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Michelangelo Signorile, 1994

Queer Theory Lunch: Talking with Michelangelo Signorile

By Owen Keehnen

Controversial author/activist Michelangelo Signorile has been making headlines ever since his notorious Outweek column sparked a national debate on the ethics of outing. When the dust settled, celebrities such as Malcolm Forbes, David Geffen, Barry Diller, Pete Williams, and Jodie Foster had been called to task for their closeted hypocrisy, and the closet in both the media and the entertainment industries had been opened considerably.

Last year Signorile's long awaited and insightful opus Queer in America: Sex, the Media, and the Closets of Power, was released. It received resounding praise and became a national best seller. Last month Anchor Books released the paperback.

Recently Michelangelo Signorile and I talked over a couple of bowls of cream of mushroom soup. It was good to see that he hadn't lost his edge.

[Since this interview, Signorile has published Outing Yourself: How to Come Out as Lesbian or Gay to Your Family, Friends, and Coworkers (1996) and Life Outside: The Signorile Report on Gay Men: Sex, Drugs, Muscles, and the Passages of Life (1997). He currently hosts a radio show on Sirius Satellite Radio's OutQ and writes a syndicated column for New York Press.]

Keehnen: You have said that "outing" was a misnaming of a process you considered more equal to reporting. How did the misnaming shift the intent of "outing"?

Signorile: The word immediately set it up as a campaign, as something activists had come up with, that now they were going to rip people out of the closet who didn't do what they said. Certainly there was rhetoric like that coming out of some segments of the gay community. But the issue of outing went in a million different directions. Journalists like me were doing our thing, activists in the streets were doing their thing, and the tabloids were doing theirs. The media looked at all of this as a campaign rather than seeing it as a number of things happening simultaneously.

Keehnen: In Queer in America, you speak of the three pods of closeting: the media in New York City, politics centered in the District of Columbia, and entertainment in Los Angeles, and the interdependence of the three. Which of these branches is the most fortified and which the most vulnerable?

Signorile: Washington is the hardest to break down, simply because government is impenetrable. It requires grass roots movements to change it, and requires changing the way people vote, a lot of complicated things. The media and Hollywood are much more vulnerable because they're private industries and are worried about their product. When you threaten their product, their public relations will change. The media has changed more than Hollywood. I think it's because more people in the media have come out and pushed editors to stand up for gay and lesbian rights, or at least not to ignore them.

Keehnen: Why are a disproportionate number of gays and lesbians in those three branches, which all have strong internal gay workings yet traditionally have presented homophobic facades?

Signorile: The closet. Once people come out, that changes. When everyone in Hollywood and the media was closeted completely, it was easy for antigay stories to get in because no one would speak out against them. In fact, they'll do whatever they can to look like one of the crowd. Once people come out, they represent something, and suddenly it's harder to be antigay.

Keehnen: Where do you think the media and visibility breakthroughs of ACT UP and Queer Nation have taken the movement?

Signorile: We really saw a chain reaction occur in the past six years. All over, gay people were really pushing the limits, and things fell into place. Under Reagan and Bush there was such repression, and it was just getting pushed down tighter and tighter until there was an explosion: ACT UP. But it had the effect of getting them out of the closet and having them take a stand. In the media this meant showing images to represent the gay community beyond activism. It was a business too. When people come out in newsrooms, they often come out as gay reporters wanting to cover gay issues. It's a competition, now every paper covers gay issues, and gay reporters usually do the best coverage. That period was an entire chain reaction. The Clinton election was the capping of all this. It showed a cultural change. It suddenly became easier to champion gay rights.

Keehnen: Do you think Clinton's presidency has defused gay and lesbian activism?

Signorile: Yeah. We only knew how to operate under Reagan/Bush. The moderates in Washington under Reagan/Bush only knew the strategy of run and duck for cover. As we saw with the military issue, when they were finally offered to sit at the table and be a part of the process, they didn't know what to do. Same with the activists, all they knew was to go for the jugular on someone who was so hateful that people would get the message and wouldn't think you were exaggerating. It's been strange because since Stonewall we've never had a time not under repression. People don't know how to deal with it, and Clinton throws out a lot of new age stuff and how much he's with us and believes this and that, but he still doesn't do anything. But it's hard to call him a monster and a homophobe and a bigot because when you do that, your credibility is shot. What we're seeing now is a real regrouping, but people will find their way.

Keehnen: What will it take to respark that?

Signorile: The religious right and how it's organizing in states across the country. It's such a clear-cut issue that I think it's going to get people involved. It's not until people feel under attack that they really start to move.

Keehnen: You explain your theory of e-mail as a solution to counter the organizational skills of the religious right.

Signorile: Ever since the book has come out that stuff has advanced in remarkable ways. I talk in the book about the unique environment of Silicon Valley and why gay people have been attracted to that industry, what they dominate in that industry, and how they are using it to come out and organize politically. Groups like Digital Queers and others have been connected and have gotten NGLTF on line. People are asking others on line how to come out, things like that too. I think where it's heading is eventually people will be waking up in the morning and going to their computers and pressing a button to launch a zap against some governor or congressman, or to send money to a cause. This is the kind of proactive organizing that suits our particular lifestyles. The armies of the religious right who write letters are mainly older women who sit at home and are afraid the world is coming to an end. They have nothing else to do except sit and write letters. We've found it impossible to match that. With computers we can do that now, and faster, while their armies tend to be technophobic. Who knows, though? Tomorrow Pat Robertson could buy Silicon Valley.

Keehnen: Don't even say that. Pete Williams was probably the apex of outing, but you've also had your finger on the equalizing of Malcolm Forbes, Jodie Foster, David Geffen, Barry Diller, Liz Smith. Those are some powerful people. Have you ever been physically threatened?

Signorile: No. It's funny but I think those people, powerful as they are, and closeted as they were, still understood or had a respect for me as an activist and knew that I was respected by a large part of the activist community, and often by people they respected. I swear David Geffen and I are two degrees of separation with so many people. I think they might have threatened a reporter from The National Enquirer who was doing it to make money.

Keehnen: Speaking of that, what do you think of the tabloids outings of such celebrities as Chastity Bono, Raymond Burr, John Travolta, Kristy McNichol . . . ?

Signorile: Tabloids are wild cards. They can be wildly homophobic or, as with the Chastity Bono case, they give tips to parents who find out their children are gay and how to deal with it. Bottom line: their goal is to make money and they're going to be sensational no matter what. In many ways the fact that we're included in that now is a plus. We went from being unspeakably scandalous to being acceptably scandalous. As time goes on, the more they churn out those stories the less sensational homosexuality becomes; but you can't cut out that process, it needs to happen.

Keehnen: What's the full story behind the folding of Outweek? Was it a lack of advertisers due to the controversy over outing?

Signorile: In the end it really was just bad business. There were definitely advertisers who wouldn't advertise there because of the outing issue, but there were a lot more who wouldn't advertise because of the gay issue. It took Out magazine to really start breaking the advertising barrier. They were in the right place at the right time when things started changing.

Keehnen: What are you working on now?

Signorile: I'm going to start doing a monthly column for Out. I'm also going to be doing two books that have me going in two different directions, one as self-help guru of the closet and the other as a sexual analyst. The first is Outing Yourself; it's a step-by-step explanative book about how to come out to your family, friends, and coworkers. It will be out sometime next year. The other book is tentatively titled God against Sex: The Holy War against Human Sexuality in America. It's much larger and goes beyond the trinity of the closet, focusing on the creators of the closet. It will be about the Catholic Church and the religious right. It's broader than just homosexuality. It's going to talk about how all sexuality is in the closet and how women are as under attack as gay people in terms of sexuality. It will deal with feminism as well as gay rights.

Keehnen: It all sounds really exciting. Thanks, Michael, and best of luck to you.

Signorile: Thanks, Owen.

About Owen Keehnen
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films,
Related Pages


The Closet

Coming Out

Journalism and Publishing

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Evangelical Christians

Roman Catholicism


Burr, Raymond

Geffen, David

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NFLTF)

Queer Nation



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