A Veteran LGBTQ Activist On Resistance And Key Lessons Of Political Backlash

Remember Reagan?

If you’re a millennial, as I am, you likely haven’t personally experienced full-blown political backlash against LGBTQ rights in your lifetime. 

But the reality is that anti-LGBTQ backlash is something that the queer community should prepare for and anticipate in President-elect Donald Trump’s administration.

I recently sat down with Michelangelo Signorile for a candid conversation in an effort to understand and shine a light on queer experiences under other presidential administrations. During our discussion, the veteran activist, who has been involved in the community for over three decades and is HuffPost Queer Voices’ Editor-at-Large, chatted about his history fighting against institutions of power — including the religious right — the danger of minority tokenization and the lessons he thinks young queer people should take away from the experiences of those who have been through similar periods of retaliation against queer people in the past.

HuffPost Queer Voices' Editor-at-Large Michelangelo Signorile
HuffPost Queer Voices' Editor-at-Large Michelangelo Signorile

Signorile became a prominent member of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in the late ‘80s, a grassroots advocacy organization formed in 1987 in response to President Reagan’s refusal to adequately address the devastating AIDS crisis. ACT UP was ― and still is ― committed to effective, tangible political action, and has a history of engaging in creative, high-profile demonstrations, such as staging a “die-in” at President Bush’s vacation home in 1991 and disrupting the CBS evening broadcast to shout “Fight AIDS, not Arabs!” during the Gulf War.

Signorile believes that comparisons of the Reagan years and Trump’s rise are apt for a number of reasons, but perhaps most strikingly for the overwhelming support both men have received from the religious right, which gained relevance as a political force during Reagan’s campaign and remains a massive political force today. “They voted for Trump in ways that are comparable to or even surpassing any Republican presidential candidate before,” Signorile noted.

Much like Trump, Reagan made promises to the religious right while campaigning for president ― promises that ended up negatively affecting the most vulnerable Americans, particularly the LGBTQ community.

Signorile foresees this same pattern playing out under Trump, with the president-elect rewarding the religious right’s loyalty by selecting people who advocate for issues and policies important to their worldview to join his administration.

“Reagan stacked religious and conservative leaders through the agencies of the federal government,” Signorile explained. “Whether it was the National Institute of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Housing, the Department of Labor, the Department of Education ― which are all issues that would affect queer people – they all operated through the prism of these religious conservatives.”

With Trump in office, we may not see political leaders actively speaking out against queer rights or trying to sway public opinion against the queer community. Instead, people granted positions of power, Signorile thinks, will be given control of valuable and life-saving programs for LGBTQ people and other minority groups through governmental agencies, granting them the potential ability to roll-back or dismantle programs that benefit the most vulnerable Americans.

We can already see the foundation of this nightmare in Trump’s picks thus far. The notoriously anti-LGBTQ Ben Carson is slated to head Housing and Urban Development; Secretary of Education pick, Betsy DeVos, has a history of anti-gay activism, while Attorney General pick Sen. Jeff Sessions voted to advance a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. And with Trump and Mike Pence, his dangerous, anti-LGBTQ vice president, leading the country, the list of appointees who oppose queer rights continues to grow

Signorile emphasized that the community must not only actively scrutinize these appointments, but also be critical of the tokenization of queer people ― gay men in particular ― as a smokescreen for severe anti-LGBTQ platforms.

Peter Thiel, who’s been named to Trump’s transition team, can be seen as an example of this tokenism, Signorile told me. The tech billionaire is perhaps best known in recent months for backing the lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker after he alleged that the company outed him.

“Using Peter Thiel was window dressing to say look, I brought a gay man on, first one I ever brought on. So is Donald Trump using the term LGBTQ,” Signorile said. “There was a time when maybe the Republicans didn’t say ‘black people’ or didn’t say African Americans. So this is suddenly seen as ‘oh my god’ but it’s nothing – it’s tokenism... what I’ve seen is Thiel believes that there should be very limited government. And where we’ve gone and where we need to go in this movement is federal protections and federal government doing the kind of work that helps people. And that’s what helped the Obama administration grow in all of the departments, and then Obama’s executive orders as well.” 

Reflecting on all of this is crucial to understanding the threats to queer rights going forward. There are also a number of important take-aways that can be gained from understanding the rich histories of queer organizing, protesting and resistance, all of which offer a valuable array of practices that can be implemented today.

For Signorile, there are four core messages from his years as a veteran activist that he’d like young queer people to consider and adopt.

1. Don’t Wait

The queer community waited too long to organize and act in the 1980s. Unfortunately, inaction only gave the Reagan administration and the religious right more power, Signorile said, and created space for exacerbated stigma against the LGBTQ community.

“Thankfully Larry Kramer fired people up and ACT UP formed,” Signorile reflected. “But it came very late and we should’ve started earlier. Don’t wait until they do things. Don’t listen to any of this ‘let him have a chance.’ I think people need to organize now... and I think the opportunity to do this now is so much greater and easier thankfully because of social media ― because we were doing it with wheat-pasting on the street [in the ‘80s]! We were handing out flyers.”

2. The Importance Of Intersectionality

As we saw with the wide-spread protests that took place in the wake of Trump’s election, this is an intersectional struggle, and intersectional resistance must follow suit. If you are a minority ― or someone who embodies a multiplicity of marginalized identities ― in this country, your rights and equality may soon be at risk. It’s important that we remember this as we engage in resistance against what is increasingly becoming a white nationalist hate movement.

“It has it be Latino queer people, it has to be African-American queer people, it has to be many other groups at the forefront who are going to be dealing with other oppressions from this administration,” Signorile elaborated. “Because I think ― especially among progressives ― we really have made just enormous strides. I mean, progressives and Democrats support queer equality! There isn’t going to be that sort of resistance that even we felt – we felt isolated, you know? Because we had to rebel against our own party! We were hated at that time. I think it’s different now. I think across millennials, it’s got to be across all of these groups. And there’s no reason why it can’t be because everyone does support each other’s agenda.”

3. Protest Creatively

Previous queer activists were creative in their protests in order to expand their reach and impact. Signorile believes we should follow in the steps of ACT UP’s highly visible forms of protest and consider the ways in which past demonstrations ― like protesting naked outside of Penn Station the night before the Republican National Convention in 2004 ― are still talked about today.

“The size of the protests and the types of protests are not as important as the creativity of the protest and the captivating nature of the protest,” Signorile said. “The whole idea of a protest is to hijack the media and change the discussion and get voices heard. And that can be done with a small number of people or large – large numbers of course always get attention. If thousands and thousands of people are on the doorstop of someone that gets attention. ACT UP often worked in large numbers, you know, invading the New York Stock exchange with many protestors outside. But at that same time, one solo activist literally got into the CBS evening news and got on camera!”

4. Remain Intergenerational In Our Resistance

It’s also critically important that we include the voices and perspectives of older leaders and activists who have fought anti-LGBTQ political backlash before in order to understand and engage the most effective forms of resistance. The LGBTQ community, after all, has a massive problem when it comes to intergenerational division and ageism.

“We need to include all of the older people,” Signorile explained. “ACT UP was people in their 60s and 70s and it was people who were 20. And it was every kind of person you could imagine – stockbrokers, feminists, academics, people working at Burger King, students – it was every kind of person because they all had knowledge and tools. So I think people need to think about doing something that can bring in people who have a lot of experience and knowledge but also who have different tools.”

No one knows for certain what is going to happen under a Trump administration. But one thing is clear: we can anticipate forthcoming political backlash, and our response matters.

We must learn the lessons of our shared history if we are going to change the future and not repeat the past.

Head here to read more about ACT UP and queer activism of the 1980s.

The Michelangelo Signorile Show broadcasts Monday through Friday, 3-6 p.m. ET (12-3 PT), on SiriusXM Progress 127 and can be heard across the continental United States and all of Canada. Follow Signorile on Twitter and Facebook.