The danger facing the movement for equality for LGBT people today isn’t just the furious backlash of the religious right-wing, but a response of the movement, which Michelangelo Signorile labels “victory blindness.” In fact, he writes in his new must-read It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality, we are in a “dangerous moment” - in spite of great victories, “discrimination, violence and tragic horror stories – in addition to the daily slights that all of us who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender have experienced for years – have not only continued, they’ve sometimes become more blatant.
“It’s a moment in which all of us, LGBT and straight, who support equality risk falling prey to what I’ve come to call victory blindness. We’re overcome by the heady whirl of a narrative of victory, a kind of bedtime story that tells us we’ve reached the promised land, that can make everything else seem like a blur.”
This victory narrative says that LGBT people have made it, or that the end of homophobia is inevitable, that they’re now as accepted as straight people. Therefore, the movement shouldn’t do anything to rock a boat that’s smoothly sailing toward Eden.
LGBT people should be thankful for what they have, magnanimous in their responses, and patiently awaiting for the tide to further turn. They’re given that counsel from some of their own leading personalities who are high enough on economic and social ladders to feel personally safe and above the fray everyday LGBT people face.
One danger in all this is that the right-wing is constantly working on strategies to prevent anything further and to turn back what has previously been gained. At this point they’ve concluded that they can win in polls, legislatures, and courts with a nationally organized and highly scripted scenario that has them posing as the real victims of LGBT people whose gains are taking away their religious liberties.
In legislatures they plan to pass more “religious freedom” bills and laws to overturn local protections. In the courts they hope that “religious freedom” for businesses (think the Hobby Lobby victory) and religious individuals will work better than blatantly singling out a protected category of people. And politically they are counting on younger generations who wouldn’t support discrimination to vote for those who support their freedom from government interference in people’s lives.
All of this is modeled on their so-far successful fight to eat away at women’s reproductive rights or to curtail voting rights of minorities and others that are likely voters against them. So, just as they have been able to do that, there’s no guarantee that unless movements for equality are actively engaged in protecting gains and moving forward, America will be a place of full equality.
What cannot be the strategy, no matter how it is counseled by insiders is what Signorile calls “covering.” Based on Kenji Yoshino’s book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, covering is the precarious attempt to downplay the differences from the majority that a group of people have in order to convince the majority that the minority are not only “team players” but are just like them.
Covering is a reaction of fear that concludes that fitting in is the best strategy. It teaches that oppressed people should be thankful for what they’ve gained and fearful that any further demands for full equality and acceptance will result in the loss of any gains.
Covering says that it is too much to ask for anything more, that doing isn’t magnanimous. It might not be going back into the closet, but it’s keeping silent for fear of the risks involved.
As Signorile warns, covering is “a trap that allows equality’s enemies to foment a backlash.” Celebrations in 1973 of the Supreme Court decision for women’s choice in Roe v. Wade, didn’t anticipate the new and multiple curtailing of women’s reproductive rights in the 40 years since – the decision fomented a deceptively dangerous and more violent backlash involving political and legislative setbacks and even murders.
Even in some of the safest cities, LGBT harassment and mistreatment remains blatant. And recent polls about marriage equality aside, employment, accommodation, and financial discrimination still exists. The reported number of hate crimes against LGBT people continues to be significant.
Signorile references a telling study that was published in the November 2014 issue of the American Sociological Review. It supports the observation that though Americans might reject explicit discrimination against LGBT people and speak of full civil rights, they’d still rather not see LGBT expressions of any affection in public.
In other words, though, they would respond to polls favorably, they still had an implicit bias against LGBT equality. And keeping the gains that have been made as well as moving to full equality requires confronting those biases not covering while the right-wing schemes to play on them.
Just as LGBT people and their allies had to come out of their respective closets to make these gains, at this time of surprisingly fast victories we have to take off the covers and go for complete equality. Tolerance is not a worthy goal.
That means we’ll have to upset some apple carts, reject magnanimity, and really act as if all people are worthy of full equality. It means not settling when there are incremental wins, for history, as Signorile documents, has shown that these were not actually won through the incrementalism that has stalled a federal Employment Nondiscrimination Act for decades and allowed the slow eating away at the gains previously won by women and minorities of all genders.
It means we have to face our fears that provide the space for continued hate and develop, as Signorile points out, “a new attitude that is uncompromising and empowering. “There will be an impulse now to accept less than we deserve, especially with conservative and Republican voices increasingly proposing that we cut deals and make compromises on equality.” But the empowering and necessary approach is, instead, that LGBT people and allies come out from under any covers.