QUEER VOICES

Michelangelo Signorile On 'It's Not Over' And The Future Of The LGBT Movement

04/07/2015 09:58 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
ASSOCIATED PRESS

The queer rights movement has come a long way over the past 50 years and has seen an especially mind-blowing array of triumphs secured in just the last five years. From marriage equality sweeping much of the United States to the transgender community gaining traction, momentum and unprecedented visibility, today the dream of equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is closer to becoming a reality than ever before.

But before you break out the champagne and start drafting an invite list for a celebratory party, there's some bad news: we've still got a long way to go before queer people attain all of the rights that non-queer people have. And, what's more, we have a lot more work left to do in terms of changing the way that non-queer people think about the lives and experiences of queer people on the most fundamental of levels.

From increases in hate-motivated crimes to the anti-LGBT "religious freedom" laws that are cropping up across the country, the war for equality continues to rage.

HuffPost Gay Voices Editor-at-Large Michelangelo Signorile is on the front line of that war -- and has been for over two decades. His latest book, It's Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality, available in stores and online today, is an in-depth look at where the queer rights movement has been, where it's going and serves as a reminder and warning that no one should be declaring "mission accomplished" just yet.

I recently chatted with my colleague Mike about his new book including everything from how "the closet" has changed over the years to his vision for our future and how we can -- hopefully -- one day achieve victory.

Noah Michelson: Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you got the idea for the book? Is there a specific moment you can point to when you thought "OK, it's time to look into this more closely"?
Michelangelo Signorile: The book came together over a period of several years. It actually crystalized as an idea as far back as 2009, when facts on the ground, in terms of how people experienced homophobia and transphobia, were never quite matching the celebrations in the media of the victories, which then were still baby steps compared to now. It's crazy but the victories kept changing, growing, sometimes dramatically, as did the facts on the ground. But what remained constant was that there was always a disconnect between the two, in terms of what I would see or hear from my radio listeners and people online out across the country, and how the wins were celebrated in the media or among activists. And I felt it was something very troubling that needed to be fleshed out and discussed.

The first chapter is entitled "Victory Blindness." What exactly does that mean and how is it affecting the movement?
Victory blindness is something we all succumb to at times. It's a term I use to describe the phenomenon in which we focus on the wins, so starved for validation, that we allow them to blind us to the continued bigotry we face. We become enthralled, intoxicated -- spellbound by even a little bit. The effect is that it obscures our reality -- literally our vision -- and it makes us lose our gumption, not wanting to rock the boat, fearful that we'll lose what we've gained and not get what little bit we think we need, when in fact we need a lot and we should be strong and confident knowing our allies will stay with us. In that chapter I use a vivid example, in a section titled "A Story of Victory Blindness," in which too many activists, claiming that we'd gotten a lot and had a banner couple of years, asked us to accept a situation that validated bigotry and urged us to be "magnanimous," fearful that the right would portray us as going too far -- but in fact this only allowed the backlash to grow because we seemed disjointed and that made us seem weak. We were and are still hated and despised by many -- despite having so many allies now -- and we have no rights in most states nor federal protections. So this is victory blindness, and it can have the terrible effect of actually allowing the backlash to grow because it telegraphs that we will back down.

The part of the second chapter, entitled "We Don't Serve Fags Here," that intrigued me the most is your discussion of the closet and how, even in 2015, it is such an enduring and dangerous phenomenon. How has the closet changed since you began writing about it and what do you think needs to happen for it to vanish altogether -- or is that even possible?
So many people clearly have come out in the past 25 years, since I wrote my first book, Queer in America, and people are coming out at much younger ages. And certainly many transgender people are coming to terms with their gender identity at younger ages. Whether transgender, gay, bisexual or lesbian, people are seeing so many people in public life who are out and it's influencing them and that's great. Rosie O'Donnell and I talked about that in our Town Hall at SiriusXM about the book. She said she was influenced by Ellen DeGeneres, and then she obviously further influenced so many to come out. So that's all good.

But we still see the closet strictly enforced among public figures. We still see the media not going there in discussing public figures -- even those in the glass closet -- sending the message that it's still shameful. We still see Hollywood enforcing the closet. And, in my research for It's Not Over, I found that even as things had changed, many many more average LGB people than we think are still deeply closeted, living tormented lives, married to people of the opposite gender when they're not bi, just to pass as straight, particularly in conservative parts of country. For example, upwards of 80 percent of gay men in Mississippi, according to some of this interesting research, using fascinating data sets, are closeted, not publicly acknowledging they are gay. Again, victory blindness obscures these people's hardships. I think it is possible to vanquish the closet but it's going to take enormous work. We have to get to a place where people do not go in the closet -- where they're raised as queer, and that will only happen when we revolutionize education and teach about sexual orientation and gender identity in school, k-12. It's just starting in California. We need to take it to all 50 states -- and I discuss this a lot in the book. And because it will take a while that's another reason why it's far from over.

We've seen many incredible victories for the movement in recent years -- some of them unfathomable even five years ago -- and yet, the more ground we gain, the more pushback we're seeing -- from the number of reported hate-based attacks in the United States increasing to this frightening new crop of "religious freedom" bills aimed at allowing discrimination against queer people. Some have written off this ramping up of anti-queer sentiment as the last gasp of a soon defeated right-wing coalition. How do you feel about that assertion and what's the danger in framing these events in this way?
You know, everything is the last gasp of something -- until people get their breath again. We thought we saw the last gasp of racism 50 years ago. Then we thought we saw it over and over again, including when President Obama was elected, right? We were "post-racial" and all this. Obviously it wasn't true. The enemies of LGBT equality, similarly, as they have done with women, will keep working at finding ways to try to thwart us. They will send up trial balloons that dismally fail, or only work for a time. Some of us, succumbing to victory blindness, will think, "Aha! We've finally stumped them!" And then they'll be back. This is ingrained in our culture, this homophobia, this transphobia. It's passed down. Everyone has it -- and I have a lot of research in the book on implicit bias, and it defies all the breathless polls we see -- including those of us who are queer. Our opponents exploit that. We can never underestimate that. And we have only to look at the other movements -- the women's movement, the civil rights movement, whose shoulders we stand upon, to see that.

Tell me about "covering." What is it and why can it be harmful?
I'm indebted -- we all are -- to Kenji Yoshino, the esteemed law professor at New York University who wrote the book Covering, in 2006, so ahead of its time. i've tried in It's Not Over to do what he asked us all to do in that book: to popularize the word "covering" and make it as commonplace as the word "closet." Covering is when members of marginalized groups attain certain rights and then think that the best strategy is to try to fit in -- not to focus on difference. He writes about it from the perspective of race, as an Asian American, as well as from the perspective of being gay. For queer people, covering is when we tone down or assimilate in, or try to show cultural tastes that are more in line with the mainstream, and downplay our own culture. And certainly, refraining from showing same-sex affection or sexuality is covering. And covering actually isn't all bad. Yoshino talks about how it can help win some rights. But we've now reached its limit. To break through the deeply ingrained homophobia, that implicit bias which I spoke to a lot of researchers about we have to show who we are, fully desensitize people and focus on that difference and that diversity. Covering is happening not just in our own lives, with each of us individually, but throughout popular culture, when culture makers cover us -- sanitize us -- in depictions on TV and film, and in the media. We need to break through it all.

Bullying has gone from being a buzz word to almost being a cliche -- even the Real Housewives trot out that term to talk about how they treat each other. In some ways it feels like we're not taking it seriously because it's been talked about so much in the past several years. The problem is, even though there's been a sharp increase in visiblity around the idea of bullying, the problem is far from being solved. What are your thoughts on how bullying is framed today and what do you think the solution is?
It's true that bullying has become a kind of catch-all for so many things. I think in terms of definition we need to go back to basics. I interviewed Danah Boyd, a researcher who has done a lot work with teens, surveying and interviewing them, and looking at all the data on bullying. And what she first was surprised about is that, for all the stories of cyberbullying -- and it is a very real problem -- kids still say that most bullying happens to them at school. And they also say that the Internet, rather than being, as their parents believe, an extension of that bullying, is often a refuge from it, or a self-empowerment tool, where they can connect with people like themselves from far and wide. So in my chapter on bullying I talk about going back to basics of self-empowerment and turning back to the women's movement of the '80s, too, and the lesbian feminists who used self-defense to empower themselves, not just to beat off attackers physically but to empower themselves emotionally and build enormous confidence within a brutal world. It's something we can really do now for a lot of young people, with so many more parents who are accepting and supporting their kids as gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender. I think self-defense, self-empowerment, building that confidence for the future, has been missing in our tool-kit. We need to pressure schools, we need to change administrations, we need to pass laws and we need to let kids know their lives will be better in the future when they are adults. But we also need to empower kids, in the here and now, to defend themselves in every way when we can and to build that confidence.

I love the chapter entitled "Not Up For Debate," which is about abandoning the idea that the media needs to cover both sides of these issues. When The Huffington Post came out in support of marriage equality during the Supreme Court hearings in 2013, the number one question I was asked by other news outlets was "Do you think you can stay objective if you're saying that you support marriage equality?" Why do you think it's important for the media to stop trying to stay neutral on these issues? What do you say to those who claim that abandoning that neutrality means stories can't be accurate or fair?
This really is a two-pronged question -- one about journalism and one about bigotry. Let's start with journalism. I've long maintained that "objectivity" and "neutrality" are a bit silly to strive for because it's really impossible, particularly when you as the journalist are a member of a marginalized group and other people have made up the rules of "objectivity." From the moment you decide something is a story you're making a value judgement. I'd rather see honesty, particularly about what is settled. And I am happy to see more of our media going in that direction, being more honest about what its values are -- while at the same time maintaining, or striving to maintain, fairness to opposing views.To me, objectivity is less important than being fair and striving to be fair. I always make sure to show the opposing view, and present it fairly, even if it's clear what my view is. But -- getting to the second part of the question, the homophobia, and transphobia, issue, the bigotry -- the opposing view is now completely debunked when it comes to a scientific point of view. There are no reputable scientists, medical associations, sexologists, etc., who see homosexuality, bisexuality or transgender identity as harmful -- and so all the media is left with to show an opposing view is bigotry, most often from religious conservatives. And they just do not have a place anymore -- and perhaps never should have -- in public policy debate. The media no longer bring white supremacists on to debate racial issues. It's time they stop bringing on anti-gay hate groups too. It's not about censorship -- and I'm not saying there shouldn't be debates about our issues -- but with these particular people, simply promoting bias, the debate must be over.

What kind of an effect do you think challenging the way that we, as a culture, think about masculinity will have on men -- both gay and straight -- as well as women and genderqueer people?
I get to all of that in the last chapter of It's Not Over, in discussing taking on professional male team sports and the masculinity it promotes. It is a masculinity that, by definition, is homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic. The chapter talks about the short term and what must be done in taking on the NFL and other leagues, but then, yes, it gets utopian in discussing the long term -- redefining masculinity, beginning in our schools. But I feel like, look at how far we've come and what we've accomplished -- there's so much more we can do. Let's think big. I think straight men, who often feel they have to measure up and compete -- which I think is often what leads to the bullying and homophobia -- will be just as liberated from confining gender norms as gay men, women and genderqueer people. And in that sense I think it takes us back to the roots of the queer movement, about not just "rights" but liberation of the entire society around these issues.

I was heartened to see that you aren't just raising issues or problems, you're also offering solutions. There's a powerful manifesto at the end of the book and this is not the first time you've written one. What goes into writing a manifesto and why is it crucial that our movement has one to guide us?
Writing a book is a weird thing. On the one hand, it's just a bunch of ideas, a bunch of writing, strung together -- or at least that's what you tell yourself, particularly at the beginning, to make it seem less daunting! But really, in the end, it's almost like an organic, living and breathing thing. It takes a reader on a journey, and as you're writing it, you're charting that journey -- and I had a talented editor, Ben Hyman, at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who helped create that, really worked with me on structure in a great way. So, as with Queer in America, that epilogue -- the manifesto -- didn't come together or know its shape until I was done writing the book. There was talk of including it, or what it would be, or maybe not even having it. But it's not until you get there, at the end of the book, that it comes together, or not. All the ideas that you laid out, in terms what you want people to see, and solutions and empowering things people can do, get boiled down, and now you can say it all with a certain authority because you've thought it through, and you know the readers will get the shorthand and immediately connect because they've read the book. And so, it literally just comes pouring out of you. My hope is that it gives people a guidepost, something to turn to, adding in their own personal adaptations of it. That, to me, is a successful manifesto. It makes people think, then apply it in a very personal way -- not just blindly following a command -- and take action on their own, with their own thoughts fused with it.

For more information and to purchase It's Not Over, head here. For more from Michelangelo Signorile, follow him on Twitter.

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