Not Quite Out

By Terry Hong,
media arts consultant for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program
Wednesday, February 22, 2006


The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights

By Kenji Yoshino

Random House. 282 pp. $24.95

In a hospital waiting room, Kenji Yoshino brushed away the reaching, worried hand of his first boyfriend as they waited for a diagnosis that could have been serious. Ten years later, Yoshino, a Yale Law School professor and deputy dean, still winces at the memory. In his rejection of his lover's hand, Yoshino was "covering": Although he was openly gay, he refused to engage in public displays of affection that might seem to "flaunt" his homosexuality.

"Everyone covers," Yoshino asserts at the beginning of his intriguing book. "Covering," a term coined by sociologist Erving Goffman in 1963, means to play down certain characteristics in order to fit into the perceived mainstream. Yoshino provides a number of examples: Krishna Bhanji covered his Indian ethnicity when he became Ben Kingsley; Margaret Thatcher covered her femininity by hiring a coach to help lower her voice; Mary Cheney covered by deflecting the media from her same-sex partner; Issur Danielovitch Demsky covered his Jewish heritage by becoming Kirk Douglas; and even the great FDR covered his wheelchair-bound legs by moving behind a desk whenever his Cabinet entered his office.

Covering, Yoshino posits, is "the dark side of assimilation." While he recognizes that assimilation "is often necessary to fluid social interaction, to peaceful coexistence," when it becomes a demand for covering, it becomes a "hidden assault on our civil rights." Within what Yoshino calls "traditional civil rights classifications like race, sex, orientation, religion, and disability," racial minorities are pressured to "act white," women to act more like men, homosexuals to not "flaunt," the religious to hide their beliefs, and the disabled to keep their impairments out of sight.

In our post 9/11 society of diminishing civil rights, Yoshino's debut is well timed: "Covering" is already being touted on "must-read" and "editor's choice" lists. What you need to know to participate in the conversations that will inevitably surround this book is mostly contained in the preface -- it's that concise, and a certain repetitiveness throughout the book lessens its impact.

"Covering" includes textbook analyses such as Yoshino's "three phases" of gay identity -- conversion (wanting to be anything but gay), passing ("don't ask, don't tell") and covering (out, but not flaunting). Yoshino also identifies the four axes along which everyone covers: appearance, affiliation, activism and association. He discusses important legal decisions that, in his view, coerced individuals to cover: Shahar v. Bowers , which upheld the firing of a lesbian attorney not because she was homosexual but because she held a religious ceremony that "married" her to another woman; Rogers v. American Airlines , which upheld the dismissal of an employee not because she was African American but for wearing cornrows, a hairstyle strongly associated with African Americans; and Jespersen v. Harrah's, in which an appellate court upheld the firing of a casino bartender not because she was a woman but because she refused to wear makeup.

Although civil law, legal briefs and history make up most of Yoshino's book, the personal stories included are its strength. For example, Yoshino winningly recalls his days as an English major who persuasively petitioned to write a poetry collection instead of a traditional thesis. With his Exeter/Harvard/Rhodes scholar/Yale Law credentials, Yoshino is undoubtedly a member of the elite. Yet as a gay American-born son of Japanese immigrants, he recognizes that privilege does not always protect him from the demands of covering.

With heartbreaking poignancy, he shares his own coming-out story. "This is the worst any closet does to us," he writes; "it prevents us from hearing the words 'I love you.' " While he trusts his parents' "love," he cannot trust the "you," because the "you" they love must be "some other, better son." His stories are not without humor: Once out and trying to pass, he hits the gym to "acquire a straight-acting body" but confesses he "dreamed of a gym spangled with lesbian poetry -- Emily Dickinson's 'I like to see it Lap the Miles' over the pool and Adrienne Rich's 'the experience of repetition of Death' over the weight rack." And he notes how his parents "flaunted" his heritage on his behalf in giving him a Japanese name even though they "must have intuited that people with white-sounding names fare better than individuals with ethnic ones."

In his many stories and histories, Yoshino ultimately channels Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, who called for a transition from a civil rights paradigm, which polarizes in its inherent focus on specific groups, to a human rights model that champions common humanity. Yoshino believes the Supreme Court is moving in a similar direction, citing the 2003 decision to strike down Lawrence v. Texas , which had criminalized same-sex sodomy, because it violated the fundamental right to privacy for all persons -- regardless of orientation. Yoshino might seem Pollyanna-hopeful to some, but his optimistic insistence on fair treatment for everyone is really not much different from our country's most idealist vision of itself: "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company