It’s Not Over: Marriage Equality ≠ Full Equality
Paul Mullan reviews Michelangelo Signorile’s It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, & Winning True Equality
Texas officialdom currently installed in Austin, under Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, is more extreme-right than usual. The recent legislative session saw a storm of proposed bills against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. In the face of grassroots opposition, those bills failed. Locally, conservatives are organizing to overturn the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which bans discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity, among other things. Their effort to force the third anti-LGBT ballot referendum in as many decades is winding through the courts.
Given this background, Michelangelo Signorile’s new book It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality is particularly timely. The best-selling author hosts his own show on SiriusXM Progress; is Editor-at-large of Huffington Post Gay Voices; and is a former activist with ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.
The 1969 rebellion against police brutality at the Stonewall Inn in New York City has, rightly or wrongly, long been considered the founding moment of the contemporary LGBT movement. There, the basic concept has been that LGBT people should come out of the closet: to family, friends, co-workers, neighbours, and others. The goal of this incremental, one-on-one dialogue is to change minds and eliminate prejudice.
This idea has been powerful: the LGBT struggle has perhaps been the most effective on the US left post-1968. However, this idea does not, by any stretch, do everything that it was once expected to do. Signorile lays out a sobering assessment of the situation now.
Shifting mass culture and its messages has been one focus for years. There, advances are more limited than commonly assumed, as Signorile highlights.
GLAAD reported in 2014 that out of 102 studio films, only 17 had LGBT characters. Most were minor roles, on screen for mere minutes or seconds, and often “’outright defamatory’.”
As another example, major studios refused to finance Steven Soderbergh’s small-budget Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra. They told the esteemed director that the material was “’too gay’.” HBO eventually backed the film, which openly depicted gay intimacy and refused to “cover” the fact that Liberace was a super-queen.
“Covering,” a term from legal theorist Kenji Yoshino, is distinguished from both “passing,” or hiding in the closet; and “conversion,” or the attempt to become straight. Instead, it is the downplaying of difference and the emphasizing of sameness, vis-à-vis wider society. (Yoshino is increasingly a reference point for big rethinks of the state of the LGBT communities.)
NFL defensive end Michael Sam, for instance, refused to “cover” his sexuality, and kissed his male partner on-air after learning of his 2014 selection by the St. Louis Rams. According to a subsequent HuffPost / YouGov poll, 60% of respondents approved of teams signing openly gay players. Yet only 36% said it was appropriate for ESPN to broadcast Sam’s smooch. When someone’s lived experience remains “private,” their identity can seem abstract. When those differences are put into practice in the public sphere, that identity becomes more concrete and challenging for others.
LGBT communities’ nominally radical elements have longstanding anti-assimilationist perspectives, such as a disavowal of the fight for marriage rights. These perspectives also underscore LGBT difference, rather than sameness, and initially sound similar to the book’s rejection of “covering.” Signorile, though, wants to encourage further mobilization for such rights – and the entire agenda beyond that. Such an agenda is, after all, necessary because of the ongoing, differential political status of LGBT people.
Signorile further details the situation. 30%-40% of LGBT youth, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center in 2008, have attempted to take their own life. Those numbers have not substantially dropped since the late 1980s. One factor here is that eight states, such as Arizona, have “don’t say gay” laws. These strictly limit what educators can teach about homosexuality and are an effort to keep LGBT lives invisible and their voices silent.
In a landmark 2012 case, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) determined that the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of sex discrimination applies to transgender people. Nonetheless, at least 32 states still have no laws specifically barring discrimination against transgender people in the workplace, housing, public accommodations, or credit. A full 29 states have no laws specifically barring discrimination, based on sexual orientation, in those spheres or employment. No such federal law exists either.
This problem has hardly disappeared. The Williams Institute at UCLA found in 2011 that “78% of transgender respondents reported harassment or mistreatment at work because of their gender identity.” Per Pew Research in 2013, 21% of LGBT workers have been “treated unfairly by an employer in hiring, pay, or promotions.”
Given these and other enduring problems, Signorile’s core argument is against what he calls “victory blindness,” the conviction that the LGBT struggle is, somehow, predestined to win the war.
The book emphasizes events following the November, 2008 passage of Proposition 8 in California, which banned same-sex marriage there. Nationally, that spurred the youthful “equality movement” which successfully pushed to resolve questions stuck on the political agenda since the mid-1990s. Those included passage of a federal, LGBT-inclusive hate crimes act in 2009; Congressional repeal of the US military’s antigay Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy in 2010; and the legalization of same-sex marriage in a growing number of states. Additionally, the US Supreme Court decided in 2013 that key provisions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) were unconstitutional.
In this context, victory blindness is somewhat understandable. However, it is hardly limited to the recent past and is an abiding characteristic of the LGBT struggles, one that does not even strongly correlate to real, on-the-ground political successes.
So-called “post-gay” thinkers have persistently suggested that LGBT identity and community are increasingly irrelevant. Two examples are queer critic Mark Simpson’s Anti-Gay, from 1996; and Andrew Sullivan’s essay “The End of Gay Culture,” from 2005. Retrospectively, this sense of an “ending” seems misguided. In the mid-1990s, annual AIDS deaths hovered at approximately 40,000. Lifesaving drug therapies – protease inhibitors – had only begun to reduce those numbers. Moreover, from 2004-2008, voters approved constitutional bans of same-sex marriage in 26 states. This right-wing wave receded only with the equality movement post-2008.
Further, David M. Halperin’s (excellent) 2012 book How To Be Gay details the monotonous declarations that social progress has moved gay men in particular beyond pre-Stonewall subcultures of gender inversion or femininity. This analogous sense of an “ending” appears well-prior to the 1990s: from the philosopher Michel Foucault, in 1978; the writer Edmund White, in 1969 itself; and others.
Victory blindness is dangerous. Signorile contends: “We need only look to other movements to see how gains have been rolled back in ways that would have seemed unimaginable forty years ago.”
Achievements of the post-1960s women’s struggle once seemed secure. Many women, by the 1990s, demobilized politically and ultimately rejected the term “feminism.” A powerful and unhampered backlash resulted. Today, abortion rights, contraception, and gender equality overall are mortally endangered – in Texas particularly since 2013.
Achievements of the black civil rights and black liberation struggles also once seemed secure. However, that major political upsurge arguably ended by the 1970s, with nothing equivalent afterwards – at least until this year. That those gains are threatened is demonstrated by the seemingly unending wave of police brutality and police killings. Only with Black Lives Matter and black community uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore has a potent response, analogous to the 1960s, arisen.
Given these cautionary lessons, Signorile concludes: “[W]e’ll likely have to defend hard-fought wins, push for further gains, beat back our enemies, and battle bias and violence for generations to come.” This is a novel and striking departure from widespread notions that history inevitably progresses in the direction of LGBT equality.
Right-wing activist Frank Schubert, in a candid conversation with Signorile at the 2014 Values Voter Summit, indicated that future anti-LGBT efforts would be modelled on the anti-abortion movement. They want to find issues analogous to “partial-birth abortions,” in an attempt to incrementally build public support. Indiana, earlier this year, and so-called “religious freedom” statutes are part of this new game plan.
The book gestures towards two, distinct explanations for these current conditions.
Overt bias is disappearing and being replaced by more hidden or disguised forms, Signorile contends in the first explanation. In 2013 Pew Research polling that posed questions overtly about LGBT issues, 55% responded with a favourable “overall opinion” of gay men, versus 37% in 2003. 58% responded with a similar, positive opinion of lesbians, versus 39% a decade prior. However, a deeper study by Project Implicit, which Signorile examines, suggests actual, positive shifts in attitudes are much less dramatic.
In the second explanation, Signorile begins by noting that white men ages 18-29 favored Republican Party candidate Mitt Romney by thirteen points in the 2012 presidential elections; and white women in that age range, by one point. Romney supported a US constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage. However, around the same time, in 2014, marriage rights were supported by 61% of young Republicans. Assuming, reasonably, that most young GOPers are white people, the positive, personal beliefs they weakly hold on marriage did not translate into strong action around the issue.
The degree to which minds have been genuinely changed remains central in the first explanation. That is consistent with the LGBT movement’s dominant, 45-year strategy – and its continuance.
The discrepancy between individual belief and political action is central in the second explanation. The latter does not automatically follow the former. The disjunction is pronounced, at the moment, on the right end of the spectrum but is actually intrinsic to the nature of politics itself – as the collective or social, versus the individual.
The deepening corrosion of the nominally democratic US system is another aspect of this discrepancy. That changing minds would ultimately translate into effective votes – for candidates, in ballot referendums, et al – was long assumed in LGBT political strategy. This is questionable today with sustained attacks – disproportionately impacting black people, Latinos, and the working class – on voter registration processes.
Moreover, key, controversial policies of this century were not at all deterred by majority opposition. The murderous US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are but two examples. Growing extreme-right influence in official, legislative politics, in Texas and elsewhere, is another.
While less than 10% of the US population as a whole is LGBT, a 1989 study on youth suicide, from the Department of Health and Human Services, reported that 25% of homeless youth were LGBT. Today, as Signorile notes, that number has not gone down and is as high as 40%. This wildly disproportionate representation has persisted for at least a quarter-century, even as overall social tolerance and acceptance has burgeoned.
This disproportionality thus seems more impersonal or structural in nature and not reducible to bad ideas like prejudice. This structural type of problem, discussed less by Signorile, hints at the possible importance of other factors, including the economy, unemployment, lack of affordable housing, or access to higher education.
Signorile is (legitimately) suspicious of presumed Democratic Party presidential nominee for 2016, Hillary Clinton. After all, the equality movement had to force even the Obama administration to act on basic rights measures. He is also suspicious of inside-the-beltway LGBT groups already backing Clinton, such as the Human Rights Campaign. A new and militant grassroots phase of the LGBT struggle is needed, per the book: “protesting, practicing civil disobedience … and, perhaps, planning right now for another march on Washington.”
The battle must continue, even assuming the post-1969 framework of changing minds. Fresh approaches are required, too, as the disjunction between individual beliefs and political action shows. Structural matters are becoming central, as well. The LGBT movement must consider questions long outside its purview, such as voting rights, economics, or housing. The new movement for which Signorile is calling will have to address all of these conditions.
Paul Mullan is an activist and writer in Houston, Texas. His work has appeared in Free Press Houston, Red Wedge, The Great God Pan is Dead, Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, and elsewhere.
by Guest Author