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Closeted in plain

Closeted in plain


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

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.

Although 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.

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Regina Marler