Philosophical Interventions: Book Reviews, 1986-2011

By Martha C. Nussbaum | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE
The Prohibition Era

KENJI YOSHINO (2006), Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights


I

In 1998, a Missouri court granted custody to a lesbian mother, after finding that “the children were unaware of Mother’s sexual preference, and Mother never engaged in any sexual or affectionate behavior in the presence of the children.” Many courts have gone the other way, after determining that same-sex parents engaged, not in overt sexual conduct that would be inappropriate for any parent to display before any child, but in displays of affection, such as hugging or holding hands, which clearly revealed the parent’s sexual orientation. Courts in these cases are not demanding that same-sex parents stop being gay, or even that they pretend not to be gay. Instead, they are making a demand that Kenji Yoshino (following Erving Goffman) calls a demand for “covering”: a demand not to express their identity in public and visible ways.

The repression of a minority, Yoshino argues, does not end when it is permitted to exist in society, and is no longer forced to “convert” to some other way of being and acting. Nor does it end when members of the group are not expected to “pass,” concealing their minority identity from all but chosen intimates. Even when minorities who reveal their group membership openly are tolerated, they are often required to assimilate in ways that “cover” that identity. Thus, it was all right for the lesbian mother to be known as a lesbian, but not all right for her to hold hands with her partner. It is often all right for African Americans to be prominent in the workplace, but they have to dress for success and play nice, conforming their behavior to a stereotype invented by the dominant culture.

An interesting example that came too late for inclusion in Yoshino’s account of “covering” has been the media’s treatment of the Olympic medal-winning speed skater Shani Davis. White society was all set to pat

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