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.