What's "covering"? In his 1963 book Stigma, the sociologist Erving Goffman used the term to describe the behaviors of certain stigmatized groups to manage the stigmas they possess. Even privileged white men may have a stigma they need to "cover": everyone knew Franklin Delano Roosevelt used a wheelchair but he was never photographed in one, and he always greeted guests sitting behind a desk so no one would think "wheelchair" when they looked at him.
Yoshino sees "covering" as a third phase of gay history.
Through the middle of the twentieth century, gays were routinely asked to convert to heterosexuality, whether through lobotomies, electroshock therapy, or psychoanalysis. As the gay rights movement gained strength, the demand to convert gradually ceded to the demand to pass [as in "Don't ask, don't tell"]. Finally, at millenium's turn, the demand to pass is giving way to the demand to cover -- gays are increasingly permitted to be gay and out so long as we do not "flaunt" our identities. The contemporary resistance to gay marriage can be understood as a covering demand: Fine, be gay; but don't shove it in our faces.
It's not just a gay issue either: all civil rights groups face similar demands -- "too black," "too Jewish," women shouldn't act like women in the workplace -- and consider what Muslims have had to do in this country, especially after 9/11.
What do these demands have in common? They ask for conformity to the dominant white culture and attempt to establish a certain type of male behavior as the way everyone acts. In fact, we aren't entirely safe when we are admitted to the arena of white male privilege, we're expected to adopt certain forms and patterns of behavior if we don't want to be kicked out of it.
There are four aspects of covering behavior.
Appearance concerns how an individual physically presents herself to the world. Affiliation concerns her cultural identifications. Activism concerns how much she politicizes her identity. Association concerns her choice of fellow travelers -- lovers, friends, colleagues. These are the dimensions along which gays decide just how gay we want to be.
Not just gays, either, as covering demands are also made on racial minorities, women, religious minorities, and people with disabilities. Incidentally, marriage equality is an act both of covering, or assimilation, and of flaunting. It just depends on who is looking at it.
But this isn't just about LGBT issues. "Being" is okay, but "doing," not so much. Yoshino finds he has covered his Asian identity almost as much as he has covered his gay identity, and "acting white" is a covering mechanism for African-Americans who choose to do so as much as it is for Asians. For African-Americans, he tells us about Rogers v American Airlines (1981). Rogers wore her hair in cornrows, but the airline had a policy that prohibited all-braided hairstyles. She challenged the policy as race and gender discrimination, and lost: an Afro would have been fine, but braiding was the product of artifice. Being is protected, doing is not.
As for the gay context . . . we should not confuse selective appropriation of minority cultures with general acceptance. The fact that cases like Rogers are still on the books means employees can still make such demands for racial asimilation with impunity.
It's even worse for women, who are subject to both covering and reverse-covering demands.
In many cases, women are pressured to be "masculine" enough to be respected as workers but also to be "feminine" enough to be respected as women.
Consider Geduldig v Aiello
(1974) Here, the Court said that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy wasn't sex discrimination because not all women get pregnant -- it's a "chosen" part of a woman's identity, it's doing. Again, this has never been overruled.
Disabled? Like FDR, disabled people have covering strategies, particularly people with visual impairments. Yoshino tells the story of one of his law students who was going blind, didn't tell him about it until his second year of law school, and went on clerkship interviews with no offers because he came across as reserved or shy. The following year, Yoshino asked if he could mention the student's sight issues. When he did, the student was immediately hired by a federal judge. Wheelchair users also use covering methods.
Religious? The courts mostly object to doing here too. If it's an immutable condition, sure, but Jewish chaplains in the Air Force can't wear yarmulkes, and some justices reasoned that a decision that went the other way would create a slippery slope involving the Sikh's turban and the Buddhist monk's saffron robes. As for Mormons, Yoshino sees their history as analogous to gay history: demands to convert, followed by demands to pass, and now covering, where polygamous Mormons who cover don't get prosecuted and only the ones who flaunt do.
You'll notice that nowhere in this have I discussed heteronormative behavior. White heterosexual men set the standard for behavior and the rest of us MIGHT be rewarded if we conform. Hence, covering is the means by which white male privilege is preserved.
My experience? My father changed his family name to one that was much more WASPy in the early 1940s, and so at an early age I learned some of the consequences of passing. I don't cover any more, but then, nobody thinks about the sexual orientation of a man over 50.
Yoshino's solution to this is what Hilary Clinton said at the UN in February: Civil Rights are Human Rights. I can't do any better than that, but the debate for the LGBT community is now about assimilation, and the debate for other groups is about identity politics. How does the concept of "covering" affect your life?
6:26 PM PT: Thanks for putting this on the Rec List! My diaries usually don't get there.