How Madonna Succumbed to 'Victory Blindness'

03/12/2015 10:57 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
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It's happened to many seasoned LGBT activists, to many progressives, to many in the media, and to other celebrities (like Patricia Arquette), so why shouldn't it happen to Madonna?

The legendary performer and great supporter of LGBT rights told Out magazine:

Gay rights are way more advanced than women's rights. People are a lot more open-minded to the gay community than they are to women, period. It's moved along for the gay community, for the African-American community, but women are still just trading on their ass. To me, the last great frontier is women.

And this is where, on LGBT rights, Madonna has succumbed to what I call "victory blindness" (which is title of the first chapter of my soon-to-be-released book). She and many others are intoxicated by the heady whirl of victory -- which the media magnifies in an extraordinary way -- and appear to believe, living within this seductive moment of advances for LGBT rights, that we've "arrived" and the rest of it is inevitable.

Madonna is absolutely right about women and the backlash to their equality. But it is precisely because of that backlash and what it teaches us that she is absolutely wrong about LGBT equality. Women's equality stalled, experiencing a backlash that took feminists by surprise in the '80s, and it's a backlash that they are battling right up until this day. But only in hindsight can the backlash be seen.

In the moment, during the heyday of the '70s and federal legislation and Supreme Court rulings upholding women's autonomy, many women thought full equality was inevitable, exactly like many LGBT activists, progressives, some in the media -- and Madonna -- seem to think today about LGBT equality. Many feminists celebrated and talked of how they'd "advanced." Many women stopped paying attention, became apathetic, thinking the fight was won, while the enemies of women's equality were working fiercely to roll things back.

Now, I could get into the "contest" with Madonna and point out that women are actually included in the 1964 Civil Rights Act while gays are not, which means it's illegal to discriminate against women in housing, employment and public accommodation but perfectly legal to do so in the 29 states that don't have such protections for gays. And I could point out that there are women who are leading nations, and it's quite likely that a woman could be the next president of the United States, while there is currently no openly gay leader of any major nation, and there is only one U.S. senator who is openly gay or lesbian. I could point out that only one CEO of a Fortune 500 company -- Tim Cook at Apple -- is openly gay, while there are over 25 women running such companies. And for transgender people there's even far more invisibility.

But this is not a contest, for heaven's sake. The reason it feels in the moment that gays are "winning" is simply that we have made some important victories in this time frame. But zoom out and you will see the backlash building -- laws being passed to stop anti-discrimination ordinances, "religious liberty" bills advancing -- just as it built against other groups. In the moment, the passage of the Civil Rights Act and later the Voting Rights Act surely made many African Americans believe they too had "arrived." And here they are, decades later, seeing attacks on affirmative action, voting rights stripped away, voter suppression laws passed and Ferguson and far too many incidents like it occurring all the time.

The problem is that the victories -- as significant as they are -- often feed a desperate hunger for validation by marginalized groups that have been starved for so long, leaving many of us spellbound. We've been battered and bruised for so long that we want so much to believe it's nearly done. But this was the mistake women made -- something Madonna alludes to, perhaps without realizing it -- and it's the mistake she and so many others are making now on LGBT rights.

I'm not talking solely or even necessarily about abortion either, nor comparing it to gay marriage, something many people say is a flawed comparison. We could argue that one, but really it's not even necessary. We need only to look at a whole host of other issues, from pay equity for women to the persistence of rape culture -- and the forces stopping legislation to battle both -- and then a whole host of LGBT rights far beyond marriage equality, from discrimination in public accommodations to exemptions for people who hate because their religion tells them to do so.

If we don't learn the lessons from the past, victory blindness too will allow the enemies of LGBT equality to do what they've done to successes not only for women but for people of color and so many other groups. Madonna doesn't mean to do it, but her words serve to divide us when she could be underscoring how all of us who are marginalized are experiencing backlash by an angry, irrationally fearful force among the American people -- a force fueled by bigotry and which has helped consolidate power among the few for a long time.

Our enemies are feeling threatened and getting desperate as we all march forward. None of us -- women, LGBT people, people of color -- has the luxury to become complacent. Victory blindness is enormously seductive and very dangerous. And we've got to help Madonna and a great many others overcome it now.

Michelangelo Signorile's next book, It's Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality, will be published April 7 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.