Author Michelangelo Signorile: Struggle for gay rights isn’t over

Author, radio personality, journalist and advocate Michelangelo Signorile at Sirius XM Studios, where he does his radio show, in Manhattan, NY.
(Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

The gay rights movement is undoubtedly experiencing its most successful years: bans against same-sex marriage continue to fall; men and women have come out of the closet in business, entertainment and sports; and LGBT characters are mainstays on television.

But according to New York-based author Michelangelo Signorile, proponents of LGBT equality must not think the promised land is nigh. Signorile wrote “Outing Yourself” and “Queer in America.” In his latest book, “It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia and Winning True Equality,” the host on Sirius XM Radio cautions against apathy resulting from “breathless change” sweeping the nation. He appears April 18 at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival and will speak April 20 at the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

Gay rights seem to be at the best point ever in our nation, but you assert the result of such progress is “victory blindness.” How does this affect the current status of the movement?


We’ve accomplished an enormous amount in a short amount of time, and I don’t want to diminish that, but a part of accomplishing so much is that the feeling of change can sometimes captivate and intoxicate people into not seeing the amount of bigotry still out there. You start not to focus on the real deep-seated bigotry out there, and it creates an apathy. It changes the dynamic, and people are not confrontational anymore.

Why is being confrontational, or radical, the best approach to ensuring systemic change?

There’s a tendency to say that now we have to be nice and magnanimous and friendly, and that’s how we’re going to ingratiate people. I say no. We have to do what has always worked: being confrontational, very visible, putting ourselves out there in every realm, really being a force. Once you pull back and accommodate the bigotry under this false idea that victory is inevitable, that’s where you allow the bigotry to advance because you’re giving them space.

The gay-rights movement has been criticized by many for placing marriage equality at the forefront. Was that a poor decision?

Movements have to go where the force of the energy is. The marriage movement really did captivate a lot of people and took precedence … but that’s done, and so many other issues are out there. We have to talk about how we’re talked about and reflected in the media and popular culture, to show the diversity and not just have the two white guys with the baby.

Recent mainstream representations of LGBT characters on shows like “Empire,” “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Orange Is the New Black” are more diverse and varied than past representations. Is this a sign of progress?

Some of the shows are exceptions rather than the rule because most representations of LGBT people, particularly on network television, are very sanitized, sexless, harmless and racially homogenous; “Modern Family” is a perfect example. New York University professor Kenji Yoshino calls it “covering,” and every minority group does this, where they have a tendency to fit in and downplay difference. Most of the representations we see on television have been that. “How to Get Away with Murder” and “Empire” are maybe and hopefully a turning point in the larger forum.

In “It’s Not Over” you say the media have a “‘both sides’ delusion” when covering LGBT issues. How so?

We have allowed the media for too long to show “both sides” of the gay issue. I can understand when an issue is new and challenging and there is a real force that is multidimensional on the other side, but we’ve had these debates now. The debate is over. We don’t see Holocaust deniers talking about the state of Jewish people in this country. At some point we have to say that the debate is over.

How does the movement pair with that of the women’s liberation and civil rights movements?

The oppressions are different, but what is definitely the same is the way that the forces of bigotry operate against us and the way they create the backlash. We must learn, LGBT people, from the women’s and civil rights movement how the moment you think you’ve won everything and pull back, forces of bigotry are organizing to take everything. Just look at the Voting Rights Act rollback for people of color, and women in terms of abortion and rape culture and pay equity.

When, then, will the fight be over? What does true equality look like?

I’m not sure it’s ever truly over. I think you’re always fighting and guarding against the bigotry.