustain the fiction of
difference is by not coming out in the first place. So
many things that are perceived now as flaunting could, in
another generation, be acts of reassurance, like
same-sex marriage. In Massachusetts, pro-gay sentiment
went through the roof a year after gay marriage went
through. The Chicken Little sentiment didn’t play
out. Gay marriage became mundane. People saw that we
weren’t so different.

Why shouldn’t people “cover” what
might be considered gay behavior, particularly
when society and the courts clearly reserve their
harshest judgments for those who “flaunt?”

[Laughs] I’m not providing people
with a lot of incentive not to cover! But I take the
question really seriously. We should resist because as
long as we don’t, nothing changes.

Tags: Commentary