Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rightsby Kenji Yoshino
Everyone covers. To cover is to downplay a disfavored trait so as to blend into the mainstream. Because all of us possess stigmatized attributes, we all encounter
In this remarkable and elegant work, acclaimed Yale Law School professor Kenji Yoshino fuses legal manifesto and poetic memoir to call for a redefinition of civil rights in our law and culture.
Everyone covers. To cover is to downplay a disfavored trait so as to blend into the mainstream. Because all of us possess stigmatized attributes, we all encounter pressure to cover in our daily lives. Given its pervasiveness, we may experience this pressure to be a simple fact of social life.
Against conventional understanding, Kenji Yoshino argues that the demand to cover can pose a hidden threat to our civil rights. Though we have come to some consensus against penalizing people for differences based on race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and disability, we still routinely deny equal treatment to people who refuse to downplay differences along these lines. Racial minorities are pressed to “act white” by changing their names, languages, or cultural practices. Women are told to “play like men” at work. Gays are asked not to engage in public displays of same-sex affection. The devout are instructed to minimize expressions of faith, and individuals with disabilities are urged to conceal the paraphernalia that permit them to function. In a wide-ranging analysis, Yoshino demonstrates that American civil rights law has generally ignored the threat posed by these covering demands. With passion and rigor, he shows that the work of civil rights will not be complete until it attends to the harms of coerced conformity.
At the same time, Yoshino is responsive to the American exasperation with identity politics, which often seems like an endless parade of groups asking for state and social solicitude. He observes that the ubiquity of the covering demand provides an opportunity to lift civil rights into a higher, more universal register. Since we all experience the covering demand, we can all make common cause around a new civil rights paradigm based on our desire for authenticity–a desire that brings us together rather than driving us apart.
Yoshino’s argument draws deeply on his personal experiences as a gay Asian American. He follows the Romantics in his belief that if a human life is described with enough particularity, the universal will speak through it. The result is a work that combines one of the most moving memoirs written in years with a landmark manifesto on the civil rights of the future.
“This brilliantly argued and engaging book does two things at once, and it does them both astonishingly well. First, it's a finely grained memoir of young man’s struggles to come to terms with his sexuality, and second, it's a powerful argument for a whole new way of thinking about civil rights and how our society deals with difference. This book challenges us all to confront our own unacknowledged biases, and it demands that we take seriously the idea that there are many different ways to be human. Kenji Yoshino is the face and the voice of the new civil rights.” -Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed
“Kenji Yoshino has not only given us an important, compelling new way to understand civil rights law, a major accomplishment in itself, but with great bravery and honesty, he has forged his argument from the cauldron of his own experience. In clear, lyrical prose, Covering quite literally brings the law to life. The result is a book about our public and private selves as convincing to the spirit as it is to the mind.” -Adam Haslett, author of You Are Not A Stranger Here
“Kenji Yoshino's work is often moving and always clarifying. Covering elaborates an original, arresting account of identity and authenticity in American culture.”
-Anthony Appiah, author of The Ethics of Identity and Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor Of Philosophy at Princeton University
“This stunning book introduces three faces of the remarkable Kenji Yoshino: a writer of poetic beauty; a soul of rare reflectivity and decency; and a brilliant lawyer and scholar, passionately committed to uncovering human rights. Like W.E.B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, this book fearlessly blends gripping narrative with insightful analysis to further the cause of human emancipation. And like those classics, it should explode into America's consciousness.”
-Harold Hongju Koh Dean, Yale Law School and former Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights
“Covering is a magnificent work - so eloquently and powerfully written I literally could not put it down. Sweeping in breadth, brilliantly argued, and filled with insight, humor, and erudition, it offers a fundamentally new perspective on civil rights and discrimination law. This extraordinary book is many things at once: an intensely moving personal memoir; a breathtaking historical and cultural synthesis of assimilation and American equality law; an explosive new paradigm for transcending the morass of identity politics; and in parts, pure poetry. No one interested in civil rights, sexuality, discrimination - or simply human flourishing - can afford to miss it.”
-Amy Chua, author of World on Fire
“In this stunning, original book, Kenji Yoshino demonstrates that the struggle for gay rights is not only a struggle to liberate gays-it is a struggle to free all of us, straight and gay, male and female, white and black, from the pressures and temptations to cover vital aspects of ourselves and deprive ourselves and others of our full humanity. Yoshino is both poet and lawyer, and by joining an exquisitely observed personal memoir with a historical analysis of civil rights, he shows why gay rights is so controversial at present,
why “covering” is the issue of contention, and why the “covering demand,” universal in application, is the civil rights issue of our time. This is a beautifully written, brilliant and hopeful book, offering a new understanding of what is at stake in our fight for human rights.”
-Carol Gilligan, author of In a Different Voice
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Read an Excerpt
AN UNCOVERED SELF
Send the beloved child on a journey,” the Japanese proverb says. So when I turned thirteen, my parents sent me to boarding school. I could see they wished to keep me close, but worried about the effects of tenderness. Small for my age, not so much quiet as silent, I was tarrying at the threshold of adolescence. A singer, I was stricken when my clean boy soprano, that noise only boys can make, broke into a sublunary baritone.
So off I went, to boarding school and radical reinvention. The need for self-reliance called into being a self on which I could rely. As no one knew me there, no one could challenge the authenticity of this brighter self. Seemingly overnight, I became full of speeches, sociable. I have never worked so hard, or been so happily appetitive, as in those years.
Yet physically I remained a small dark thing altogether. I remember thinking during a soccer practice that I must have had a lot of natural muscle once, to feel so punished as I watched those boys scissor the air with their blond high school legs. Their bodies hummed to a frequency not my own as balls sailed fluently into nets. I sensed these bodies knew other bodies, as I knew calculus or Shakespeare. That knowledge flaunted itself in the lilt of small hairs off their necks.
I would not have been able to say I was gay and these others were straight. I knew only I was asked not to be myself, and that to fail to meet that demand was to make myself illegible, my future unimaginable. I hoped time would soften the difference between others and me, but knew it would do the opposite.
To evade my fate, I acquired a girlfriend. I have a memory of my dormitory’s stairwell, where boys would kiss girls good night before curfew. I am standing on the bottom step looking down at her. She is Filipina, a year older, her fluency in French standing for her urbanity. The waver of shadow superimposes an ambivalence on the sweet certainty of her face. I wonder what is more abject than this—my brain urging the bloodrush and attention that comes so naturally, so involuntarily, to others.
Of course, it was not wonderful to be her, either. Yet it was many years before I would speculate about the other side of that kiss. Only after I came out did I listen to the rueful stories of gay men—how one picked fights with his wife to avoid sex, how another wished his girlfriend would turn into a pizza at nightfall. The trials of those who love the closeted have yet to be told. I was nowhere near imagining them then.
My rising anxiety gave me limitless life force in other spheres. I remember a biology lab in which we observed a spear-headed water worm. Like a starfish, it could grow back anything we razored off it, even to the point of generating multiple versions of itself. I saw myself in that gliding shape. Arrow-shaped, it never arrived where it wanted to go. But it knew, when cut, to grow.
As I moved from high school to college, my mill of activity became more frenetic, a way of keeping the world at bay. At Harvard, I took five or six courses a semester, and as many extracurriculars, foreclosing time for thought, for breath. Friends complained I was walled up, a Jericho waiting for its Joshua. Yet alongside my silence was a ravening urge to speak. So I began to study poetry—a childhood passion—more formally, finding solace in a language more public than thought but more private than prose. Instead of writing an analytic thesis to graduate as an English major, I petitioned to write a collection of my own poems.
Writing these poems gave me more pleasure than anything before. That year, the only reason anything had to be, was to be a poem—the icicles making their small clear points on the eaves, the broken gate that clacked double knuckled on its hinge, the bitter flesh star at the heart of a lemon. Poetry was my medium, as rigid and formal and obscure as its author. On Saturday nights, I would sit in my cement-block dorm room with my face lit green by my IBM’s glow, agonizing not over women, or men, but line breaks. I thought myself happy, and in some sense I was.
The readers of my collection understood as much of me as I did. One grader took it on faith: “I cannot see what you have seen. But I can see that you have seen.” The other did not. Impatient, he quoted Marvin Bell’s line about how to become a writer is to become “less and less embarrassed about more and more.”
Neither grader had license to say the collection was hard to read for a different reason: it was full of pain. The collection ends in crisis—the last poem, titled “The Infanticide of My Professions,” was about the selves we had to kill in young adulthood. The word “profession” carried its double sense of façade and occupation. The poem expressed the hope I would destroy the selves I only professed to be, and be left with one with a natural vocation. That hope was smothered by the fear I might murder the real self or, worse, that I might find that self to be a tragic one. I still find this poem difficult to read.
Yet when I wrote it, I acted as if I could carry the world before me. My curricular and extracurricular frenzy had won me a Rhodes scholarship to England. (Perhaps the closeted should not be permitted to compete for these fellowships—we have the advantage of those Saturday nights.) But the carbonation in my veins when I won was less joy than relief. I had a new precocity to balance against my backwardness, this social acceptance to weigh against my refusal of life.
One person saw through me. The poetry professor who had supervised my thesis was a Pre-Raphaelite figure. A whippet-thin chain smoker, she had waist-length auburn hair and eyebrows sharp as circumflex accents. She was the best teacher I have ever had—she returned each poem marked up in three colors, one for each pass she had taken over it. She gave me a nickname: Radiating Naivete. “Radiating Naivete,” she would say when we bumped into each other near midnight at Caffé Paradiso, “have you entered the realm of the erotic yet?” In a letter she gave me at graduation, she described sitting on a plane next to an emergency exit. There was an arc painted next to the handle, each end of which was marked with a scarlet word: “Engage” and “Disengage.” The handle was on “Disengage.” She said it made her think of me.
I was not ready when emergency came. Until then, I had been splendidly noncommittal: neither Japanese nor American, neither poet nor pragmatist, neither straight nor gay. But it seemed all ambiguities had to be resolved that year. I had to choose citizenship—the red Japanese passport or the blue American one, the two colors of blood. I had to choose a career—literature or law. Most of all, I had to choose—or choose to acknowledge—the sexuality that roiled the surface that summer when I fell bewilderingly in love.
The Japanese character for erotic desire is the same as that for color. Some say this commonality arises from the Buddhist teaching that desire, like color, distracts us from enlightenment by calling us to the things of this world. The world’s colorless wave broke kaleidoscopically over me when I met Brian. We lived together after graduation while we attended summer school—he to complete medical school prerequisites, I to prepare for my time in En-gland. Brian was the first in his family to attend college and was, like me, hungry to prove himself. But unlike me, he had directed his intensity outward, devoting his college years to ceaseless public service. This moved me.
One glittering afternoon, we walked along the Charles River. It was a Sunday—the riverside drive was hedged with sawhorses, closed to cars. The cyclists sheared the air. Dazzled by the needles of light stitching the water, I turned to watch him watch them. I noticed his eyelashes were reflected in his eyes, like awnings in windowpanes. As I tried to make sense of that reflection, I found I could not look away. His irises were brown, clouding into orange, with brighter flecks around his pupils. Then it became as important not to look as to look, as I feared I would be lost in a rush of bronze motes.
It hardly mattered that I knew he was straight. I experienced my desire for him, which was a pent-up desire for many men, as having an absolute absolved necessity. Just as the brain seems larger than the skull that contains it, so did my desire seem grossly to exceed the contours of my body. I thought if I could only make him experience the strength of what I felt, he could not demur.
I had, in one sense, chosen the right man. Brian responded with compassion. Yet my desire was now not only thwarted, but exposed. Brian made me acknowledge my knowledge; he made me own myself. I snapped back into my skin. And I felt something in me crack—like a safe, a whip.
Meet the Author
Kenji Yoshino is the deputy dean for intellectual life and professor of law at Yale Law School. For more information about Yoshino’s work, visit www.kenjiyoshino.com.
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My queer book club read this and had the best turnout and conversation yet! Incredible blend of logical and legal rigor with holistic storytelling that everyone can commeny and ponder on.
There have been several struggles in civil rights in the USA. Women suffrage, African American civil rights, and finally the Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Bisexual cause. Yoshino, a law professor at Yale and a gay, Asian-American man, masterfully melds autobiography and legal scholarship in this book, marking a move from more traditional pleas for civil equality to a case for individual autonomy in identity politics. Seldom has a work of such careful intellectual rigor and fairness been so deeply touching. In questioning the phenomenon of 'covering,' a term used for the coerced hiding of crucial aspects of one's self--in his case his homosexuality--Yoshino thrusts the reader into a battlefield of shifting gray areas. Yet, at every step, he anticipates the reader's questions and rebuttals, answering them not only with acute reasoning, but also with disarming humility. What emerges is an eloquent, poetic protest against the hidden prejudices embedded in American civil rights legislation--legislation that tacitly apologizes for 'immutable' human difference from the white, male, straight norm, rather than defending one's 'right to say what one is.' Though Yoshino recognizes the law's potential to further (and hinder) liberty's cause, he admits that his 'education in law has been an education in its limitations.' Hence, by way of his unsparing accounts of self-realization, he reveals that the struggle against oppression lies not solely in fighting an imagined, monolithic state but as much in intimate discourse with the mother, the father, and the colleague who constitute that state. It deals with the ability to 'blend' with the society who is yet to give the GLBT community the rights and respect it deserves. As healing as it is polemical, this book has tremendous potential as a touchstone in the struggle for universal human dignity.
In lucid terms that escape the legalese that burdens related books, Yale Law School professor Kenji Yoshino discusses a topic that I never really knew had a formal definition. He describes 'covering' as the purposeful act of toning down a 'disfavored identity' to fit into the mainstream. Since notions of disfavored identities can get subjective, anyone can cover, whether people are members of ethnic minority groups hiding specific cultural behaviors or even white males hiding less discernible problems such as depression, alcoholism or backgrounds that embarrass them. Consequently, given the pervasiveness of such behavior, covering would seem comparatively innocuous, but Yoshino provides ample evidence that covering is a hidden assault on our civil rights. Moreover, it is becoming more of a civil rights issue as the nation's courts struggle with an increasingly multi-ethnic America. His penetrating book is a hybrid between a revelatory memoir and a level-headed treatise on the unacceptability of the current legal doctrine around our civil rights. Toward the latter point, Yoshino discusses covering within the broader context of often egregious civil rights injustices. As he explains it, the courts are mired in group-based identity politics and driven by calls for equality. For example, to sue successfully under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment, a group claiming discrimination has one of two options. First, the group could argue that it has been denied a fundamental right, like the right to vote. Alternatively, it can contend that the law in question employs a suspect classification, i.e., that the law unjustly singles out a particular group. To argue successfully that it has been penalized by a suspect classification, a group must show that its members have historically been victimized and deserve greater protection from the courts. Given these options, Yoshino describes the increasing wariness about identity politics in a country continually spawning new identities. The current legal trend shows the courts to be veering increasingly toward protecting only the immutable aspects of identity. The legal aspects are surprisingly fascinating in Yoshino's hands, but the more personal parts of his book are the most illuminating, in particular, Yoshino's journey out of the closet. Using his own history as a touch point, he explains the three distinct phases of gay history - conversion, passing, and covering - each defined by various pressures that enforce conformity. During the conversion phase (recreated in films like Todd Haynes's 'Far From Heaven' and James Ivory's 'Maurice'), gays were pressured to become heterosexual through electro-shock treatments or aversion therapy. During the passing stage, gays were relegated to the closet since mental health professionals were not providing a cure for mainstream acceptance, and having a hidden identity was the only viable way to be tolerated in society. Yoshino contends we are currently in the third phase, covering, where being gay is passively acceptable as long as people offended by it do not have to witness such an alternative lifestyle. From one perspective, one can consider it progress that covering even occurs even though the religious right still makes an emphatic effort to convert gays or keep them out of jobs that could pass such supposedly deviant behavior to susceptible children. This is where Yoshino's personal struggles to cover inform the book. His bracing honesty is refreshing in showing how coming out is despite the dramatic convention of TV-movies, not a declaration that liberates one in a single moment, but a far more gradual process where defining what it means to be gay becomes even more nebulous within the constant ambiguity around gay legal issues. Yoshino eloquently clarifies how the pervasiveness of societal pressures can waylay a person caught in the crossfire between acceptance and personal liberation. The best w