Fighter

Michelangelo Signorile on Outing, AIDS, and Why Gay Sex Is the Final Taboo

He became famous, indeed notorious, by originating the concept of “outing” celebrities. Now, Michelangelo Signorile says the fight for gay equality is far from over.

I’m not the first person to joke with the journalist and broadcaster Michelangelo Signorile that he must have some secret deal with Mike Pence. The governor of Indiana had to amend that state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would have enabled businesses to discriminate against gay clients and which—post amendment—emphatically does not.

This, and a corresponding brouhaha in Arkansas, have blown up just as Signorile’s new book, It’s Not Over, is published, arguing that the fight for gay rights doesn’t end in the sunny uplands of marriage equality.

Gee, thanks, Mr. Pence, for that publicity gift.

Signorile, who presents SiriusXM Progress’s Michelangelo Signorile Show, eloquently argues that the legislative brushfires in Indiana and Arkansas prove that LGBTs should not let the marriage equality victories lull anyone into a false sense of campaigning passivity.

Prejudice remains a constant to fight, whether in statutes (as in the new spate of “religious freedom” laws), or on the streets, or in our schools, Signorile argues. The book’s subheading lays out his challenging manifesto clearly: “Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, & Winning True Equality.”

The 54-year-old Signorile is most famous, or notorious, for inventing and popularizing the concept of ‘outing’ in the early 1990s. He is handsome—with cropped salt-and-pepper hair and goatee—and laughs that people think he will always be up for a fight, given his pugnacious writing and broadcasting. He’s also editor-at-large of the Huffington Post’s “Gay Voices” section.

Over a diner supper of omelets and home fries, he’s quieter-spoken than his public image might suggest, whether talking about activism, apathy, or his own life, such as when he contemplated suicide as a teenager.

“I felt so many of the positive things happening in the equality movement were not matching facts on the ground—how people were experiencing homophobia, transphobia, and bigotry in our country,” he says of being inspired to write It’s Not Over. “A book came out saying ‘victory’ had been reached, but at the same time as marriage equality wins there was a surge of gay-bashing reports, including here in New York, one of the most pro-gay cities in the world.”

Signorile himself had a glancing experience of this, when he and husband David Gerstner shared a kiss on the lips as they passed each other—one on the way to the gym, the other just returning from the same—near their Chelsea home.

“Here in Chelsea, a man called us disgusting,” Signorile says, laughing at the apparent absurdity of homophobia in one of New York’s gay-friendliest neighborhoods. “We called him a homophobe. We leapt back at him. He ran out of the neighborhood.” Don’t mess with Signorile.

***

All the headline victories, Signorile says, obscure “that a large portion of the country is conservative, 25 percent of people are evangelical Christian. Children who are LGBT are growing up in those families, and they may be experiencing this prejudice even more than they did in the past because of the increase of general LGBT visibility.”

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There is, says Signorile, “not just a blindness to homophobia out there because of all the victories, but in many ways the victories are causing the backlash. “These wins for LGBT rights are a double-edge sword. “They’re highlighting who we are, and threatening the bigots more.”

Marriage equality activists saw “an easy, clear win, something for everybody to feel good about after years of terrible bigotry and bias,” he says. “We tell ourselves we’re winning. We start to put the other stuff out of our mind. The next stage is we become so worried about pushing too hard because we think we’ve won so much, and we’ll alienate people if we don’t stay moderate in our approach.”

Signorile says the backlash, the accusations of gay militancy (from gays as well as their traditional opponents), was present in the reaction to the resignation of Brendan Eich as chairman of Mozilla last year, after it was revealed he had donated money to a pro-Proposition 8 campaign.

While the kinds of conservatives you’d expect claimed Eich had been hounded from his job by gay-rights radicals, the gay conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan echoed them.

This wasn’t true: Mozilla simply didn’t want to be associated with homophobia, just like the many big businesses who objected to Governor Pence’s plan in Indiana. The free market so beloved by conservatives is now working against them. Still, some in the LGBT community acted almost apologetically.

“The gay-on-gay backlash was that we should be magnanimous,” says Signorile. “We were not being gracious winners. That’s just a trap set by the right wing. Rush Limbaugh set up feminists as ‘feminazis’ in a similar way. We haven’t won everything, and the last thing we need to be is gracious. We need to be pushing, and pushing hard.”

The right wing is now playing the victim of gay-rights advances, says Signorile. It understands that while most Americans do not want discrimination and desire fairness, “they don’t want change too fast,” he says. “Like, ‘Marriage is OK. That’s between you two. But don’t come into my store and tell me how to do something.’ It’ll be at our peril if we don’t understand those traits.”

Boycotts work, Signorile says, “when you have a cause that has a lot of intensity. Within a capitalist democracy, they are the most powerful way for people to register their opinion. The brilliant thing is conservatives cannot condemn them on a philosophical level. They think of the free market as religion.” He adds, “Of course when we [gays] boycott, we are accused of ‘destroying’ people.”

Signorile warns that boycotts aren’t a panacea. “They fail when there isn’t that intensity. If they’re not successful you look weak,” he says. Signorile also cautions activists against aligning themselves too closely with big business. “It makes homophobia about money. In the short term, that is powerful, but it is not changing minds if your state might lose money if you support discrimination,” he says. “Suddenly gay rights are economic. I don’t know how effective that is, but I think of the LGBT kids growing up in red states learning there is a hatred out there that is so potent it’s making people boycott. By boycotting, are we changing the minds of those kids’ parents, or emboldening parents to be angry with the blue states and big companies?”

Perceptions of equality come down to how you frame the question, says Signorile: “Seventy percent of people don’t believe LGBTs should be discriminated against. But, if a poll asks, ‘Should a baker be forced to make a gay wedding cake?,’ 57 percent believe they shouldn’t.”

Signorile wants people to realize conservatives have only gotten more savvy with each LGBT victory. “The right wing is refining its methods with LGBT rights, just as they have with race and women,” he says. “They want to manage the message.”

For Signorile, gay activists should “accept you will lose some friends. You may not be liked by some people. It takes a long time to change people’s minds. It takes confrontation to get their attention.”

***

In these culturally and politically sensitive times, the scope of ‘gay’ feels narrow to Signorile. “There are these nice gay characters. Everyone likes them. They might have kids, but we don’t see them in bed together making out. We can be seen as caretakers of kids, but not really engaged, within relationships, with each other.”

To Signorile, HBO’s Looking failed (it was recently canceled, though will return for a rounding-out movie), because it was too insular. “Looking was just about this very small world, which only existed in relation to its own very specific group of gay people. [That] shut out straight viewers and gay viewers who didn’t feel they had anything in common with them.”

In contrast, the strength of ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder’s gay character, Connor (Jack Falahee) is that he is well-rounded, says Signorile. “It gets us away from the ‘positive gay character.’ He sort of wants to be in a relationship, but doesn’t and has a lot of sex. That was fun and stopped being fun. There’s something very real about that, and the fact we saw it on network TV—gay sex portrayed as though it was a good thing—is incredibly important.”

Gay activism works best by “scaring the daylights out of people and energizing them about what needs to happen,” says Signorile. “With Indiana, we need to say, ‘Be afraid, be very afraid.’ That is problematic, because it’s counter to the message of ‘We’ve won, we’re winning, it gets better.’”

However, Signorile is dubious of positivity’s effectiveness. “I’m not sure ultimately that message engages people. What has always engaged people is instilling fear. If there is a terrible gay murder, exploit it,” he says point-blank. “Also say to young people, ‘Look around at your world. Do you really see yourself in pop culture in the way that you are?’”

Signorile still believes in outing—when relevant to a story, he emphasizes—because he doesn’t believe there should be anything shameful associated with being gay. He wonders why one needs proof to talk about somebody’s sexuality, or even to speculate about it.

Case in point: Aaron Schock. Castigating those who talked about Schock’s alleged homosexuality, critics (including gay ones), merely reaffirmed there was something wrong with homosexuality itself, says Signorile.

“We should ask young people, ‘Do you really see so many people out of closet in terms of public figures, or instead do you see a wink-wink nudge-nudge approach. Don’t you want to make it so it doesn’t matter if anyone is gay, and can say it, and we can say it about them? What is the shame around it still?’”

Hollywood is its own odd creature: Gay producers, gay agents, and publicists are still conspiring to keep gay actors, their cash cows, in the closet.

“Hollywood not only underestimates the public, it underestimates its ability to lead the public,” Signorile says. “At the end of the day they want to make a lot of money, and they’re as risk-averse as any kind of hedge fund investor.”

***

Signorile grew up in Brooklyn and Staten Island as the oldest of four boys in an Italian-Catholic family. His father owned restaurants that were popular with blue-collar workers. He learned how to cook, and it was a great fallback job for summers and after college. However, he was the only one of the brothers not to join the family business.

“I never wanted to,” he says. “I always knew I wanted to be a writer from very young.” His fifth-grade storytelling compositions were 25 to 30 pages, rather than three pages like his classmates’. He “always” got an A grade. Many of his stories were about justice, and—predictably for a fan of disaster movies, as Signorile was—about people being saved in the nick of time.

“I knew I was gay before I knew what ‘gay’ was. I had fantasies about leading a group of people,” he says. “I was made fun of because of it. My cousin was a girl, and we played together. I didn’t see any reason not to play with the same toys as her. I hated the world telling me I had to like or wear certain things.”

His parents were split on their son’s desires. “My father was not happy I was playing with dolls, but my mother…” Signorile says with a smile, “sneaked in the Cinderella puzzle I wanted.”

Signorile was sexually active at 12 or 13, finding boys to have sex with, “sometimes my own age, sometimes older under the boardwalk of South Beach, Staten Island.”

But like so many gay adolescents, he was far from happy. “I cried myself to sleep. I hated myself. I had suicidal thoughts of jumping off the Staten Island Ferry. I did all that stuff,” he says. “I wanted to marry a woman to get rid of this.”

By the time he went away to college in Syracuse (where he had his first boyfriend), “that had changed,” he says. “I thought, ‘OK, this is it. I’m gay.’”

At 18, and in New York for the summer, he met men on the subways and went home with them. He thinks back now to this “height of most sexual period,” right before the knowledge of HIV and AIDS broke. He considers himself very lucky to have remained HIV negative.

Signorile laughs, remembering the night he heard about AIDS for the first time: It was 1981, he was on the dance floor in a Syracuse gay club, and sniffing poppers (amyl nitrate) with a friend. As they were both high on poppers, his friend said above the music that he had read the (now-infamous) report in The New York Times reporting the existence of a new virus affecting gay men for the first time.

“There’s this new disease and poppers causes it,” his friend said.

“OK, hand me the poppers,” Signorile replied.

***

Before the gay activism bug bit, Signorile first worked as a publicist placing celebrity tidbits into the jaws of gossip columnists.

“That was where the genesis of my whole analysis of the closet came from,” he says. “We would pair up gay stars in fake relationships—gay actors and lesbian actors—and give them to celebrity gossip columnists who themselves were closeted. We were all closeted people perpetuating the closet for other, closeted people.”

Signorile left PR for journalism, writing pieces about nightlife. He began to realize “AIDS was digging down deeper,” he says. “AIDS benefits became something to cover, but there wouldn’t be any sick people coming. People began to disappear.”

One night, out with his fellow nightlife scribe Michael Musto, both men were approached by a “really hot” member of the HIV and AIDS direct action group, Act-Up. The organization campaigned for proper care and treatment for those with the disease at a time of huge homophobia and shameful governmental indifference.

The Act-Up member told the men they should come to the group, which met at (the then-called) Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center. “We had both been talking. People were dying, and people in our industry weren’t doing anything,” Signorile recalls.

He was “electrified” when he attended Act-Up for the first time: “Everybody was brilliant. They were scientists and feminists and Wall Street stockbrokers.”

The members were organized and energized. “I found in one night a sense of caring and connection, and brotherhood and sisterhood, when I was working in a world that was cut-throat, bitchy, and nasty. For me, it was dramatic,” he says.

Signorile ran the media committee, whose work was demonstrated in some of Act-Up’s highest-profile zaps (PDF). He often wonders how he himself escaped infection. He admits the condom message didn’t filter through in the early years of the epidemic.

“I first got tested when I was in Act-Up,” Signorile recalls. “I went with my best friend, and he tested positive. We went in different directions after that. I went in the direction of activism, maybe partially because of him. He went in the direction of further partying, and would eventually die.”

Signorile emphasizes that activism didn’t mean he really understood the reality of the epidemic. “I was using AIDS activism as a denial to deal with his sickness, and I was using AIDS activism to deny the reality of AIDS. I was always too busy owning a protest.”

In 1989 he helped found the lesbian and gay news magazine OutWeek, where his “outing” lists of names, and pieces quickly gained a notorious, influential currency. “The Secret Life of Malcolm Forbes” was his most explosive, but he also outed David Geffen, and Liz Smith, the gossip columnist.

“I knew it would push buttons,” he says today. “W magazine put OutWeek on their ‘in’ list for our mix of cultural politics and vicious gossip, as they put it,” he says, laughing.

Did he like being feared? Was he as fierce as he sold himself?

“I think you are an aspect of your public image, but it is never the whole of you. I have a pretty even keel. People are always surprised when they meet me, and say how nice I am, but if you get me angry I am angry,” Signorile says. “I’m Italian. My father taught me how to defend myself as a kid. That’s how I fought bullies myself. I learned confrontation, I learned fighting back was a tool to use.”

Signorile admits now that he “always felt a little bad afterwards about hurting somebody” and that he was sensitive to the lives involved. “I always felt I had to be fair,” he says.

Signorile didn’t like “the hate” that came with the fame and notoriety. “There was lot of being called ‘fascist,’ ‘Nazi,’ ‘dictator,’ ‘Robespierre,’” he remembers. “It was even worse when it was from people I looked up to. Fran Lebowitz called me every name she could think of.”

Did Signorile ever doubt himself?

“No. I always felt what I was doing was honest, and was justified,” he says. “There was a justice to it. People were dying, we were totally invisible, and the moguls—the people who could be doing something, the rich and powerful in Hollywood—were silent. Anger fueled me, and it fueled me because of justice.”

The “camaraderie and connection” Signorile had found at Act-Up also sustained him. “People connected with the angry, uncompromising, bitchy spirit of the column because it was something they were feeling, too. It was me playing out the Act-Up spirit of agit-prop in my own column.”

***

Signorile first spotted Gerstner in much-loved (and long-gone) Chelsea hangouts, Big Cup and Food Bar. A friend told him to move fast as someone had already sent his number Gerstner’s way.

Signorile pounced, and the two walked around Chelsea kissing and holding hands the rest of the night. They moved to New Zealand for a few years when Gerstner, a film lecturer, got a posting there.

The men married in 2013 at New York’s City Hall. “I’m the kind of gay who doesn’t think marriage is all that important for me, personally, even though it is important to the movement,” says Signorile.

However, he was surprised by how personally important the day was. “It was bigger for our parents, and that made it bigger for us. They were both sets of witnesses, and that was that,” he says. “The significance for us was that this was somewhere where we had demonstrated outside of, and now we were on the inside getting married.”

For all the essential, life-saving work Signorile and his fellow activists achieved with Act-Up, “what we didn’t do was our goal: to stop the AIDS epidemic,” he says. “We saved people’s lives, they stopped dying, we got 10 other gay movements invigorated, but we didn’t end AIDS.”

Signorile notes that the author, playwright and activist Larry Kramer recently said the same: There is still no vaccine. “AIDS is out of sight, out of mind,” says Signorile. “People aren’t dying on the street, and the government would like to privatize the entire thing.”

Signorile’s worry with all the excitement over PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) treatments like Truvada, the impetus behind basic HIV prevention is lost.

Gay and bisexual men remain the groups most severely affected by HIV and AIDS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the most recently released statistics. They comprise nearly 80 percent of new infections among men.

Are we in a new era of gay HIV ignorance?

“Absolutely,” says Signorile, “and that has led to the stigma of HIV-positive people, which fuels the idea of ‘Don’t talk about having it.’”

In fact, Signorile believes that America has regressed in this regard. “I think we have gone backwards in talking about HIV. And there are many HIV criminalization laws across the country now, too,” he says.

For Signorile, the lack of an effective HIV prevention program aimed at men who have sex with men shows that the most fundamental hang-up in America toward homosexuality is around sex itself.

“It’s why the guys don’t have sex on Modern Family. We’ve ‘gotten married.’ But, whether it’s Hollywood, or Washington, or the public health establishment, the one thing we cannot talk about, or show, is our sex lives,” says Signorile. “That’s the biggest sign that ‘it’s not over.’ The thing that makes us different is how and who we have sex with. It grosses people out.”

Signorile points to the thesis of Kenji Yoshino’s Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights. In Signorile’s words, Yoshino argues that “LGBTs are not being accepted if we are covering aspects of ourselves that are uncomfortable. If you’re covering things you don’t want them to see about you to help you fit in with them, it’s not real acceptance.”

That’s why, to Signorile, “Sex, probably, is the final frontier on some level.”

This was well shown by the fuss over Michael Sam’s kiss with his partner, Vito Cammisano, when Sam had just learned he had been picked in the last round of the draft for the St. Louis Rams.

***

His omelet and home fries polished off, I ask Signorile, per his book title, will “it,” the struggle for LGBT equality, ever be over?

“We will always have to be on guard, always fighting,” he says. “When I say we need to break from the ‘victory’ narrative, I should say we’ll be doing this for generations.”

Rather than disheartening, Signorile recommends gays find it invigorating. “It’s liberating to know that you’re going to be engaged, rather than saying, ‘Just get this done, and it’ll be finished.’” The struggle for gay equality, Michelangelo Signorile argues—perhaps most radically of all—is good for us.

It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, & Winning True Equality is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27

Michelangelo Signorile is in discussion with the Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman at the Strand bookstore this Thursday, April 9, at 7 p.m.