"It is a fact that persons who are ready to admit possession of a stigma (in many cases because it is known about or immediately apparent) may nonetheless make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large. . . . this process will be referred to as covering." - Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1963).An Excerpt from Covering by Kenji Yoshino:
Everyone covers. To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream. In our increasingly diverse society, all of us are outside the mainstream in some way. Nonetheless, being deemed mainstream is still often a necessity of social life. For this reason, every reader of this book has covered, whether consciously or not, and sometimes at significant personal cost. In a supposedly enlightened age, the persistence of the covering demand presents a puzzle. Today, race, national origin, sex, religion, and disability are all protected by federal civil rights laws. An increasing number of states and localities include sexual orientation in civil rights laws as well. Albeit with varying degrees of conviction, Americans have come to a consensus that people should not be penalized for being different along these dimensions. That consensus, however, does not protect individuals against demands that they mute those differences. We need an explanation for why the civil rights revolution has stalled on covering. Covering is a hidden assault on our civil rights. We have not been able to see it as such because it has swaddled itself in the benign language of assimilation. But if we look closely, we will see that covering is the way many groups are being held back today. The reason racial minorities are pressured to "act white" is because of white supremacy. The reason women are told to downplay their child-care responsibilities in the workplace is because of patriarchy. And the reason gays are asked not to "flaunt" is because of homophobia. So long as such covering demands persist, American civil rights will not have completed its work. Unfortunately, the law has yet to perceive covering as a threat. Contemporary civil rights law generally only protects traits that individuals cannot change, like their skin color, chromosomes, or innate sexual orientations. This means that current law will not protect us against most covering demands, because such demands direct themselves at the behavioral aspects of our personhood. This is so despite the fact that covering imposes costs on us all.I caught the tail end of the interview with author Kenji Yoshino this afternoon on NPR. If you'd like to hear it for yourself you can go here. Kenji Yoshino is professor of law and deputy dean for intellectual life at Yale Law School. He was educated at Harvard, Oxford, and Yale Law School.
Unlike most racial minorities, women, and individuals with disabilities, most gays have (in fact or in the imagination of others) a panoply of options for assimilation. These forms of assimilation include conversion, passing, and covering. The history of gay rights can be retold as a history of resistance to these three kinds for assimilation.
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. This shift can be seen in the military’s adoption in 1993 of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, under which gays are permitted to serve so long as they agree to pass. Finally, at millennium’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 they do not “flaunt” their 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.
Gays routinely cover along all four axes: appearance (“acting straight”); affiliation (not making references to gay culture); activism (avoiding the charge of being militant or strident about gay rights); and association (eschewing public displays of same-sex affection).
Notable instances in which gays who resisted the demand to cover lost their cases include Shahar v. Bowers (1997), in which a lesbian attorney was fired for engaging in a private same-sex commitment ceremony, and Lundin v. Lundin (1990), in which a gay couple was denied custody of a child because they engaged in displays of affection.