In Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, Kenji Yoshino argues for a new way of looking at discrimination and civil rights. As the title indicates, this centers on the concept of covering, or downplaying a disfavored trait to blend in:
Famous examples of covering abound. Ramón Estévez covered his ethnicity when he changed his name to Martin Sheen, as did Krishna Bhanji when he changed his name to Ben Kingsley. Margaret Thatcher covered her status as a woman when she trained with a voice coach to lower the timbre of her voice. Long after they came out as lesbians, Rosie O'Donnell and Mary Cheney still covered, keeping their same-sex partners out of the public eye. Issur Danielovitch Demsky covered his Judaism when he became Kirk Douglas, as did Joseph Levitch when he became Jerry Lewis. Franklin Delano Roosevelt covered his disability by ensuring his wheelchair was always hidden behind a desk before his Cabinet entered.
The central argument of the book is that covering is an assault on civil rights because it is an assault on autonomy. If one has a right to be something, one has the right to do the things that one feels are part of that identity. Otherwise, "the demand to cover . . . is the symbolic heartland of inequality—what reassures one group of its superiority to another." In other words, though assimiliation can be necessary for peaceful co-existence, its dark side also should be recognized.
The book is a blend of memoir, history, and legal analysis. It begins with a chapter of memoir, charting the author's "struggle to arrive at a gay identity." Yoshino did undergraduate and graduate work in literature before switching law when he accepted his sexuality—because, he writes, "A gay poet is vulnerable in profession as well as person"—and all of the autobiographical portions of the book are elegant and precise. And in the later chapters Yoshino moves between memoir and history or legal analysis with a remarkable fluidity, never jarring me in the transition.
After the context-setting opening chapter, the book divides into three parts. The first is an examination of gay history, which is itself divided into three parts: conversion, or attempts to change sexual orientation; passing, or attempts to hide sexual orientation; and covering, or attempts not to flaunt sexual orientation. Each section emphasizes how it is still a current problem. Conversion lives in the idea that homosexuality is "contagious" and therefore children need to be protected from the promotion of homosexuality in schools, and passing in the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. And both can co-exist with covering, such as in custody cases:
[When denying] custody to a lesbian mother in 1990, a Louisiana appellate court cited "open, indiscreet displays of affection beyond mere friendship . . . where the child is of an age where gender identity is being formed." If acceptable sexuality for same-sex couples is limited to the appearance of friendship, then the expectations for parents are clearly not orientation-neutral.
Notice as well why such covering is required—parental flaunting is dangerous because it could convert a child whose "gender identity is being formed." All three demands for assimilation are simultaneously in play—because children must not be converted, parents must pass to their children and cover to the courts. The shifts from conversion to passing to covering . . . are shifts in emphasis.
The book then considers covering as applied to race and sex, drawing its examples mostly from the employment context. One of the new wrinkles it examines is reverse covering, particularly with regard to women. For most non-dominant groups, the pressure to reverse cover comes from other group members. Women, however, are pressured to cover and reverse cover at the same time and by the same outside group (men), that is, "to be 'masculine' enough to be respected as workers, but also 'feminine' enough to be respected as women."
(Though the book focuses on groups currently protected by civil rights law, because it's written by a law professor, the book takes care to note that everyone covers in ways small and large: "the mainstream is a myth. . . . All of us struggle for self-expression; we all have covered selves.")
Finally, in the shortest section, the book looks at models of civil rights law. It considers two areas in which the idea of accommodation is supposed to be recognized, religion and disability, and examines the pressures towards assimilation within those areas of law. It then argues for a new model of civil rights:
- The law right now tends to prohibit only discrimination based on immutable traits. This is misguided: the question should not be whether a person can change, but whether the person should be made to change.
- One way the law can do this is by focusing on common liberties/fundamental rights, rather than on whether group X needs additional protection. This is partly because courts are more likely to be comfortable with such a formulation, and partly because the group X formulation brings up the question of what's essential to being part of group X, which is dangerously near stereotyping.
- The law is limited in effectiveness and appropriateness when it comes to covering:
When I hesitate before engaging in a public display of same-sex affection, I am not thinking of the state or my employer, but of the strangers around me and my own internal censor. And while I am often tempted to sue myself, this is not my healthiest impulse.
Instead, civil rights law should be part of broader attempts to view ourselves and others with compassion and understanding.
On the whole, I think this is a well-written, useful, and accessible book. It's true that unless carefully deployed, the idea of covering could reinforce stereotypes. As a colleague of Yoshino's puts it, "One way minorities break stereotypes is by acting against them. If every time they do so, people assume they are 'covering' some essential stereotypical identity, the stereotypes will never go away." For this reason, the book attempts to emphasize individual autonomy and authenticity, rejecting demands to reverse cover as well as cover; I think this bears repeating, because it strikes me as the kind of point likely to get lost in general discussions. Also, because describing solutions is harder than describing problems, the final section feels a bit slight (and also strikes me as having somewhat more jargon than the prior sections). However, by targeting a general audience, the book necessarily limits the amount of legal implementation details it can offer.
The idea that everyone covers immediately resonated with me, and I have begun thinking about my own covering and whether all of it is necessary or useful. I hope that when others recognize the concept, they will do the same, and in the process gain awareness of and empathy for those who are pressured to cover without good reason.
[Cross-posted to my booklog.]