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[39] Covering: The Hidden Assault of Civil Rights – Kenji Yoshino

Professor Kenji Yoshino combines law manifesto and memoir (his coming out of the closet) to advocate for the lifting of the outdated civil rights into a higher, more rational and universal register. In a society where explosion of identities have overwhelmed judiciary institutions to an extent that courts solve the problems of the ubiquitous identity politics issue by moving toward protecting no behaviors but safeguarding only the immutable aspects of identity, the book conveys the urgency to adopt a new convention that is rooted in rationality. This rationality should focus not on people’s capacity to assimilate, but on the legitimacy of the social demands made on them.

For the most part of this elegant work, Yoshino touches on a social phenomenon that pervades social and ethnic minorities: covering. Covering is the most subtle form of assimilation (in comparison to conversion and passing). Covering almost like a social “camouflage” to mask the true nature of identity. It is almost completely invisible because it has swaddled itself in the benign language of assimilation. To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity, to downplay a stigma, to forfeit one’s true self in order to fit in the “mainstream.” But Yoshino reviles this notion of “mainstream,” deeming it a myth because mainstream is no more then a shifting coalition of indefinite human identities that struggle for self-expression.

In America today, all minority groups (outsider groups) are systematically and expectedly asked to assimilate to some formidable, inveterate mainstream norms (most likely the Anglo-Saxon white norms, Yoshino argues). Covering and assimilating burden, and even divest of the civil rights of women, the disabled, the gays, and the ethnic minorities. These groups have a profound legal vulnerability to the demand that they cover the behaviors stereotypically associated with them. Women find themselves in an incorrigible catch-22: the conflict between assertiveness and aggressiveness required to get the job done and the image required to fit the female stereotype. The gays are asked not to engage in public display of same-sex affection. In downplaying their disability, the disabled pay for normalcy not just with psychic repression but with physical pain. Religious minorities are pressed to tone down expression of their faith. Many of the racial minorities develop a predilection for assimilating to white norms. Such covering behaviors confirm my qualm about the crisis in which America might have plunged.

The courts have made the same distinction between being and doing – discrimination based on status is immediately disfavored, but the law does not favor nor protect mutable or correctable behaviors concomitant to the status. In other words, court opts to protect being a member of the group, but not doing or engaging things associated with the group. Under this assimilation paradigm, court protects skin colors but not language, chromosomes but not pregnancy, homosexuality but not homogenital acts, and same-sex desire but not same-sex marriage. The tug of war between being and doing, and status vs. conduct have become the ultimate battleground for lifting civil rights into a more reason-forced, humane register. In fighting for this new convention, all minority groups should establish common cause against coerced covering, demanding an equality not staked on conformity. The shocking fact that courts still predicate an entitlement on whether a minority individual covers fosters a disquiet culture of complaint and should provoke cause around a new paradigm based on our desire for authenticity.

Covering: The Hidden Assaults of Civil Rights is a work of impartiality and sentiment. Yoshino’s argument draws deeply on his personal experiences as a gay Asian American, two immutable aspects which he battles with assimilation. He favors authenticity of self that can only be achieved with an individual’s commitment to autonomy: the freedom to elaborate one’s true self rather than to some rigid notion of what constitutes an authentic (gay) identity. This autonomy claim is probably the origin of the schism that divides normals (the openly gays who embrace the politics of assimilation) and the queers (the gays who denounce to measure the worth of life by mainstream standards).

While I belong to neither of the spheres, I find myself being in accord to Yoshino’s autonomy theory. Some choose to be openly gay but refrain from flaunting, while others only flaunt the belief that they deem constituting equality. Whatever the cause might be, Yoshino calls for a register that recognizes the reason from one’s visceral principles of equality. Until we overcome that sexual shame and the moral panic, equality will never dawn.

4 Responses

  1. Good review! I have been tempted to find this book after reading about it in The Advocate. (I even wrote a short blog piece a while ago concerning it.) Sounds like a good one!

  2. It talks about covering, assimilation and the sad consequences of coerced assimilation, written from a law perspective.

  3. Honestly, if you liked the book, you really should read the law review article. It’s not as accessible as the book, but I’m sure you’ve got the background to tackle it. He gets more into performative identities, and overall, the analysis digs a bit deeper, and while perhaps at times suffering from a bit more slippage, I would say is a more interesting read. BUT LONG for an article 150 pages! I think it might actually be longer than the book.

  4. […] gym machines so it is perfect for beginners and those who do not have access to gym membership. Covering: The Hidden Assault of Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino was one book that validated my feelings as a gay human being living in American. […]

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