This fall, Megan Prichard ’06 attended “Out for Business,” a conference sponsored by investment banks and consulting firms that gathers promising gay and lesbian students for a recruitment weekend in New York. During the first few days of the event, Prichard, who is the president of Yale Lesbians, said almost none of the guests acted or dressed like people she would have singled out as gay. The predominantly male group of attendees dressed in standard suits and talked about sports, she said, and the conference could have been just any business event.
But things changed on the last night. The atmosphere at the closing dinner party, where students were encouraged to dress in their street clothes rather than their suits, was decidedly different, Prichard said.
“Then it was obviously a gay conference,” Prichard said, “but that was after two whole days of being with these people.”
Prichard’s experience, which she said is typical of the business world, falls perfectly under the label of “covering,” a phenomenon described in Yale Law School professor Kenji Yoshino LAW ’96’s new book, “Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights,” which was released earlier this month. Yoshino, a scholar whose work often links constitutional and anti-discrimination law, argues that the phenomenon of covering — toning down parts of one’s identity that do not fit in with the supposed mainstream, like engaging in “straight” behavior even at a business event that is gay-oriented — is the civil rights issue of the new millennium.
Prichard said she does not consider the kind of covering that occurred at Out for Business a civil rights matter, but just “what happens” in society. One reason she may have found the covering so surprising, however, is because she was coming from Yale.
In his book, Yoshino describes Yale as a “vigorously tolerant” place where for every one person who discouraged him from writing on gay issues, five people encouraged him. Prichard said she agreed that her experience of Yale has been of a tolerant and inclusive university.
Yoshino said he developed his conclusions through a combination of scholarly research and personal experience. A Japanese-American born to immigrant parents, Yoshino struggled with his sexuality during his years as a student at Phillips Exeter and Harvard. But his social and romantic anxieties, he writes, led to academic and extracurricular successes, and Yoshino attended Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, receiving a Master’s degree in management studies.
“Perhaps the closeted should not be allowed to compete for these fellowships — we have the advantage of those Saturday nights,” he jokes in his book.
After Oxford, Yoshino attended Yale Law School, where he began to come to terms with his sexuality and to fall in love with the law. An essay on gay symbolic politics that was cited in pro-gay judicial opinions helped to secure Yoshino a teaching post at the Law School, where he has been teaching for the past 9 years and also serves as deputy dean for intellectual life.
In 2002, Yoshino published an academic article with the same name as his book that garnered attention and offers from publishers. Yoshino ultimately decided to accept a book offer, he said, because he wanted to bring his ideas about covering to a wider audience.
“The challenge I set for myself in writing the book was to try to make the ideas more broadly applicable to people who weren’t lawyers or legal scholars,” he said. “The attempt was to make the argument more accessible, in part just by using a different non-fiction prose style, and also by including memoir.”
The book mixes Yoshino’s story with research and case law to work readers through what he calls the three stages of assimilation: conversion, passing and covering.
Through the middle of the 20th century, Yoshino said, gays were routinely asked to convert their sexuality to heterosexual, and sometimes subjected to lobotomies or electroshock therapy as a means to this end. In the later decades of the century, the demand to convert turned to a demand to pass — individuals could be gay, but should remain in the closet. For example, Yoshino said, the military’s policy of categorical exclusion of homosexuals turned into “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy that clearly demands that gays pass.
At the turn of the millennium, the demand is now that gays cover their sexuality, Yoshino said. Being gay and out is fine, Yoshino said, as long as one does not flaunt it. As a personal example, Yoshino writes that a colleague once advised him that it would be easier for him to be a “homosexual professional” — a law professor who happens to be gay — than it would to be a “professional homosexual” — a gay law professor who studies gay issues.
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community has varying opinions as to how covering manifests itself at Yale. Maria Stevens ’06, a member of the Queer Peer counseling program and the women’s crew team, said her main experience with covering at Yale has been in athletics. Throughout her years rowing for the Bulldogs, Stevens said, she has had to skirt the issue of her sexuality with her coach, who she said has never seemed comfortable talking to her about it.
“For his sake, I try to omit those details from my life and interact with him as if I were single or something,” she said.
Stevens said she is trying to improve the situation in the Athletics Department by lobbying for coaches to put queer safe-space stickers in their offices. The stickers, which appear in other faculty offices on campus, let students know that it is okay to bring up issues of sexuality.
“If other athletes would see them they might feel less of a pressure to cover, just by seeing they have tolerant coaches,” she said.
As of yet, Stevens has received no response from the administration or the Athletics Department in regards to using the stickers.
Justin Ross ’07, the former coordinator of the LGBTQ Co-op, said that while Yoshino is correct in saying Yale is tolerant, tolerance is not the ideal.
“Tolerance implies that a negative attribute is being overlooked rather than understood,” Ross said.
Ross said that while gay issues usually receive ample support at Yale, the LGBTQ Co-op experienced some problems with acceptance during last year’s pride week. Publicity posters for the event were torn down, Ross said, sometimes in front of students who had put them up.
In his book, Yoshino stresses that the pressure to cover does not simply apply to sexuality, but to race, religion, gender, national origin, disability, and a host of other attributes. But just as the issue of covering is not exclusive, it is not simple, he said.
“It would be silly to be against all forms of assimilation, of which covering is one,” Yoshino said. “Assimilating is part of living in civilization. Where I get worried is where covering occurs on grounds that are civil rights categories.”
Yoshino is currently working on an academic article that advances the idea of universal rights over group-based identity politics. He pointed to the example of Hispanic Americans fighting for their right to speak Spanish in the workplace. Instead of only fighting for the rights of their group, Yoshino said, reformers should fight for the right of all citizens to speak their language of origin.
“I think then we need a civil rights rhetoric that draws people together rather than drives them apart,” Yoshino said. “The universal rights idea is one way of, ironically, protecting difference in the name of what we all have in common.”
The reaction to Yoshino’s book at the Law School has been overwhelmingly positive.
Law School Dean Harold Koh said his colleague has the “heart of a poet.”
“We’re all thrilled,” Koh said. “I think people are kind of in awe of Kenji because he is a person of such brilliance and human warmth, combined with a genuine eloquence.”
But some critics argue that Yoshino does not advance a satisfactory solution for the problem of covering. In a New York Times book review on Jan. 22, Ann Althouse wrote that although Yoshino’s description of the problem is accurate and insightful, he falls somewhat short in his conclusion.
“If this is an ‘assault on our civil rights,’ as the subtitle has it, we might expect to hear how the courts can save us,” Althouse wrote. “Though he speaks vaguely of shifting the legal discourse from equality to liberty, he holds out little hope for new remedies.”
Yoshino said his goal for the book is that the term “covering” stimulate personal conversations and become part of popular culture — a new weapon in the fight for inclusion and universal rights.
“My real hope is that the word ‘covering’ will make its way into as many circles as possible,” he said. “I would love it if the word ‘covering’ were as much a part of our cultural vocabulary as ‘passing’ or ‘the closet’ has become.”