Kenji Yoshino, a professor at NYU Law School, is one of the prominent critics of “What is Marriage?,” the natural law defense of marriage by Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson. His responses have been cogently critiqued here and here at Public Discourse, so I would like to focus on a different philosophical issue raised by his recent book, Covering. The book argues that the new stage in the battle for civil rights should be a rejection of “covering,” the form of social interaction in which members of sexual, religious, cultural, and ethnic minorities respond to pressures to conform by minimizing their differences from the mainstream.
Yoshino traces a three-stage process—conversion, passing, covering—for those with unpopular beliefs, customs, and practices. First, they pray or hope for conversion, that is, that their unpopular condition will vanish, as Yoshino himself once prayed for his homosexual desires to be removed while a student at Oxford University. Second, such persons accept their own outsider status, but try to “pass” as mainstream, in a way common in American history for racial minorities trying to pass as white. Finally comes covering, in which such persons “come out” with their true identities but attempt to gloss over their differences from those around them. Yoshino relates the story of a law school colleague who encouraged him to be a “homosexual professional” but not a “professional homosexual.” He eventually rejected such advice and put his homosexual identity at the center of his teaching and scholarship—for instance, as a leading advocate for same-sex marriage.
I have a great deal of respect for this argument about covering. In a sense, my Public Discourse article “Campus Political Correctness and the Costs of Free Speech” is my story of rejecting covering as a social conservative on a university campus. In fact, I urge all social conservatives not only to come out as conservatives but also to stop covering by bringing their deepest convictions into the public square. My argument is not with Yoshino’s advocacy of authenticity and freedom, although I suspect that I would want more limits to what should be expressed in public than Yoshino does. Instead, I would like to focus on an incident from the book’s conclusion that Yoshino evidently sees as central to his argument. My contention is that Yoshino’s own words reveal the failure to take seriously the embodied nature of human persons that is at the heart of his case for same-sex marriage.
In the midst of a “great depression” during the period of his life when he was coming to terms with his homosexuality, Yoshino spent a summer with his ex-girlfriend Janet, whom he clearly loved and with whom he had much in common. While she slept, he gazed at Janet and thought of a passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost in which Adam “asks the angel Raphael how angels have sex.” Raphael responds that “Easier than Air with Air, if Spirits embrace / Total they mix, Union of Pure with Pure.” “Since I heard them,” says Yoshino, “these lines have limned my dream of sex—discorporation, clean mixing of molecules, no bodies or bedsprings, just a passing through.” He asks himself why, despite all that draws him to Janet, he cannot love her in a sexual and romantic way: “If I wanted Milton’s angelic mingling with her, why would a body be a barrier?”
There is both great sadness and great hope in these words, but not in the way Yoshino thinks. First, the sad part: At the very core of Yoshino’s argument against covering—and the passage above is clearly the argument’s emotional and philosophical heart—is a desire to escape the limits of the human body. Such a desire cannot, of course, be fulfilled. Human beings do not slip bodies on and off like coats or inhabit them like tents; they are embodied persons. For instance, if someone steals your hat, he has taken your property; if he slices off your ear, he has injured you. It is simply a tragedy for a man as intelligent as Yoshino to harbor an ongoing desire for “discorporation.” Yoshino’s misinterpretation of Adam’s question to Raphael—he was asking not how angels have sex, but whether they have sex—highlights the confusion under which Yoshino is laboring. Angels have a non-corporeal form of love for the simple reason that they do not have bodies, but, for embodied persons, the most complete form of union necessarily involves bodies.
Notice, also, that at the core of Yoshino’s argument is a desire. He never makes a philosophical defense of person-body dualism but nevertheless lets its implications infuse his political program. Same-sex marriage, for instance, is a classic example of an attempt to assert that bodies do not matter, that any two consenting adults should be able to enter into “marriage,” regardless of whether their bodies are complementary and oriented toward procreation. Yoshino’s dismissal of what he calls the “common procreation argument” for conjugal marriage is based not on a refutation of the argument in “What is Marriage?”—he does not engage the main threads of that argument seriously and refuses to offer his own definition of marriage—but on this desire to transcend the limitations of biology and to allow human beings to be whatever they want to be.
The hopeful part of Yoshino’s dream of discorporation comes in his admission that bodies are “barriers.” Why should Janet’s body get in the way of his love for her? How can he, who dreams of “passing through,” be stymied by a mere physical body? “I still return to this question without an answer,” he admits. In his honesty about his inability to square what he desires with the reality of the physical body, Yoshino has opened a door for dialogue. “I am bemused,” he says, “at how my erotic readings of people snag so insistently on surfaces.” But he need not worry that he is being superficial when he notices that people are male or female. He is recognizing something integral about the people around him. Since they are embodied persons, their being male or female is not a facade but the core of who they are. When we combine Yoshino’s honesty about the body with his support elsewhere in the book for “the universal rights of persons,” we have fertile ground for an ongoing conversation about the nature and rights of the human person. So, Professor Yoshino, why would a body be a barrier?