Friday, April 06, 2007

Benediction, Part II: Covering

In his important new book Covering, Yale Law School professor Kenji Yoshino uses the prism of his experience as a gay Asian American and his training as a legal scholar to examine the subtle ways that women and ethnic, religuous and sexual minorities are often forced to compromise their civil rights, their identity and their dignity in order to blend into the mainstream.

At first glance, covering appears less insidious than other societal demands made of minorities. In the past many have been forced to try to convert. Others respond to such demands by quietly passing. Covering is more subtle, as it often involves simply trying to "tone down" undesirable or stigmatized identities.

In my own evolution as a gay man, I have been through each of the stages Yoshino describes in his book. I sought to convert myself away from homosexuality, going so far as to convert to a religion that held the promise that I didn't have to be gay if I didn't want to be. When I failed in my efforts to convert, I continued to pass. I was married, fathered two children, and actively engaged in activities and a lifestyle that was easily identifiable as heterosexual. When passing became too much of a burden, I was still content to cover. I came out to my wife and a small circle of family members, but I chose not to engage in any way in a lifestyle that was identifiable as gay.

My covering stage was the shortest in its duration. Once I was finally able to accept that I was gay and that it wasn't wrong for me to be gay, I quickly decided that I had no desire to cover my identity. In fact, for a period I was uncomfortable letting stand the assumption that I was straight. I came out in ways that were probably unnecessary. But I would rather have people know I was gay unnecessarily than let them assume that I was straight.

The demand that I cover, however, remains a constant, particularly in circles where acceptance of homosexuality is tenuous. A few months ago I was involved in a discussion on an LDS blog called By Common Consent. It was a discussion of Carol Lynn Pearson's No More Goodbyes, and when I wondered aloud (as it were) what I should do to build bridges of reconciliation with my former faith community, one of the discussion participants told me rather pointedly that I should "get over" myself and recognize that my sexuality was just a "small part" of who I am. Why, he wondered, couldn't I ever talk about anything else on LDS blogs besides homosexuality?

The unfairness of his charge was apparent to me (and others), as I know that my interests are wide ranging. But more than being personally unfair, he was doing what if often demanded of gay people--asking that I cover my sexuality. It's okay for me to be gay, but, please, stop talking about it! As I have become more comfortable being out, I have seen this dynamic play out over and over again. "Straight acting" homosexual men are somehow more acceptable than obviously or more flamboyantly gay men. We see the demand to cover in a very pointed way in the LDS Church and other conservative religious traditions. LDS authorities have taken a page from the Catholic playbook in declaring that to feel homosexual attraction is not sinful, but acting on it of course is. In other words, it's okay to be gay as long one doesn't ever actually do any of the things that define one as gay--namely, have an intimate relationship with someone of the same sex. The covering demand of homosexuals in Mormon culture is further played out when homosexual Mormons themselves respond to the covering demand by downplaying the significance of their orientation, dismissing it as an annoying fact that in no way defines them or how they will live their lives. Just because they are gay doesn't mean that can't live their lives just as any other Mormon might, hoping for marriage and family or quietly soldiering on in celibacy, depending on the circumstances.

This is not unique to the LDS experience, of course. Such demands that gays "keep it to themselves" are commonplace in other religious tradtions, in the workplace, and on the athletic field (see John Amaechi). Quiet, apparently asexual homosexuals are far less threatening to the status quo and the moral order than those who live openly. And there are reverse covering demands imposed by the gay community as well--we passionately ask all homosexuals to come out, to live life as openly and defiantly as they can, and to reject any suggestion that to do so is in anyway problematic. Alas, life is not so simple.

As much as I want to be finished covering, I still do it. I hate it, but it happens. Maybe I don't mention Jed in certain situations when I easily could, or I withdraw from conversations about family and marriage because I don't want to have to explain my own personal transformation and circumstances. These things don't happen often anymore, but they happen. Sometimes I'm responding to an external demand that I cover, but other times I'm still fighting my own internal battles. But I firmly believe that recognizing the demand to cover is an important final step in coming out.

9 comments:

aaronjasonsilver said...

DAMAGING EFFECTS OF THE CLOSET

If anyone watches or reads the news it would have been difficult not to have heard of the many of sex scandals as of late. I am now speaking of men in high profile positions. A great many of them are members of the clergy. These men obviously knew full well what they were supposed to believe about homosexuality. To them it is considered an immoral and abominable act. Why then were these men not able to pray away these sinful thoughts and be able to resist the temptations of these unnatural acts? Would they have been more successful if they had prayed to a different God perhaps? Or could it be that it is a normal sexual orientation for some people that cannot be altered and it is what God intended for them? It would seem that since members of the clergy who are considered to be closer to God than we mere lay people would be very successful ridding themselves of all sorts of perverted thoughts and acts. It is quite likely that they have prayed about it enough but without success. If the heterosexual majority would do some research on their own by going to gay bars or log on to the gay chat rooms where many gays meet other gays with the safety and anonymity that computers provide. They would then realize the vast numbers of clergy and married men from all walks of life that are struggling with this issue. These men are just the tip of the iceberg. These men are those that are willing to take the first step toward homosexual contact. It is done in baby steps with much guilt, shame, fear and trepidation. I have talked too many of these men as I was researching for my book. It seems quite clear to me that if the clergy themselves cannot fight these powerful inner urgings through prayer then perhaps we ought to start looking at it differently. After all homosexuality does not cause victims as long as it is of mutual consent between adults as it would be expected of heterosexuality as well.
Perhaps it is high time that the phenomenon of “the closet” is addressed and understood. I believe it is essential to discuss “the closet” to provide the necessary context from which to view some of the scandals that have happened recently to people in high profile positions. This discussion needs to be civilized our knee jerk reactions and judgments held in check. After all, the last time I checked Christian doctrine we are not supposed to judge others. We need to discuss the subject of “the closet” with great compassion. By the term “closet”, I am referring to the emotional place that many people with same sex attractions recoil into in order to keep any suspicion of their sexual orientation away from them. Many closeted gay men will often compartmentalize their lives and marry in order to try and rid themselves of these same sex attractions and to thwart any unwanted suspicion. When one represses the powerful natural urgings of sexuality they then often have secret sexual liaisons, become very involved in conservative religious dogma and/or become members of the clergy themselves desperately hoping that these same sex attractions will go away if they just try harder. Whichever methods closeted gays use, are desperate attempts at hiding, or even used as a way of trying to rid themselves of their natural sexual inclinations by trying to play it “normal”. This is done out of shame for being something other than what they believe their God or families and friends want of them. I am speaking primarily of men at this time because I believe men use the closet even more often than woman. The reason being is because of societies more narrow view and expectations of what behaviors are considered acceptable and “normal” for men. Woman can be tomboys much easier than men can be sissies. Of course not all gay men are effeminate by a long shot but that is a stereotypical image of gay men. Therefore men with same sex orientations will often practice stereotypical masculine behaviors to thwart any suspicion out of fear of social denunciation.
The practice of compartmentalizing ones life for very long often will often cause the development of some emotional problems to varying degrees and manifesting in a variety of ways. Many closeted men develop coping mechanisms such as addictive behaviors of all sorts whether it is alcoholism, prescription or non prescription drug abuse. They may develop addictions to pornography, sexual addiction or other self-destructive ways of acting out. The longer one stays in the closet there will then also generally be more victims because of their closeted lifestyle choice. The victims may be their wives, children, their friends, parents, siblings etc. All feeling like they have been betrayed and deceived when the closeted individuals true nature is discovered as it was for ex-governor of New Jersey, Mr. McGreevy, ex-congressmen Foley, the president of the Evangelicals, very patriotic members of our armed services to name just a few of the staggering numbers of men that have also been hiding their true selves. I feel very sad for the victims as I do with the closeted individual. They are all truly victims. I understand the humiliation, despair, and profound depression that the closeted individuals feel that soon follows once that door to the closet has been flung open. For some, the shame and fear is just too unbearable and suicide seems like the only alternative to ending their unbearable pain and shame. Suicide rates and addictions are much higher than heterosexual men.

Society needs to take some responsibility with this matter of the closet by being more accepting of alternative lifestyles. Without the closet, try and imagine how much less pain many people and families would have to endure. Not only the ones that feel that living in the closet is their only alternative, but for the victims that find themselves feeling betrayed once the secret comes out.

We as a culture have some soul searching to do on this matter and not be so self-righteous and quick to judge. There are a variety of ways of loving and living. We need to accept the fact that what seems to be normal for some is not necessarily normal for all. There is still so much shame involved yet in this day and age concerning sexual orientation in our rather hypocritical puritanical society. This attitude is unfortunately what causes many gays not to seek help concerning issues they may be struggling with from the appropriate professionals. I generally do not recommend clergy because it can cause further damage due to their religious agendas which can deepen one's shame and depression. This is a very complicated issue and I don’t have all the answers. I am however certain that society has to become more compassionate toward people with innate same sex attractions. If they do not, we will continue to shame many gay people enough so that it will continue to inhibit many from being true to themselves and therefore to their loved ones.

One can read more about this issue and many other disturbing issues involving gay culture of today in my new book; "why gay men do what they do"; an inside look at gay culture. Thank you, Aaron Jason Silver
www.aaronjasonsilver.com

MoHoHawaii said...

Thanks, Chris, for the book suggestion. My Amazon Prime membership wins again.

I've been out for ages, on the order of 20 years, and I still find myself covering. It's very hard to undo that feature of our socialization, especially those of us who come from the "good boy" background.

This is something I'm going to work on.

Like you, I'm interested in building bridges back to the community I left. I've had a few hits but mostly misses. What I've finally come to realize is that the very existence of a nonbeliever seems to threaten.

playasinmar said...

I can't help but enjoy seeing the faces of people who learn I'm gay. I shatter the stereotype without really trying (but I do try, a little).

Scot said...

Last night a woman running for the local Democratic Party vice chair called our home. Alan beat me to the phone, though. I got there in time to hear him say “My Daddy or my Papa?” She must have asked to talk to his father or something, and then replied “your Daddy”, as he handed the phone to Rob. Rob then told her no, he was not the delegate she was looking for, and handed the phone to me.

Kids are the best way to drop the ability or desire to cover :-). It also gave me a great opening to quiz her on her stance on issues that affect our family.

MoHoHawaii said...

I just finished reading the book. Interesting. More here.

greenfrog said...

Chris,

I've not had the benefit of reading the book (yet), so I'm working in the dark to an extent.

Is the idea of "covering" one that is limited to sexuality? If so, does it relate more distantly to the desire to "fit the mold" that we experience in a variety of areas outside of sexuality?

If not, have you experienced the "covering" practice outside of your sexuality, and do you feel the same desire to be rid of it in those situations?

I ask in part out of curiosity about your life, and (of course) out of curiosity about my own. I've not come to a conclusion about the extent to which I should confront others with the ways that they might be incorrectly assuming various things about my beliefs and practices.

About a year ago, I decided that there were no questions from others that I would not answer. Still, on occasion I've concluded that it's kindest to suggest before I answer what might be an off-the-cuff question, that the answer may be more than the inquirer really wants to know.

Is that "covering"?

Chris said...

greenfrog,

Covering is not limited to one's sexuality. Minorities of all sorts cover, and I can imagine that there are things that we might cover about even if we aren't a minority of some sort. And I think that to a certain extent the accomodations you've made with your family and the church are a kind of covering.

Candy said...

I'm not sure if it's the same book, but I heard an author discussing 'covering' on local public radio. As I listened to the show, I saw how covering applied in my life, as I covered my feminism in a conservative Christian group that held to very different roles for men and women.

The negative reaction to being a feminist isn't as common or to the same degree as it is to homosexuality, but I certainly see the similarities

Kalvin said...

If you liked the book, I really suggest you read the earlier law article that he wrote before the book. It doesn't have all of the ideas, but it has a greater richness partially because of its academic nature which also unfortunately makes it less accessible.

http://yalelawjournal.org/images/pdfs/327.pdf