In Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (2006), Kenji Yoshino uses “covering” to mean the opposite of flaunting. Covering is a wide array of behaviors by individuals in a society that attempt to hide the way those people don’t conform to the “mainstream” idea of what society considers “normal” human behavior. Covering is assimilation, an often useful action in a diverse society of people trying to get along with one another.
Yoshino frames covering as part of a spectrum of oppressive behavior by dominant cultural groups, a spectrum that starts with demands to “convert,” then to “pass,” and finally to “cover.” Focusing largely on gay and lesbian identity, Yoshino traces some of the history of demands to “covert” to heterosexuality, followed by the demand to “pass” as straight, and finally, the current requirement to cover, potently symbolized by the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the U.S. military. Converting is about actually becoming something different; the “converted” would actually stop being attracted to same-sex partners and be attracted exclusively to opposite-sex partners. Passing is less about actually changing your preferences; instead, it’s about pretending to be something you’re not; it’s a performance of heterosexuality. Covering is not a full on performance of straightness, but rather a not-flaunting of queerness. As I said above, covering is the opposite of flaunting.
The same spectrum of oppression works outside of hetero-normativity. For example, racial minorities in the U.S. have had a similar history, though of course passing is limited to those whose phenotype allows them to do so. Covering is much more pernicious. Witness the demand for African-American’s to wear their hair more like white or Asian hair, a demand that requires painful treatments, enormous amounts of money, and hours of regular maintenance. African-American women face especially stringent requirements for what hairstyles are acceptable, requirements that deny a rich cultural history and the physical nature of their hair. (If you haven’t seen Chris Rock’s documentary, Good Hair, on the subject, then check it out as soon as you can.) Essentially, our society asks black folks not to display their black hair, i.e., not to be so black.
As a straight, white male from an essentially middle-class background, I have to cover few, if any, of what U.S. culture considers major dimensions of identity to make myself seem “normal.” That doesn’t mean I don’t need to cover parts of myself. For a relatively mild example, I occasionally like to lick my plate, not wanting to waste the delicious sauce on the dish; however, I usually (but not always) restrain that urge in public because I don’t want people to think I’m completely uncouth or crazy. More seriously, I frequently hide my urge to cry in public. I also quite consciously dress to be taken seriously at my job, despite the fact that I would often be happier in other, less “acceptable” clothing.
I mention these examples not to trivialize the oppression that people of color, women, members of the LGBT community, and others experience, nor to make light of the strong demands that our culture makes on them to cover their individuality. Instead, I mean to emphasize that we are all required to cover in one way or another. Covering mutes our individuality by obscuring the idiosyncratic differences between us. And, as Yoshino acknowledges, this is often good because it helps the world run more smoothly. As long as people are given the choice to cover or not, Yoshino has no problem. What he objects to is forcing people to assimilate.
Yoshino’s discussion of covering is most poignant when most personal, when he describes his coming out as a gay man and then his struggle not to cover. His legal analysis brings out his training as a lawyer, which is good—and, as with much legalese, sometimes you wish he had said the same thing in a lot fewer words. At the same time, his experience as a poet and his general love of language make even the driest passages a relative joy to read. I’ve never read a more finely crafted piece of non-fiction. In this way, Yoshino is refusing to cover any of who he is—poet, lawyer, son-of-immigrants, gay man, and more—he flaunts it all. His final prediction, about the end of identity politics, seems overly optimistic, perhaps even naïve; but I believe he is true to his experience and to who he is throughout. That courage not to cover is rare and I, for one, appreciate it.