Gay rights activist, author and radio show host Michelangelo Signorile is not known for being a wallflower when it comes to LGBT equality issues. The former editor of Out Magazine gave birth to the construct of “outing” — revealing that certain people, usually conservative politicians, are engaged in same-sex sexual activity while opposing LGBT equality — and helped organize the public relations around some of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power’s (ACT UP) most public protests, including one at the National Institutes of Health in May of 1990.
Now he is turning his pen and voice to the very community he has fought for for decades. In his new book, “It’s Not Over,” Signorile makes a compelling case that while wins for marriage equality have been astonishingly quick and overwhelming, the vast majority of LGBT equality issues, such as prohibiting discrimination in housing and employment, remain unfilled. He worries that “victory blindness” — a phrase he has coined to indicate that some see the likely Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples in June as evidence that all equality for the LGBT community will follow swiftly — has stopped many from seeing the growing backlash, under the guise of religious liberty laws and exemptions; as well as prohibiting some from seeing that LGBT equality still has not met many national benchmarks.
“It’s really a term I found myself using after seeing how for the past few years, we would see these great victories — and we’ve had enormous strikes, there’s no question about it,” Signorile said in a phone interview. “We’ve made history in such a short period of time. But I started to see that as we were celebrating these victories, there was an increasing disconnect between them and the facts on the ground, the discrimination that people were still experiencing.”
Experiences such as being thrown out of public spaces, employment discrimination and the continued epidemic of suicides by young LGBT — and mostly transgender — teens in the U.S., he said.
“We tend to focus on the victory almost as a salve, to blunt the bad news in a way,” he said. “We are a people who have been demonized, vilified, invisible for so long, only to find our voice and then be decimated by an epidemic. I think the victor started to be spelling binding and exhilarating — as they should be. But they shouldn’t have us lose sight of the entrenched homophobia that’s still out there.”
As Signorile watched the nation move with lightning speed towards marriage equality, he said he also noticed a growing chorus of voices encouraging LGBT activists to be less celebratory with each win. He pointed to a column by David Brooks, in the New York Times, after wins in Indiana to overcome so-called religious liberty laws in that state. In that piece, Brooks encouraged the community and supporters to “lower your tone,” and noted, “You’re winning.”
That’s a dangerous move, Signorile argues.
“I think that’s just a real trap because it allows the backlash to grow,” he said. “It allows our enemies to exploit that idea.”
And opponents of LGBT equality are exploiting the idea. He points to recent battles over a state law provision in Arkansas which would strip local governments of the ability to adopt more restrictive nondiscrimination laws. The law was passed without much of a public fight, or public controversy, Signorile notes, while so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act legislation was vetoed after an outcry from national and local leaders.
Michigan’s House adopted a similar provision to limit local laws, however, it amended the legislation to exclude nondiscrimination laws. Currently, unless a person lives in one of the nearly 40 municipalities in the state which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, it is legal to fire a person for being gay or transgender. The Michigan Senate, on the same day the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban, held hearings to adopt a so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act here. It did not get a vote and is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee, while GOP leaders negotiate with Gov. Rick Snyder over the legislation. He has said it should only come to his desk if paired with an expansion of the state’s civil rights law which includes the LGBT community.
Combating the pushback, and driving for a full menu of equality measures for the LGBT community, requires more than piecemeal actions with exemptions “to the very people who would harm us” as the federal Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) would do, he argued. That law would allow exemptions based on religious beliefs.
“We should follow the marriage equality path, which was, ‘Ask for something big, captivate the public, ‘” Signorile said. “You don’t look like you really want your rights when asking for just a little bit. When you’re saying we need full equality, you are taken seriously. Yes, you’ll have pushback, but you are not seen as someone who will settle.”