Quoted: Kenji Yoshino on Covering and Conformity [Racialicious Read-Along]


I would think, I wish I were dead.

I did not think of it as a suicidal thought.  My poet’s parsing mind read the first “I” and the second “I” as different “I’s.” The first “I” was the whole watching the self, while the second “I” – the one I wanted to kill – was the gay “I” nestled inside it.  It was less a suicidal impulse than a homicidal one – the infanticide of the gay self I had described in the poem.

My only consistent foray from my rooms was to the college chapel, where I prayed to gods I did not believe in for transformation.  No erotic desire I had ever felt exceeded my desire for conversion in those moments.  It is hard now to recall that young man at prayer.  To see him clearly is to feel the outlines of my present self grow fainter.

An older American student [also studying at Oxford at the time] tried to help.  Arad was struggling to come out himself, but seemed, I thought enviously, much more self-possessed.  He was the prodigy of his class – his intellectual feats, in medicine and philosophy, were reported in hushed and reverent tones.  Tall and angular, he accentuated his forbidding demeanor with a black coat that billowed out like the wings of a predatory bird.

Arad was kind to me. I never named my malady, but he knew its ways better than I.  I remember sitting in his rooms, listening to him describe the deadlines he had set for himself – to come out to his parents in three months, to go to a meeting of the college gay group in six months, to begin to date in a year. It was important, he said, to be a creature of will.  Unable to meet his eye, I looked over his shoulder at the wall behind him, which was tiled with diplomas and awards.  In the center were some framed black-and-white photographs he had taken.  One caught my eye – a statue of a kneeling angel weeping with her head buried in her arms.

It was a portrait of abject perfection, a portrait of him, and it terrified me.  I recognized the striving impulse in Arad as an attribute of my former self, and felt shame for having lost the discipline he possessed.  Yet I was also frightened by the harshness of that will.  I thanked him and left, never to return.  I could not help him, and I knew he could not help me. [...]

[After a year of disconnection] I surfaced back into my life.  I made decisions with percussive efficiency.  I chose the American passport over the Japanese one, the gay identity over the straight one, law school over English graduate school.  The last two choices were connected.  I decided on law school in part because I accepted my gay identity.  A gay poet is vulnerable in profession as well as person.  I refused that level of exposure.  Law school promised to arm me with a new language, a language I did not expect to be elegant or moving but that I expected to be more potent, more able to protect me. I have seen this bargain many times since – in myself and others – compensation for standing out along one dimension by assimilating among others. [...]

The month I was hired [to teach law at Yale], Arad killed himself.  It would wrong the grief of his intimates to make too much of my own feelings.  Yet I was shaken, especially when I read the eulogy his friends had written.  Rather than continuing the narrative of perfection they thought had contributed to his isolation, his friends sought to humanize him.  One detail was unforgettable – as a child at boarding school, Arad had been discovered in a broom closet with a bottle of bleach, trying to dye his skin white.  As I read that story, I thought of Arad’s absoluteness.  I thought of the alabaster angel in his photograph and knew, with some combination of guilt and relief, that I was imperfect and able to survive.

For even that far out of the closet, I was still making bargains.  While closeted, I micromanaged my gay identity, thinking about who knew and who did not, who should know and who should not.  When I came out, I exulted that I could stop thinking about my orientation.  That celebration proved premature.  It was impossible to come out and be done with it, as each new person erected a new closet around me.  More subtly, even individuals who knew I was gay imposed a fresh set of demands for straight conformity.

When I began teaching, a colleague took me aside.  “You’ll have a better chance at tenure,” he cautioned, “if you’re a homosexual professional than if you’re a professional homosexual.”  He meant I would fare better as a mainstream constitutional law professor who “happened to be gay” than as a gay professor who wrote on gay subjects.  Others in the vigorously progay environment in which I work echoed the sentiment in less elegant formulations.   Be gay, my world seemed to say.  Be openly gay, if you want.  But don’t flaunt.

For a short time, I acceded.  When I taught mainstream courses like constitutional law, I avoided gay examples. I wrote articles on nongay topics.  I didn’t bring the men I was dating to law school functions.  I chose my political battles carefully.

I soon grew tired of such performances.  What bothered me was not that I had to engage in “straight-acting” behavior, much of which felt natural to me.  What bothered me was the felt need to mute my passion for gay subjects, people, culture – as if this were the love of which I still had to be ashamed.  I knew I would be breaching some pact with myself if I stopped writing on gay issues out of a desire to conform. [...]

In the new generation, discrimination directs itself not against the entire group, but against the subset of the group that fails to assimilate to mainstream norms.  This new form of discrimination targets minority cultures rather than minority persons.  Outsiders are included, but only if we behave like insiders – that is, only if we cover. [...]

This covering demand is the civil rights issue of our time.  It hurts not only our most vulnerable citizens but our most valuable commitments.  For if we believe a commitment against racism is about equal respect for all races, we are not fulfilling that commitment if we protect only racial minorities who conform to historically white norms.  As the sociologist Milton Gordon identified decades ago, the demand for “Anglo-conformity” is white supremacy under a different guise.  Until outsider groups surmount such demands for assimilation, we will not have achieved full citizenship in America. [...]

When I lecture on covering, I often encounter what I think of as the “angry straight white man” reaction.  A member of the audience, almost invariably a white man, almost invariably angry, denies that covering is a civil rights issue.  Why shouldn’t racial minorities or women or gays have to cover? These groups should receive legal protection against discrimination for things they cannot help, like skin color or chromosomes or innate sexual drives.  But why should they receive protection for behaviors within their control – wearing cornrows, acting “feminine,” or flaunting their sexuality? After all, the questioner says, I have to cover all the time.  I have to mute my depression, or my obesity, or my alcoholism, or my schizophrenia, or my shyness, or my working-class background, or my nameless anomie.  I, too, am one of the mass of men leading a life of quiet desperation.  Why should classic civil rights groups have a right to self-expression I do not?  Why should my struggle for an authentic self matter less?

I surprise these individuals when I agree.  Contemporary civil rights has erred in focusing solely on traditional civil rights groups, such as racial minorities, women, gays, religious minorities, and people with disabilities.  This assumes those in the so-called mainstream – those straight white men – do not have covered selves.  They are understood only as impediments, as people who prevent others from expressing themselves, rather than as individuals who are themselves struggling for self-definition.  No wonder they often respond to civil rights advocates with such hostility.  They experience us as asking for an entitlement they themselves have been refused – an expression of their full humanity.

Civil rights must rise into a new, more inclusive register.  That ascent begins with the recognition that the mainstream is a myth. With respect to any particular identity, the word “mainstream” makes sense, as in the statement that straights are more mainstream than gays.  Used generically, however, the word lacks meaning.  Because human beings hold many identities, the mainstream is a shifting coalition, and none of us is entirely within it.  As queer theorists have recognized, it is not normal to be completely normal.  All of us struggle for self-expression; we all have covered selves.

For this reason, we should understand civil rights to be a sliver of a universal project of human flourishing.  Civil rights has always sought to protect the human flourishing of certain groups from being thwarted by the irrational beliefs of others.  Yet that aspiration is one we should hold for all humanity.

—Kenji Yoshino, Covering