5. “Covering,” Kenji Yoshino

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” nested inside it. It was less a suicidal impulse than a homicidal one. (8)

While I tried to speak calmly, Bill has since told me I failed. He said I reminded him of the dinner parties he was attending in those days. At the mainly straight parties, his age peers would jabber on about their children. At the gay dinners, they’d jabber on about their coming out. This made him think coming out is the closest many gay men will come to giving birth. The act of giving birth to oneself is miraculous and terrifying, but unlikely to be calm. (13-14)

It is worth quoting Yoshino’s definitions of a few terms at length.

My struggle to arrive at a gay identity occurred in three phases, which I could also trace in the lives of gay peers. In the first phase, I sought to become straight. When I went to the chapel at Oxford, I prayed not to be what I was. I will call this desire for conversion. In the second phase, I accepted my homosexuality, but concealed it from others. By the time I talked to Bill about his class, I was no longer trying to convert. I was, however, trying to hide my identity from my classmates. I will call this desire for passing. Finally, long after I had generally come out of the closet, I still muted my orientation by not writing on gay topics or engaging in public displays of affection. This was not the same as passing, because my colleges knew I was gay. Yet I did not know a word for this attempt to tone down my known gayness.
Then I found my word, in sociologist Erving Goffman’s book Stigma. Published in 1963, the book describes how various groups– including the disabled, the elderly, and the obese– manage their “spoiled” identities. After discussing passing, Goffman observes that “persons who are ready to admit the possession of a stigma… may nonetheless make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large.” His calls this behavior “covering.” Goffman distinguishes passing from covering by noting that passing pertains to the visibility of a particular trait, while covering pertains to its obtrusiveness. He relates how Franklin Roosevelt always stationed himself behind a table before his advisers came in for a meeting. Roosevelt was not passing, since everyone knew he used a wheelchair. He was covering, downplaying his disability so people would focus on his more conventionally presidential qualities.” (17-18)

I could keep going and quote the entire book, but that should be enough to make you want to give Yoshino a high five. Not only is he immensely readable (which I am coming to feel more and more is something embodied theory must be), but his application of covering is very timely. This book is theory told through memoir and is poetic and incisive.

Page count: 203
Page total: 1,544

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