Michelangelo Signorile Talks About the Future of the LGBT Movement

In a new book, the activist and radio host explains why LGBT people shouldn't quickly celebrate legislative and social victories.
Michelangelo Signorile at a 2012 awards ceremony in New York City. (Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)
Apr 28, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Hugh Ryan's work has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, The Guardian, and The Daily Beast.

In many ways, this would seem to be a great time for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering same-sex marriage. Some of the country’s biggest companies are opposing measures to restrict the rights of LGBT people. Transgender Americans have popped into popular culture—and last week’s ABC News interview with Bruce Jenner is Exhibit A. But as Michelangelo Signorile—pioneering gay activist, author, and radio host—argues in his new book, It’s Not Over, focusing on a handful of legislative and social wins creates “victory blindness” and leads to apathy.

Signorile has a long history in the LGBT movement. An entertainment publicist by trade, he rose to prominence as one of the architects of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power's masterful media strategy, and was an early proponent for "outing" closeted public figures. In It’s Not Over, Signorile combines social science research on the origins of homophobia, with detailed news analysis and quotes from LGBT people around the country.

TakePart recently talked with Signorile about his new book, the future of the LGBT movement, transgender Americans, and same-sex marriage. Here’s an edited excerpt:

Take Part: Why write this book at a time when it seems like the LGBT community is ascendant?

Michelangelo Signorile: I'm trying to make people focus on the fact that there's so much homophobic and transphobic bigotry still embedded within our culture—in addition to the fact that we have a slew of rights that we still have to win. Around the country, I started to see a sense of victory and finality—people using the word “inevitable” a lot. That breeds complacency and apathy. Marriage equality is just the beginning. I mean, in Oklahoma, they have gay marriage, and in the vast majority of counties nobody has gotten married, because if they get married, they'll be fired from their jobs tomorrow.

I acknowledge the great wins. When I talk about victory blindness, it's not to negate those wins but to say we have so much more to do.

TakePart: Why is it so dangerous for LGBT Americans to enjoy tangible successes?

Signorile: We’re not seeing the bigotry ahead—because we want to feel like we're winning. After all these years of losing, and being treated terribly, it feels great. But I've seen it create a change in tactics. We see it among some mainstream columnists, both gay and straight. David Brooks or Kirsten Powers comes along and says, "You know, you guys are overdoing it." People have started to use the word “magnanimous” and say we should reach out to our enemies. But conservatives are coming up with new ways to thwart us. It changes the tactic from confrontational to this trap of doing it on their terms. It allows the backlash to grow.

TakePart: Sometimes it seems like we forget everything that’s happened before 2012, or even things that are happening right now that don’t fit into this success story.

Signorile: There is no history in the media narrative. When you look at the last year, you see that in fact Christian conservatives had a pretty good year. We see what happened in Arizona—where Jan Brewer [the former Republican governor] vetoed the religious liberty bill because big business spoke up—as a big win. They see it as “back to the drawing board.”

They rely on there being no institutional memory. Because literally weeks after Arizona, they passed a religious freedom act in Mississippi and no one paid attention to it. Arkansas passed a much more draconian bill that rescinded all the local (antidiscrimination) ordinances. Now they've moved on to Louisiana.

TakePart: In your book, you draw on the work of legal scholar Kenji Yoshino and his idea of “covering.” What is covering, and how do you see it playing into this trap of victory blindness?

Signorile: Yoshino writes about how all marginalized groups—women, racial minorities, LGBT people—once they obtain a certain level of rights, they develop this “let’s be team players” attitude. Don't rock the boat, because the way we're going to get more is to show everybody we're just like them.

Now, we all have a tendency to cover, and covering is not all bad. In a moment, it might be important for you to cover to avoid violence of some sort. Or you're on a job interview or something like that. But it has its limits. Covering is a privilege, right? Because not everyone can cover effectively. Not everybody can assimilate. So covering in the larger group makes everything fall to those who can't cover and they bear the brunt of the discrimination. Yes, maybe for some covering gets them by and they can live a pretty good life. But in the end it doesn't help the whole movement.

TakePart: The idea of the “whole movement” is complicated, though. What do you say to those—especially white gay men—who argue that transgender equality is something completely separate and shouldn’t be lumped in with “their” struggle?

Signorile: There’s always been that sort of attitude. But if you look historically it was all the same. There weren't lesbian and gay and bisexual and transgender. It was a less detailed understanding of our identities. But transgender people were at the forefront of the movement going back to the Stonewall era. These separate labels became prominent because people were being marginalized, people were being shunted off to the sides, and they needed to claim an identity. We've always been part of the same larger movement on a whole variety of issues that intersect, and we also have very separate identities and histories.

I don't see us as moving forward separately because the issues of misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia are so connected that we need to fight them all together. There's nothing different between a gay man who's effeminate and a transgender woman in the mind of a basher or harasser on the street.

TakePart: Speaking of street harassment, in the new book you advocate strongly for self-defense classes, especially for LGBT young people. Why?

Signorile: A lot of what is happening today is disproportionately affecting LGBT youth. Everyone is shocked about the suicides, but what you start to see is that the wins are so intoxicating that they're making kids come out at younger ages, and we haven't built ways to protect them.

I think politically, self-defense was something we didn't talk about because we're trying to change schools, we're trying to change policies, and we're trying to pass laws. Once you start talking about defending oneself, there’s a fear that we are taking the responsibilities off of the schools. We have to do all of that and we also have to tell kids it's going to get better in the future, but how do we help them navigate the world in the here-and-now where there is no law, there is no changed policy, and the future isn't here yet? I thought this was one way we can do it, especially given so many parents now support their LGBT children.