Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell


“Everyone covers,” writes Yale law professor Kenji Yoshino in Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights. Actor Ramón Estévez did it when he became Martin Sheen; Jews do it when they obey the cultural edict to “be a Jew in your own tent and a mensch when you go out.” If you’re a black man who professes to like Yanni, you might be covering, or you might just like Yanni. Asians who wear khaki Dockers, gays who don’t “act queer”—all potential coverers.

Yoshino defines covering as “toning down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream.” Since notions of “disfavored identities” can be as fluid as ideas about what constitutes the so-called mainstream, just about anyone can cover, whether they’re members of ethnic minority groups hiding specific cultural behaviors or, as Yoshino notes, white men hiding their depression or alcoholism or working-class backgrounds. On face value, covering is a tough sell: If everyone does it, how bad can it be? By his own admission, Yoshino—a gay Japanese American guy who may or may not wear khaki Dockers—covered, and continues to cover, and he turned out swell: Harvard grad, Rhodes scholar, Yale prof, published author.

Yoshino is well aware of the arguments against his thesis, and discusses covering within the broader history of more egregious—if no less insidious—civil rights injustices. Gay history, he states, can be divided into three distinct phases, all defined by various “coercive” pressures. In the first phase, “conversion,” gays were pressured to become heterosexual through such unsavory means as electroshock treatments or aversion therapy. In the “passing” stage, they were relegated to the proverbial closet; even if fewer and fewer mental health professionals were trying to cure them, they were no less tolerated in the hetero mainstream. (One of the most egregious examples of this is the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which will look, one hopes, as grotesque and wrongheaded to future generations as blackface does to this one.) The “covering” phase—the historical moment we now inhabit, although there are still preachers looking to convert gays and gays who are still closeted—can be seen as either a sign of progress or just the same ol’ shit gone underground. Be gay if you like—or black, or Jewish—just don’t stick it in our faces.

If covering seems trivial as a legal matter, it’s warranted more than its fair share of high-profile court cases. Yoshino discusses several of them, most of which ended in defeat for the one asked to cover. In one case, an African American woman sued American Airlines because the company would not allow her to wear cornrows; in another, a Filipina was canned for speaking Tagalog at work. In 1991, a lesbian attorney lost her job when she married her female lover. Legal issues aside, the demand to cover is so prevalent that there are even business manuals to show you how to do it.
New Dress for Success, the bible of corporate-ladder-climbing toadies, encourages “Hispanic” businessmen to avoid “pencil-line mustaches” and “greasy” hair tonics. Afros, of course, are out.

What’s the legal remedy, if any? Yoshino calls for “reason-forcing conversation” in which the state or employer must show causes for conformity beyond mere cultural bias. Example: a woman who wants to wear a veil for her driver’s license photo. The state could argue that they have the right to require everyone to show their faces for the photo because a driver’s license is an identification card. A poor reason might be that most Americans don’t like veils. The book also recommends a shift from so-called equality claims that emphasize the rights of specific minority groups to “liberty” claims that focus on the rights of all—a more palatable defense to courts that view catering to the needs of a balkanizing society as a slippery slope. In the end, however, Yoshino admits that the issue is often best addressed outside of the court system. “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,” he writes. “And while I am often tempted to sue myself, this is not my healthiest impulse.”

While much of the book deals with court cases and the history of civil rights law, it is, at heart, a memoir, written by a legal scholar who might have missed his calling as a poet (Yoshino studied literature at Harvard and Oxford, only choosing a law career because he didn’t relish the double outsider status of a gay versifier). His own frequent struggles to cover inform the book; in some of its most powerful sections, Yoshino doesn’t come out, he seeps, struggling with what it means to be a gay man even as he becomes more and more active in gay legal issues. “Even when people were eager to know, or even when they knew, I had difficulty telling,” he writes. “Months into my friendship with Maureen, I still had not come out to her. . . . Her journal of the time has entries like ‘He didn’t tell me again today,’ as if I were a letter that kept not arriving.” This probably says less about the writer’s personal courage—he’s got that in spades, as one discovers throughout the book—than about the pervasiveness and strength of the societal pressures he so eloquently describes.