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In the age of PrEP and marriage equality, it can feel easy to relax. Don’t we want, in some sense, to be done fighting? Aren’t we tired? Besides, at least to people who have the luxury to distance themselves from politics, it may feel like we’re winning. Isn’t everyone tolerant yet?
Legendary gay advocate Michelangelo Signorile attacks this victory blindness in his new book It’s Not Over. An impressive polemic against complacency and covering, the book sadly doesn’t go far enough either in its diagnoses of what ails the mainstream LGBT movement or in its prescriptions for the future.
Signorile marks his way through the various issues confronting LGBT advocates and activists today: ‘religious freedom’ laws that mask bigotry; the staggering human tragedy of LGBT youth suicide and homelessness; the epidemic of violence against transgender women of color; and media representations of LGBT folks that obscure our sex lives, obliterate difference and perpetuate stigmas.
Running through all these issues is a critique of “covering,” a concept Signorile borrows from NYU constitutional law scholar Kenji Yoshino. As Signorile writes: “‘covering’ is an attempt to downplay difference, making it palatable or at least inoffensive[.] […] [C]overing becomes particularly strong, Yoshino argues, when people believe they have achieved the rights and recognition they’ve sought, and begin to fear losing them. It’s an attempt to fit in and be ‘team players’ under the assumption that the playing field is now even.”
For Signorile, the timidity with which the mainstream movement has often asked for equality represents a form of covering. Interestingly, he does not address the ways in which essentially assimilative issues themselves—namely, marriage equality and legalized military service—represent a deeper and even more pervasive form of covering and have contributed to the very victory blindness he criticizes.
In the seminal Queer in America, written in 1990, Signorile laid at least part of the blame for quietude in the face of the devastation of AIDS at the feet of the inhabitants of what he called “the closets of power”—rich, white gay and lesbian couples who distanced themselves from any form of activism that threatened their social positions by destroying their ability to remain respectfully discreet.
But surely the closets of power are still full of shoes. Most if not all of their residents have come out by now, and through the marshaling of tremendous economic power, they will soon have won themselves and everyone else the right to equal marriage. At least en masse though, they still won’t be associated with mass organizing or endorse the kinds of comprehensive social and economic justice agendas required to end, rather than just talk about, the physical and economic violence habitually done to queer folks by individuals and the state.
Their thinking dominates the movement because their dollars do. Witness Pride, originally an anti-police march, now an orgy of corporate sponsorships that, at least in New York bears the insulting and ignorant slogan, “Yesterday’s struggle is today’s heritage.” There’s victory blindness for you. Yesterday’s struggle? When violence against transgender women of color (who started the movement as we know it) is epidemic and increasing? It’s easy to think the struggle is over when you can’t see the bodies from your house.
At the same time, a book like this is difficult to write precisely because it sits at the confluence of so many related but not identical “homosexual agendas.” Everyone has their own prescription for the movement, and Signorile has done a solid job of assembling one that lots of folks can get behind: demanding full and exemption-free nondiscrimination protections, teaching LGBT histories in school, developing more confrontational attitudes in conversation, teaching self-defense and empowering communities to protect themselves against violence. Signorile tells LGBT folks to demand equality. Surely this is a noble goal. Some of us can’t help but dream of more.
It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality
By Michelangelo Signorile
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover, 9780544381001, 272 pp.