‘It’s Not Over’ book tour
Wednesday, April 22
Politics and Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave., N.W.
With even anti-LGBT forces conceding a turning tide against them in the marriage wars, gay rights activists are in a place they like with same-sex marriage support polling higher than ever (only 33 percent oppose according to last month’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll) and marriage equality in 37 states plus D.C.
But marriage, of course, isn’t the only issue and radio host and author Michelangelo Signorile says the movement is in danger of succumbing to “victory blindness,” a phenomenon wherein “we’re overcome by the heady whirl of a narrative of victory, a kind of bedtime story that tells us we’ve reached the promised land, that can make everything else seem like a blur.” In his new book “It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia & Winning True Equality,” a wide-ranging book culled from years of activism and insight gleaned from his long-running eponymous show on Sirius XM radio, Signorile warns of potential dangers ahead.
Dubbed both “a wake-up call” and “a battle plan for the fights to come,” Signorile, who’ll be in Washington to promote it and sign copies at Politics & Prose next week, says there’s much work to do. Though he makes a compelling case, we played devil’s advocate with him by phone for an hour last week. His comments have been edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: The book is so timely and full of up-to-the-minute developments. Aren’t you concerned it will be outdated very quickly?
MICHELANGELO SIGNORILE: It’s the nature of our entire communications industry that everything moves so quickly and books occupy a different place than they used to. They have to do something different. What had continued to strike me over the last few years is that although we kept having these victories, the facts on the ground weren’t matching the celebrations and there was still a lot of discrimination. That was something that was remaining true regardless of what the latest victory was …. so it was really an issue of which examples to use. Some of the older ones, I just decided not to use. There were newer ones that would carry the basic idea through.
BLADE: In the last chapter you outline what you feel is the best way to proceed from here. Nobody has a crystal ball, but with the information you have, how likely do you feel that scenario is?
SIGNORILE: It’s hard to know because if you had asked me 10 or 15 years ago, how soon we would have full marriage equality, I would have said 25 or 50 years, something like that, so I think it could happen a lot quicker but a lot of it really is related to how kids are taught about gender and sexual orientation, that really is key. … In terms of getting full civil rights, who knows when Democrats will have full control again. I almost see that as taking longer, maybe 10 years or more.
BLADE: You write about the dangers of “victory blindness.” Do you see any parallels or mistakes at comparable points in the African-American civil rights movement or the women’s movement that we can avoid? Do any of the rumblings that still bubble up in society on those issues stems from issues of victory blindness their respective leaders might have succumbed to at comparable points to where we are now?
SIGNORILE: Yeah, we’ve seen victory blindness with every group and every civil rights movement. There’s a point where there’s a major win and a lot of people become complacent and apathetic and pull back and it’s really the worst time for that to happen because that’s really when the opponents really begin to organize in a fierce way and take advantage of that apathy and we have certainly seen that with women’s rights. If you go back to the ‘70s, … there was a real cultural shift and the sexual revolution and then people kind of thought it was over, we’d arrived. People don’t anticipate the backlash, often in the form of a religious revival, which we saw in the ‘80s with the Christian evangelical revival, which has happened at various times all throughout history. … Now we’re seeing the Voting Rights Act stripped away, another clear example where people don’t anticipate the backlash. You can change the laws, but it doesn’t change the attitudes and you can’t just say it’s over.
BLADE: But couldn’t that be construed as an argument in favor of the incrementalist approach you argue against in the book? If you don’t come in like such a barnstormer, wouldn’t it stave off some of the fervor of the backlash?
SIGNORILE: I think you do have to come in like a barnstormer and demand full equality and then stick with it. The problem is people get a part of it and may even get much of it, but then don’t stick with it for further change. Whether you do it incrementally or not, your enemies will still organize against you. I don’t think you’re taken seriously when you just ask for a little bit or crumbs and I don’t think it really energizes and captivates your own people and the larger public when you do it that way. You have to really demand that full equality and whatever you get you get, but then you have to stick with it and keep fighting for it. … The lesson for a minority is that you’re always going to be fighting. The roots of bigotry go very deep.
BLADE: So is it a mistake for groups like Freedom to Marry to say they’ll close if the Supreme Court rules in our favor?
SIGNORILE: I think it depends how they’re talking about it. Evan Wolfson has been very clear that the fight is far from over. … The bigger problems are the groups that only like to focus on winning and see it as a downer or not good fundraising to focus on losing. That’s the real problem because then you look like you’re not taking up a fight, like you’re in denial. None of us can still figure out why HRC was silent through the entire period when Arkansas passed that law that rescinded all the civil rights ordinances. Yes, the local HRC chapter said a few things but we heard nothing at all from Chad Griffin, no national press release, nothing. I don’t know what to conclude from that but it seems they gave up and thought, “Well, it’s a loser.” Then a couple weeks later, they were focused on the religious liberty law in that state which they were able to beat back. It just seems they were picking what they could win … but I don’t think it does us any good when it looks like we’re running away from battle. (HRC declined to comment.)
BLADE: You’re gay and include some biographical passages in the book. Might it be more compelling to the moveable middle if there was somebody out there who was making these points who didn’t have a proverbial dog in the fight? Is anyone doing that?
SIGNORILE: I don’t really see this idea of more objectivity in journalism as something that really furthers discussion because you can’t really claim to be objective but you can be fair and open and you can entertain the thinking of those who disagree with you. … There are people like Rush Limbaugh who have their own point of view and just shut everybody else out and then you have the New York Times that claims it’s objective but that’s really impossible because even what you omit from a story requires subjectivity. I would prefer outlets that say, “This is our opinion, but let’s entertain their thoughts and see what they think.” That’s what I try to do on my show. I always try to talk to people who are oppositional. I may have arguments and it may get passionate, but I don’t shut them out. Actually people who call my show who are on the opposite side are more likely to get on because I think we need to have a discussion.
BLADE: You never hear anybody arguing against our issues that it’s not one step removed from some sort of religious argument. You never hear of an atheist arguing against gay rights but nobody really seems to point that out. Why?
SIGNORILE: I’ve made that point sometimes. Somebody always comes forth and mentions some obscure historical figure who was an atheist but was supposedly still anti-Semitic or anti-gay but I do believe whether someone is religious or not, the ideology all stems from religion. I don’t think there’s any natural aversion to homosexuality. What religion has done to modern society is really demonize homosexuality and in that sense it really is all religion-based. A lot of the media have a hard time having any kind of discussion about it without bringing some religion person on and I think they need to stop doing that because if that’s your religious belief, that’s the end of that but if you want to argue with two people coming at it from a scientific point of view, they can’t seem to find anybody because it’s all religion-based.
BLADE: Why don’t we have more Republican allies? With Republican ideals of less regulation, freer trade, fewer embargoes, why doesn’t some of that brand of thinking trickle down to more personal freedom on our issues?
SIGNORILE: There are some free market fiscal Republicans who are not anti-gay themselves and do not agree with those who want to ban marriage or throw gays out of a restaurant or whatever, but the short answer is that it’s because the religious right still has such a stranglehold on the party it has to contend with so I still hold those other people accountable if they’re still comfortable being in that party and still vote with those who have an anti-gay point of view. It becomes a bit more difficult for the party because they can’t stomach any more blatant ugly homophobic language so they have to adapt the language a bit. It still slips out every now and then, like with women’s issues when somebody says “legitimate rape” and it ruins everything again. But instead of trying to shun those people, they try to rephrase and rebrand those arguments so others will be more comfortable being in the party. Now they’re going with the religious liberty argument hoping that will stick.
BLADE: You write about the spillover into pop culture and the ramifications of that. We have strong representation on hit shows like “Orange is the New Black” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” But invariably shows like “Duck Dynasty” and the Duggers’ show “19 Kids and Counting” come along and go through the roof becoming a mega cultural phenomenon. Are we going to look back in 20 years and see them as cultural anachronisms a la “Amos ’n’ Andy”? When attitudes are clearly changing in our favor, how do these kinds of shows get such traction?
SIGNORILE: These shows are a reflection of where the culture is and it’s quite clear there are millions of people out there who connect with these shows. Don’t forget that even though the people who run the industry might themselves be described as liberal, they know where the money is and where it isn’t and where it isn’t is in portraying LGBT people in a more realistic way. I think we’ll look back on “Modern Family” and say, “OK, why did these people never have any real connection.” There isn’t any discernible sexual energy between them. It’s been sanitized … to be more palatable to a mainstream audience in a way that won’t scare them.
BLADE: You say Aaron Schock should have been grilled and investigated a lot harder on possibly being a closet case. Lots of people argued there was no smoking gun and that everybody was just speculating based on tired stereotypes like the way he dressed and decorated his office. Short of some gay sex tape leaking, which is highly unlikely, these kinds of things become very hard to prove and any discussions end up being based on innuendo and stereotype. Is that unfair? How acute or fair do you feel the public’s overall gaydar is?
SIGNORILE: Well, what’s been forgotten in all this is the Itay Hod story …
BLADE: Well that sounded really wobbly — a second-hand thing where he didn’t even say for sure whom he was talking about.
SIGNORILE: He now has confirmed that’s who he was talking about and so while yes, it’s a second-hand source, it’s not something based on how he dresses or looks, but a second-hand account based on a sexual interaction. All of these issues are troublesome because they’re treated differently than they would be with any other story about a public figure. All of a sudden if it’s a gay rumor, we have a much higher burden of proof than we have with anybody else. Why didn’t anybody go investigate this? Why didn’t anybody go to Iowa? Why didn’t anybody go to Dupont Circle and start asking around? We have no problem going through Ted Cruz’s records. Why was this treated differently?
BLADE: How do you know that didn’t happen? Perhaps nothing was found.
SIGNORILE: I don’t think it happened. I asked specifically if people were looking into it and it seemed reporters were just not interested. They saw it as some sort of prying. What’s wrong with us talking about it? People go digging into Rand Paul’s background and he was maybe using a bong in college or whatever. Nobody attacks them as invading his privacy but with Schock, it’s a case of unless you have the proof, you can’t even talk about it. We take tips from visual cues all the time. The whole story of his downfall came from a visual cue, the way he had his office decorated which looked like excess and like maybe he was spending public money. Nobody had any proof, but they started looking into it and they found that he was doing lots of things that were very lavish and getting them paid for in all kinds of creative ways. … On this issue, they treat it differently and it’s not something they want to look into or talk about and I think what shows is that they’re still very uncomfortable talking about the issue of homosexuality.
BLADE: Have we ever really dismantled the slippery slope argument against marriage? We tend to laugh it off and say we’re not marrying our daughter or an animal, yet it still seems to play so well in the heartland and in the South. What’s our best response to that and what does it mean for the poly-inclined among us?
SIGNORILE: I think it really is kind of a ludicrous argument because we’ve changed marriage probably a thousand times over the last several hundred years and we always change it in the way society comes to believe it should be changed, at least in a democratic society. We’ve shown before how it was unfair to women, unfair to children, that women should have more rights and rights to divorce as well to make it easier to get out of abusive marriages. Now we’ve made the argument of why gay people should be included. The polygamy argument was made a long time ago by the Mormons and it didn’t take off and the Supreme Court didn’t go with that. When they keep saying, it’s going to lead to polygamy and all that, well, the Bible has that. That’s what it was and you know, it just seems to me they keep grasping at straws every time they argue that. There is no movement of people in this country who want to marry animals, there’s no organizing around that that has tried to capture the public imagination. They say, “Well, once the door is open …,” but the door is always open on every institution for rational change and marriage has changed too. We’ve made it better.
BLADE: How did you feel about John Aravosis ending AMERICAblog?
SIGNORILE: I think it’s a tough time for blogs as social media has become the real force. John was at the forefront of so much activism, particularly in the early years of blogging … in the way people now do on social media. I think he and others used that forum for activism in the best possible way you could at the time and I think the forum shifted and it has become more difficult to do that and to sustain it, so hats off to him for the work he did in those years. I’m glad he was able to transition.
BLADE: What would happen in our worst-case scenario? Say we get a Republican president elected to two terms who gets to appoint several Supreme Court justices who really bring out the guns. Do we have enough groundswell support to combat that in any substantive way and if so, what does that even look like? Would everything just get pushed back a generation or could some extreme scenario play out where the whole movement has to go underground?
SIGNORILE: It’s so hard to tell and I think any of those things are possible. We talked about how I think the arguments made to the general public are weak, but what the general public thinks often doesn’t matter because it becomes about who’s on the court and who’s lobbying and who’s in Congress and where the money is. The majority of the public believes we should have tougher gun laws but we don’t because of the NRA. And most people think Citizens United was a terrible decision and we could make the argument in the court of public opinion, but what most people don’t realize is that we’re likely going to get marriage equality because one man on the court (Justice Kennedy) thinks gay people should have some protection. He may now get another man on the court to agree with him, but he’s thought that for a while. Not in the same way legal progressives have, but he’s thought that. He’s made terrible decisions on women’s rights and terrible decisions about voting rights. It’s all so precarious and arbitrary and that’s what people don’t get. They think there’s some sort of natural thing going on, some sort of natural evolution toward justice that’s happening but what we’re dealing with is a Supreme Court that by the luck of the draw on this issues, has the five votes and may convert a sixth but we all know that could change at any time. If there’s a Republican president to replace Justice Kennedy and more gay rights issues come up, who knows what could happen. I think a lot people aren’t really thinking about how precarious this all really is.