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Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (Review) 6 November 2006

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Law/Courts, Queer Theory, Reviews.
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[Note: This is actually less a review than me trying to get Yoshino’s arguments straight as I think about their implications.]

As the United States becomes more and more diverse culturally, the questions raised by multiculturalism in the past 50 years become all the more pressing, as we try to rethink what a pluralistic democracy could and should mean for a population of people so widely different from each other. Europe is facing similar dynamics, but their history of immigration and cohesion is so much longer and so much more recent that their experiences are and will continue to be different. But on both sides of the pond, we’re trying to grapple with protecting people’s rights to “be” their cultural identity, while at the same time balancing that with the rights of others. As a gay man, I’m often confronted with these kinds of dilemmas, as I feel the erosion of gay cultural spaces and practices by the encroachment of the dominant culture into gay neighborhoods (for example). For all minorities, the tensions between assimilating (in it’s most basic sense of becoming more like the majority, or mainstream, culture) and remaining or reaffirming one’s difference can be vexing, to say the least.

Kenji Yoshino’s book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, locates the problem in a new kind of cultural pressure, where individuals are protecting in being different, but not in acting different. Borrowing the term from the important American social-psychologist Irving Goffman, Yoshino argues that minorities are required to cover their cultural differences in order to maintain their position in the public sphere, keep their jobs, avoid violence, gain social acceptance, or avoid conflict in day-to-day activities. Yoshino uses the gay experience in the 20th century of working toward civil rights as a kind of prototype of the experience of other kinds of minorities who move through the kinds of assimilation required in different phases of acceptance: conversion, passing, and finally covering. Here, the history of gay rights reflects the individual’s process of moving from trying to be something he is not (conversion), to trying to pass (knowing he is gay, but trying to avoid acting in anyway that would give away his hidden status), to covering (being openly gay, but trying to act in ways required by the dominant culture to avoid offending).

Yoshino deftly interweaves history with personal experience with legal decisions and analysis to demonstrate what is problematic in the dominant culture’s attempts to force minorities to assimilate, to become like the “mainstream.” On a personal note, I have to say that Yoshino’s experiences of his sexuality were so parallel to mine as to literally in some places take my breath away. Conversion is basically the idea that heterosexuality is normal and natural, and that gay individuals should (must) convert into heterosexuals (Yoshino rehearses the long and vexing debates in American psychiatry and psychology in this regard; and then completely botches a critique of the biological/medical evidence of homosexuality’s origins). In contemporary America, Yoshino sees the vestiges of conversion in the “no-promo-homo” laws around the country, where you are allowed to be gay in public, but you are not allowed to act gay (whatever that may mean). This distinction has been continually held up by the courts for the past 30 years or so, especially in the work place. Yoshino argues that the revolution of the Gay LIbbers in the early 1970s was to argue that “gay is good,” to argue for the validity of homosexuality per se, rather than to argue for the immutability (the naturalness) of homosexuality, which is where the law resides. Yoshino is basically wrong in the history (ONE magazine was arguing that gay is good in the mid-1950s, and the San Francisco gay community was making similar public arguments 8 years before Stone wall), but that doesn’t detract from the salience of the argument. Regardless, the problem is the continued efforts in the public sphere to force gay men and women to change their behavior to conform to social ‘norms.’

Passing is much more common than conversion now, as we’ve left behind increasingly the notions that an individual can and should try to change into a heterosexual. Passing is like wearing the ‘albatross’ of truth around our gay necks, Yoshino says, a weight that presses against you as you try to move through your life without revealing your secret. Again making basic historical mistakes, but nonetheless making a valid point about passing, Yoshino argues that the internalization of the imperative to be straight causes gay people to despise what they see in the mirror and to try to appear “normal” at all costs. One of my pet peeves about gay history, especially in the popular imagination, is the reliance on Stonewall as a marker. But Yoshino explains, interestingly, that Stonewall is our communal coming out story, the marker of our refusal to convert.

It’s really in Chapter Three that Yoshino hits his stride. Here we see a gay community divided by the issue of covering, where status within the community and vis-a-vis the dominant culture are measured in the ability or desire to cover one’s sexuality. The “normals” (e.g., Andrew Sullivan) are the ‘pro-covering’ crowd, those who want to downplay or eliminate gay cultural difference; and the “queers” (e.g., Michael Warner), those who want to emphasize their differences. Both sides are openly gay, but have a different orientation to assimilation. I appreciated Yoshino’s openness to both arguments as valid decisions within American culture (a stance I myself take in analyzing 1960s gay male culture in my upcoming book on that topic); Yoshino argues ultimately that what matters isn’t an individual gay person’s personal choice regarding covering, but rather the context of their making that decision. Covering becomes bad when it is coerced and not chosen, when it is imposed rather than a personal decision of preference for cultural style.

The problem comes from the structural coercion toward covering. Moving to race and gender covering, Yoshino points to a series of court cases wherein cultural differences are seen as something you “do” and not something you “are”, and because the civil rights tradition in the U.S. has focused on protecting what is immutable in the individual, the courts rule almost always against what you “do”. So a woman who wears cornrows to work (race), or another woman who has a baby (sex), can legally be discriminated against because these are “choices” not immutable qualities of the individual. Yoshino criticizes these court decisions, arguing that the standard is actually wrong: the employer (or state) should have to demonstrate a reasonable explanation of why the individual should cover. In other words, the question isn’t whether or not a person can cover, but whether or not a person should cover in a given context. Again demonstrating his flexibility, Yoshino argues that there may indeed be compelling reasons to require covering (one example he gives is of a muslim woman being required to unveil for government identification photographs), but that often the cases that actually go to court don’t amount to compelling reasons for covering (e.g., why *should* an African American woman be required to take her hair out of cornrows for work? why should a female bartender be required to wear makeup?). With sexual covering, Yoshino also demonstrates an interesting contradiction: Women are required to ‘reverse-cover’, as they are often required to act out the feminine role rather than cover it up; indeed, women in the workplace are often required both to cover their femininity and to enact femininity at the same time, creating a kind of cultural double-bind they cannot escape.

In both the race and the gender chapters, I couldn’t help but recall the arguments I’d recently read by Michael Benn Walters about race and gender inequality. And I also couldn’t help but be horrified by Yoshino’s facile use of ‘race’ as a gloss for something that is unitary and consistent, especially with things like cornrows: He treats such cultural practices as immutable, even as he criticizes the court for requiring immutability for protection. Ultimately, he pulls himself out of those problems by making his argument: That the burden should be on the state to demonstrate a compelling reason to foreclose a cultural practice, rather than on the individual to demonstrate that their practice is immutably part of their identity.

In the last section of the book, Yoshino’s argument becomes the most compelling, as he moves from a problematic analysis of religious freedom (again, I couldn’t help but scream to myself, “But religions are truth claims that must be debated in the public sphere!”) to an analysis of how we might go about protecting against covering demands. In a nutshell, Yoshino argues that we move from a Civil Rights model (which focuses on protection of groups) to a Human Rights model, which universalizes our needs and desires as people living together in American democracy. Interestingly, Yoshino suggests that the more diverse we become in America, the more exhausted we grow of multiculturalism and the more evident our shared humanity. The recent Lawrence v. Texas decision overturning sodomy laws is a prime example: The rationale for the court decision was not that gay men should be protected in their practices as a group, but rather that all individual adults in America should have an expectation of privacy regarding their consensual intimate sexual acts and choices. He also sites Tennessee v. Lane, wherein a wheelchair-bound woman sued the state of Tennessee because she couldn’t get into court buildings and perform her job. The court ruled that all americans have a reasonable expectation of the ability to enter into public buildings, especially courts, and ruled in her favor. This is a universalization of the rights argument, where when an issue of covering or passing comes before the court, the court rules based on human rights of the individual rather than on protected group status.

Most disappointing in Yoshino’s book was the lack of historical depth or accuracy (but to be fair, he’s functioning off of dominant narratives) and too often sliding into a kind of racial and ethnic essentialism that makes me extremely uncomfortable. What I find most hopeful about Yoshino’s formulation is that it allows for the diversity of actual practice, for individuals to chose the cultural afflilations and practices that work for them, allowing for example, both the normals and the queers to exist in the U.S. without either being privileged in the public sphere.

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