“It’s time for us to be intolerant—intolerant of all forms of homophobia, transphobia, and all forms of bigotry against LBGT people,” writes journalist/SiriusXM host Michaelangelo Signorile in his new book, It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality. A call to arms-cum-history of recent injustices, It’s Not Over is an invaluable and idiot-proofed argument against resting on our laurels and giving up the fight in the face of recently won advances for LGBT people. Signorile warns against “victory blindness” and “covering” temptations, hits back at Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (he characterizes the term “religious freedom” as “dog whistling”), and points out the lack of equality that isn’t even bothering to hide in plain sight in pop culture and on news programs, which regularly trot out discredited anti-gay activists for the sake of hearing “the other side.”
Last weekend, I had lunch with Signorile, a personal friend of mine, to discuss his book in his home neighborhood of Chelsea. Our 70+ minute discussion appears in edited and condensed form below.
Gawker: As someone who pays attention to this stuff, I already knew a lot of the information in this book...
Michelangelo Signorile: ...You knew everything.
...But I still found it powerful to read about all of these manifestations of inequality next to each other. Was presentation part of your point?
What got me thinking about it was the victories that we see reported, the victories we experience, and the way they’re celebrated were disconnected from all these experiences people were having with discrimination everywhere. The way we would experience them would be to celebrate the victories and then read the story about the two people thrown out of the cab, and we would in our own minds sort of downplay that and overplaying the win. But when you put them all together, you realize that it’s all a long way to go.
I sometimes wrestle with this stuff. Even with the Memories Pizza thing, they were clear idiots—Crystal O’Connor said the Indiana RFRA is about protecting religion and yet talked at length about discriminating against gays. Her rhetoric was obviously empty, but at the same time I remember writing about it and having some doubt crawl into my mind: Why should anyone be forced to serve anyone anything? It took me a second to realize: Of course this is fucked up beyond the rudeness of refusing pizza to people who never asked for it in the first place.
I think we’re so used to being treated that way, we even grew up with the idea that homosexuality is different from other kinds of oppression because “people have their religious beliefs.” Then the wins we have sort of blind us to seeing some of these things because we say, “We’ve gotten so much. Who cares? Let’s let them have their space.” That word “magnanimous” kept coming up, and I think that comes from, psychologically, this place where, “I just want to focus on the wins. I don’t want to focus on what’s left to do. That’ll just take care of itself. It’ll be inevitable.” This moral-arc of the universe stuff. It’s like: no. You have to actually change it.
I share so many of your political beliefs but probably none more than this one: “Pleading for our rights can often be a covering strategy, especially when we posit that we’re exactly the same as heterosexuals and ask the dominant culture not to notice our differences.” So often the argument is phrased that way: we’re the same. Look at [Prop 8 plaintiffs] Jeff Zarillo and Paul Katami: “We’re average.” There is no average. The greater point is it’s OK to be different.
And the only way you’re going to break implicit bias and deep-seated homophobia is by forcing the difference in their faces over and over again until it’s no longer comfortable. What we’re doing is making it comfortable for them to continue to be hateful. So Modern Family has two funny guys who are nice and take care of kids, but they don’t have any chemistry and they don’t have sex. That doesn’t challenge anybody. It doesn’t break away that homophobia. It’s fine. It’s there, but it’s allowing straight people to deal with us on their terms rather than forcing them to confront their homophobia.
Sam Smith prided himself on being “clever” by obscuring his sexuality in his music. He covered Whitney Houston and changed the song’s gender-specific pronoun. But at the same time, you understand why he does it, right?
...And then getting thrown out of the NFL, basically.
You understand why he wouldn’t have done it over again.
I have physical proof of another closeted NFL player, but I’m not going to be the one to put that out there and risk destroying his career.
Michael Sam did that and it was a great thing that he did that, and it challenged people, but it probably hurt his chances.
So, tough shit, then? You have the choice of leading an individual, comfortable life or fighting for the cause and risking what you love being taken away from you. Not everybody feels galvanized by a general sense of altruism.
I think everybody needs to, together, challenge it. [Kenji Yoshino’s] covering analysis was so ahead of its time. I think everybody needs to move forward with that kind of attitude: not covering, not implicitly allowing people’s homophobia to keep going on. It just doesn’t break the cycle.
But in the meantime, often what you’re doing, as in the case of Michael Sam, is sacrificing yourself for the cause. A lot of people are too weak to do that. People are too selfish and materialistic.
A lot of times, people are too weak to do it the other way. [Sam] says he couldn’t do it any other way because he couldn’t do it with that stress. I think Michael Sam would rather find his fortune now through something else, whether it’s Dancing With the Stars, or whatever, than to live with that stress of the closet. So many people who do it that way and then finally come out, say, “I should have done that earlier.” Look, everybody makes their choices. I think they think [fame] is the priority, but then they’re really unhappy in their lives living that way, even with having all the money and the fame. We’ve seen how many stories of that? And then when they come out what do they talk about? How horrible it was to live that way.
Do you ever have moments where you notice yourself covering or feel tempted to cover? I do, and I’d say my most prominent thinking during those times is, “I don’t want to open you up to being a terrible person in my eyes. I’d rather believe that everybody is mostly good.” I don’t feel shame about being gay, but sometimes I also don’t want to engage in a situation that’s going to make me feel bad.
The opposite sometimes happens and realize that’s your own internalized homophobia, where you’re like, “I don’t want to not cover because I don’t want to expose these people as homophobes,” but then it somehow happens anyway and these people couldn’t care less and you’re like, “So what was that about? Was that me?” You realize it was and the world changed around you. But then you have that moment a week later where someone calls you a faggot because you did something or were kissing someone, and that kind of throws it back. I think we’re constantly reacting to trauma of events. It’s probably hard for us to have a gauge sometimes on reality. We focus on these victories as a salve to block all that out. But yeah, I think we all go through that: “I don’t want to say it now.” Or, This cab driver just asked me about my wife, what do I say? “No, I have a husband”? Do I really want to go through this with this cab driver?
My rule is I won’t lie, but there have been times that I’ve slid by without declaring my sexuality. I had a barber I talked to every week and I never talked about my sexuality or romantic life with him.
I have an even worse story than that: My husband, David, and I shared a barber—this is 10 years ago—and he thought we were brothers. We never said we were brothers, but he just thought we were brothers. When you first see a barber, you don’t really talk about your life, so I came in and then David came in and maybe we sort of looked alike at the time or whatever. This is in the middle of Chelsea. Everybody’s gay, and he probably has no problem with it, but he just started asking about my brother and then he asked David about his brother. We allowed this to go on and it was kind of funny. We weren’t lying. We never told him.
I got the brother thing with my ex a lot, and I always interpreted that as wishful thinking on other people’s part.
They do know.
They would have to, or at least be considering it. They’re aware that sometimes men are in relationships. At our age, if you’re hanging out with your brother so much, that’s more unusual than being gay.
It could be their way of allowing for the closet.
I went into the supermarket in Williamsburg holding your book and the girl at the cash register asked me, “What’s not over?” I had a moment where I was like, “I don’t want to get into this right now,” but like I said, I don’t lie to people. So after a beat, I told her, “Gay rights...the struggle.” And she said, “I like that.” And then it was like, yeah, in Williamsburg that better be your point of view, otherwise you’re in the wrong place and you should move somewhere cheaper.
[Homophobes] need to feel a ramification or an embarrassment sometimes. Not all the time. It’s fine to let those moments pass, but you can’t let every one of those moments pass. If you stand up at least once or twice or every moment when you can, I think it does a world of good. I embarrass them in front of everybody.
Why do bigots do what they do? I think it’s perfect when you talk about the phrase “dog whistling” in reference to “religious liberties” protection. Protecting religious freedom is 100 percent bullshit. Nobody’s trying to take anyone’s religion away from them. That’s not what any of this is about. It’s just about not using religion to justify bigotry. But also, as a white guy, I find often that strangers will try to bond with me over racism. There’s something cancerous in the human condition that makes hating people together a point of unity. Look at how gossip brings people together. Do you think that’s part of the reason why people want to hold onto homophobia?
Absolutely. I talk in the book about the bigotry and that sense of threat that a lot of straight men feel to literal violence or aggression when I discuss the implicit bias studies, particularly the study where they looked at how straight men respond to gender non-conforming faces—what they perceive as an effeminate male face or a transgender face. They have this meticulous memory for it. They’re able to recall that face because that face is what threatens them. That really gets at what it is: a phobia. A raging fear. A threat that’s built into them. You can then understand how they then bond with other people on that and how it acts itself out in a violent way or an aggressive way. If you’re perceiving an outside group as a threat, you’ll do whatever you can to keep that group in its place. I pointed to some studies that were done in the ‘90s and then when they were done again in 2013, they were just confirmed: straight men who were perceived as hanging out with gay men were then perceived as gay. It was almost like a contagion. Then you can understand why it would erupt in a violent outburst, but also a kind of bonding thing of you’re not one of them. It’s a challenge to you to make them feel comfortable or stand up in a moment.
A lot of the time, people tend to reduce group-specific struggles into a monolith in which the majority rules, so black rights are about straight black people, and LGBT people of color are a footnote in said discussions. Patricia Arquette was accused of just speaking about white women during her Oscars acceptance speech and followup comments in the press room. I like that you make repeated effort in this book to discuss the inequalities within in the gay community, especially as they apply to people of color and especially trans people of color.
[Trans people of color] are dealing with so many biases at once. There’s such a sense of hostility that they’re not seen as fellow human beings. I really was challenged with what the hell I was going to do on a number of issues when I wrote this book: AIDS, transgender rights—issues that are really important but those about which you could easily say to yourself, “That’s another book.” And they are other books, and I’m certainly not comprehensive about it in any way shape or form. As I got into the work, it really became impossible to be honest about our struggle, our continued battles, without integrating all that in. It wasn’t a conscious decision as much as going against a sort of rationalization not to, only because it wouldn’t have been honest.
What about the notion of choosing our battles? Could we get so used to the ethos of the book and start complaining too much about things? I see a piece about a gay guy complaining that a straight couple called him and his boyfriend cute, and it’s like, come on.
That’s not the biggest problem in the world.
I guess my fear with that we’ll look like a bunch of whiny complainers. If you’re speaking to be heard, that’s an impediment.
I guess I optimistically see these things and canceling themselves out. Somebody throws out a flame, if everybody gravitates toward it, then it means something. If it just fizzles out, it’s nothing. The internet has a way of doing that.
I do feel, though, that we need to be confrontational always. We’re not as confrontational as we think we are. We think we’re being confrontational and it’s registering a few decibels less than that. So to really get a reaction, you need to push really hard. It’s great that our president has done everything he’s done, but it didn’t happen because people asked him to or there was political pressure from HRC or anything like that. It happened because people really, really, majorly disrupted. They interrupted his speeches. They chained themselves to the White House gate. They marched on Washington. They really used the web to embarrass him in ways that people like Obama, who really does agree with us, doesn’t want to be called out. I think it is going to take that kind of confrontation.
There are times when certain gay organizations seem anti-thought, or anti-discourse, or anti-diversity. Before My Husband’s Not Gay aired on TLC, GLAAD and Truth Wins Out decided what it was and that it was harmful for people to see. They hadn’t seen it yet.* That to me is the worst-case scenario…
And that is what anti-LGBT people say about our grievances: “You’re overreacting.”
With a lot of groups, there’s not just an overreaction, but such an inconsistency of: this is the thing you’re going crazy over and then this other thing comes along and they’re quiet about it. It’s like why aren’t they talking about this? What are the priorities? What’s going on? I may be cynical, but to me, especially with the major groups, I think all of it is political. I think they pick this thing we think is silly and an overreaction because it’s easy and they know they can get it done while getting some attention around it. And then the thing that’s the real thing we should be fighting, there’s some sort of political reason why they’re staying quiet about that. That angers me more than anything, and I feel like there’s no accountability for anything that’s going on. No one’s doing the work to look at why HRC stayed silent on the horrible Arkansas law, the really bad law that was passed three weeks before [the RFRA]. And why did WalMart stay quiet? And then why did WalMart talk later when the religious liberty bill in Arkansas was unnecessary and getting rid of it didn’t matter, because the really dangerous bill that rescinded all the anti-discrimination had already been passed? People were imploring them on Twitter to say something and they didn’t say anything.
I thought your uncompromising stance throughout the book was cathartic to read. There is no debate. Ultimately if your religion preaches hatred and inequality, your religion sucks.
Fuck your bigoted religion. The idea that “religion” absolves anything because it’s what you believe...people believe garbage all the time, and they’re idiots for doing so.
We were talking about Obama coming out against conversion therapy on my show [last week] and a man called from Texas who is a pastor, and he sounded like a nice guy. He was saying, “I’m a pastor, and we believe in the word of Jesus Christ and I’ve counseled many people who’ve come out of homosexuality. They come into my office and they say they are struggling with this and they talk to me about how they can pray and work against their struggle. What should I do? That’s what we believe.” I said, “You should tell them that they need to go see a therapist to come to terms with the fact that they’re gay, and you need to come to terms with the fact that your religion is preaching hate.” He said, “No, we’re preaching the word of God.” I said, “You’re not preaching the word of God in 12 other things. Are you throwing divorced people out of your church? Half of your church will be gone. Are you telling people that they can’t eat shellfish?” The point is that we need to simply say no. That is over. That’s not a debate. I’m just amazed that I even hear religious discussion on a news program at all as a rationale from the “other side.” Those people should not be on TV.
Because religion is, by definition, irrational.
Give me a real reason, a scientific reason, why you think this law or policy shouldn’t be passed.
The boldest sentence in this book reclaims that way shameful bigots attempt to battle homosexuality (“By not tolerating my intolerance, you’re the real one who’s intolerant”). You write, “It’s time for us to be intolerant—intolerant of all forms of homophobia, transphobia, and all forms of bigotry against LBGT people.”
It’s time to no longer agree to disagree. That’s such an American phrase regarding how we get along. No. I don’t choose anymore to agree to disagree. You are wrong. That’s it.
Practically speaking, what happens during the time in between our declaring intolerance of intolerance and the world catching up? Homophobes will still be self-righteous and so will we be, and so what happens? What happens after, “You are wrong”?
I think we’ve reached the point where the debate’s been had. So much of the media and the culture keeps engaging in it, while a lot of people have made up their minds. Let’s claim that. Look, this debate is done. No matter how much we do that, they’re going to still believe what they believe and still raise their children that way and still put it out there and we’re going to have to continue to fight back against that. I think what’s happened with other groups is that they sort of let that slide in a way. And then the next generation came up and forgot that certain things were settled and then we see it playing out all over again. I’m trying to warn people, using what’s happened with other groups, don’t let it slide. Keep it settled.
It’s not over, and there’s no real end in sight.
No. I think you have to live It’s Not Over. This culture is embedded with racism, homophobia, misogyny—all these things kind of tied together. Laws can only go so far. You have to be on guard.
*Correction: Via Twitter, Truth Wins Out’s Evan Hurst told me that he and his colleagues had seen My Husband’s Not Gay before it aired and “we weren’t telling people NOT to watch it, but taking issue with their misrepresentation of who these men were.”