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Queer in America.

I first encountered Michelangelo Signorile in June of 1988, when he was head of the media committee of ACT UP, and I was a reporter writing about AIDS for the Los Angeles Times. I watched in astonishment as this street-smart kid from Brooklyn and his ragtag army of hypsters worked the media like pros, offering up everything from theatrical demonstrations for the television cameras to tightly reasoned position papers for the more serious minded. As ACT UP's message about Reagan administration neglect and pharmaceutical industry greed seeped into the national consciousness, I made a mental note to keep track of this fellow.

I needn't have bothered. By June of 1989, Signorile had once again burst onto the scene, this time as a columnist for Outweek, the gay and lesbian news magazine of the ACT UP generation. For gay-identified men and women wearied by eight years of plague and centuries of homophobia--myself included--Signorile's diatribes were like weekly jolts of adrenaline. But he terrorized a small subset of gay people: public figures who remained locked in their closets.

"I realize you're oppressed, just like the rest of us (which is why you're hiding in the first place)," Signorile wrote in one of his more temperate moments. "But don't react to it by oppressing us. It's much easier for you to break the chain of homophobia than it is for me. You are in enormous positions of power. Use it. This is a crisis."

Malcolm Forbes, Barry Diller, David Geffen, Liz Smith, Pete Williams, Jodie Foster--none was spared Signorile's upper-case invective as he transformed himself into a one-man battering ram determined to smash down the anachronistic relic known as the closet. Thus was born the furor over "outing."

Now comes Signorile's Queer in America. Part memoir, part social history, Signorile's book is must-reading for members of the chattering classes who are struggling to come to grips with the gay and lesbian struggle for equality. As timely as today's headlines, Queer in America is a landmark book, ranking with such other gay masterpieces as Larry Kramer's Reports from the Holocaust and Paul Monette's National Book Award-winning Becoming a Man. For the first time, Signorile is able to circumvent the filter of the mainstream media and directly make his case for the abolition of the closet to a wider audience.

Well, almost directly. This book was subjected to the second-longest legal review in Random House history. The vetting resulted in the removal of a handful of names, and more importantly, poignant details in cases such as Merv Griffin's. While the lawyering undoubtedly weakened the book, it will lead to titillating parlor games inside the Beltway and in Hollywood as readers attempt to ascertain the identities of "The Legislator" and "The Mogul," closeted men who allegedly sexually harassed same-sex employees.

But Queer in America is more than a voyeur's delight. Signorile has produced nothing less than a deconstruction of the closet--an institution, he argues, that has outlived its usefulness. Subtlety and nuance are not his strong suits, but Signorile is right on target in his denunciation of the closet and the forces that keep it closed. "There exists in America what appears to be a brilliantly orchestrated, massive conspiracy to keep all homosexuals locked in the closet," he writes--and sympathetic straight people are some of the biggest enforcers. They do so by insisting on gay invisibility, a good example being the don't-ask, don't tell compromise being floated for gays in the military. The media, the political system, and the entertainment industry make up what he calls "The Trinity of the Closet." In all three power structures, closeted gay men and lesbians serve as enforcers, and beneficiaries, of the closet.

But the world is changing, and for the better. The closeted sub-cabinet officials of the Reagan and Bush administrations are giving way to the openly gay and lesbian professionals in the Clinton administration. Even David Geffen--once denounced by Signorile as "the most horrifying kind of nightmare I've come to study in the grotesque mosaic of the media swirl" for producing an album by Guns N' Roses whose lyrics referred to "faggots" spreading a disease--has come out as a gay man and now devotes part of his fortune toward the struggle for gay rights.

The most moving part of the book concerns Signorile's own personal struggle to survive in a world that loathed his kind. "Brooklyn isn't the easiest place to grow up, especially if you're a homo," he writes wryly. Signorile attributes his survival skills to his working class father, who taught him to fight ethnic slurs like "wop" and "greaseball" with his fists. In a classic example of the pathology of the closet, Signorile himself would pummel kids who'd been labeled faggots by others. That way, he writes, "I could prove that I agreed they were freaks and distance myself from them. I became a queer basher to prove I wasn't a queer." Shades of Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover.

The book concludes with what Signorile calls "A Queer Manifesto," queer, of course, being the word gay men and lesbians have appropriated from their oppressors in order to remove its sting. "Now is the time for all queers to come out and be counted," he declares. "Deep down," Signorile tells the closeted, "you know you have no 'right' to be where you are, that you were shoved in your closet a long time ago. Deep down, you know why you must come out and why it is wrong for you not to. It's better if you do it yourself. It's liberating and invigorating and empowering. And it's time."
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Author:Zonana, Victor F.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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