Badpuppy Gay Today
Monday, 25 August, 1997
In his latest book, Life Outside:The Signorile Report on Gay Men,(Harper Collins Publishers, $25 cloth) activist/author and Outing Meister, Michelangelo Signorile aims a spotlight on the gay public's glam set and challenges long-carried assumptions about partying, masculinity, relationships, beauty and aging. Divvied up, Part I, Life Inside, deals, respectively, with the hard-partying-steroid-studs in our communities who ruin their bodies and souls, while simultaneously dragging the collective gay psyche into the bondage of contrived and mass-marketed concepts of sexuality, beauty. Signorile also discusses how he thinks ardent pro-sex activism of the eighties backfired, perhaps accounting for the resurgence in HIV infection we're seeing here at century's end. Part I: Staring Into a Steroid Void… and you know who you are… (Note: Signorile details in the first half of his book all sorts of mindaltering and shoot-upable muscle compounding accouterments to turn you into what he terms Stepford Homos. Added Bonus: nullification of important organs and their accordant functions—my favorite was of a type of steroid banned at the turn of the century, whereupon being autopsied showed the user's innards had been cooked pretty as an X-mas goose. And it's back on the black market! Hurry and get yours today!!) David Scott Evans:
In his latest book, Life Outside:The Signorile Report on Gay Men,(Harper Collins Publishers, $25 cloth) activist/author and Outing Meister, Michelangelo Signorile aims a spotlight on the gay public's glam set and challenges long-carried assumptions about partying, masculinity, relationships, beauty and aging.
Divvied up, Part I, Life Inside, deals, respectively, with the hard-partying-steroid-studs in our communities who ruin their bodies and souls, while simultaneously dragging the collective gay psyche into the bondage of contrived and mass-marketed concepts of sexuality, beauty. Signorile also discusses how he thinks ardent pro-sex activism of the eighties backfired, perhaps accounting for the resurgence in HIV infection we're seeing here at century's end.
Part I: Staring Into a Steroid Void… and you know who you are… (Note: Signorile details in the first half of his book all sorts of mindaltering and shoot-upable muscle compounding accouterments to turn you into what he terms Stepford Homos. Added Bonus: nullification of important organs and their accordant functions—my favorite was of a type of steroid banned at the turn of the century, whereupon being autopsied showed the user's innards had been cooked pretty as an X-mas goose. And it's back on the black market! Hurry and get yours today!!)
David Scott Evans:The cult of masculinity and body fascism… what brought them on? Where'd they come from?
Michelangelo Signorile:We saw a lot of anxiety throughout the 80s. At first the reaction to AIDS during the early to mid Eighties was of total fear and panic and people pretty much just kind of shut down, just retreated. I think we were all scared. Of course. And we really needed to put out the message to people, especially when we found out that HIV was the cause of AIDS and condoms came into play, that people needed to feel good about sex and that sex was healthy and good and that safer sex was a great thing and we really put that message out there.[But]…It's one thing to put out that message and say that 'sex is good and safer sex is great.' It's another thing to say to people: 'Well, we can probably go back to that same frenetic pace that we saw in 1970s in terms of the party scene etc.' That works on paper, to say 'use a condom every time'. But what I think we saw, by the late eighties and early nineties, was that that was so difficult and the lifestyle was so crazy for people particularly if they're using drugs and on the scene and have a lot of other anxieties about their lives and then wind up in multiple partner situations that unsafe sex certainly happens and HIV transmission certainly happens. Our thinking that condoms were the "quick fix", that would just solve all the problems…just re-promoted a kind of highly intensive party scene for some gay men [like circuit parties.] That lay the groundwork for what eventually … happen[ed]… the anxiety around AIDS was affecting us in a lot of different ways.
For a lot of men it became about looking healthy, looking fit, looking like they didn't have "IT", working out and making sure they looked like the epitome of health and beauty and also of youth, because youth [promotes] the idea that youth is "innocent" and [un]infected and that body-hair and age and experience means that maybe you are [HIV positive] and so that might have become part of our focus on youth, hairlessness, and innocence AIDS also heightened our ever-present fears about effeminacy. I think gay men have always dealt with the fear of perceived as effeminate because of the way society has always stigmatized us and we've always idealized the masculine male and wanted to have, and be, the masculine man. With AIDS it got even more intense because the bottom was now the focus of attention, the idea that that was how you became infected with HIV. I think all of those anxieties played into the idealization of the hyper-masculine body and the return of [body fascism/cult of masculinity.]… I guess, the intensifying of it. Circuit party types have been, throughout the movements tenure, the same bunch who've eschewed activism for a good time.
Evans:Yet, you've indicated that during the peak era of ACT UP and Queer Nation, that activism took precedence over hedonism.
Signorile:During the late eighties you had activism being a real influence, an engine of gay culture. Yes, you still had the party circuit and all but ACT UP and Queer Nation intersected with that. Many people were drawn to those groups [who] also were party people. There were educated people on the party scene. I know, here in New York, we had benefits that were ACT UP involved- it was a way of educating people and making them aware- and I think you saw that play out then in the gay press. You saw the ideas that came from activism really acting as an antidote. But it was a place where people could get ideas and when [the activism] died, all we had was the party circuit. In the late seventies and early eighties, you had- in terms of the circuit- a couple of parties it's now over fifty parties[a year] and now perhaps a hundred thousand gay men on the circuit. There have always been those who've been less aware and less politically motivated but at different points in time different things will sort of be the engines of gay culture. That really is more the engine of gay culture at this point. I think you saw a lot of people who were previously involved in activism just gravitate toward that.
Evans:The gay public seems to have a balancing aspect to it. The "swish" vs. the swastika of body fascism. Isn't this cult of masculinity more or less a phase who's days are numbered?(albeit a dangerous and stupid one?)
Signorile:I don't think so. It's been throughout gay culture and culture in general. What I try to show is that the cult of masculinity is something that our whole culture is wrapped up in. It's an anxiety about masculinity that really goes back to the turn of the century when women began to exert their independence. It's really about an anxiety about masculinity, inspired by women and their standing up for their rights. It has made straight men anxious about their masculinity and it's made them scapegoat gay men and anyone who's effeminate. Effeminacy among straight men has always been looked upon as a bad thing. The cult of masculinity is something that gay men are wrapped up in too. And instead of [we]as gay men breaking from that and turning it on its head we play out the same thing. Thank goodness for the "swish" and the kind-of effeminate men to shake things up and challenge us. But in truth, in gay culture too, we do demonize them. We certainly in terms of sexual object choice do not hold up for more effeminate men. We look at everything in terms of the hyper-masculine ideal. I don't know about it being a phase. What I hope is that the intensity lessens and opens it up so we don't demonize those who don't fit the ideal.
Evans:You chide our national gay magazines, including Out, Advocate, as well as local papers for over focusing on the cult of masculinity et al; Since sex does sell, how might advertisers and publishers broaden their palletes, toward a more sensitive approach to peddling their wares to the gay public.
Signorile:I think, now, it [behooves] editors and others to realize it does mean offering gay men all of the diversity of the community. That's what we really don't see all lot of the time. We only see one very visible, highly commercial aspect of gay culture. We don't see the life outside in a lot of our publications. Some are getting better in varying degrees and others don't show any of it. And that's what I think publishers can do: Instead of looking at this as an attack on them in terms of what they shouldn't show they should see it as a challenge to portray what's not.
I guess when we had all the activism, that was so powerful, that it was easy to latch onto. It was so visible, it didn't require magazines and their publishers to think about the alternatives because it was just so "there." People want to have a good time and they should. You're not going to have the party scene over and done with, and we don't want that. It is not so much about taking away, down playing, or censoring images or articles. We don't want to control things in that sense and we don't want to control people's sexual desires, sexual impulses…but provide them with other things, other options--the antidote to all of that.
In Part II of his book, Life Outside, Michaelangelo Signorile attempts to establish a rapport with: so called generation X-ers coming out earlier, open-er who plump for monogamous hometown lives and queers who've fled the gay ghettos -or at least the mentality- of the metropolises--- formally confirming, for better or worse that, yes, Virginia, We Are Everywhere…
Evans:Who does Life Outside consist of?
Signorile:You'll find a very big spectrum of people. You'll find people who are just as political maybe as the people wrapped up in the [circuit]scene they may be just living in the suburbs and are just totally unplugged, go to the movies a lot, watch a lot of t.v, not paying that much attention to political issues just like every other American.
Life Outside generally tends to be people who are much more interacting; even if they do live in the city, they're interacting outside of the scene, outside the gay community they're challenging people['s] [stereotypes, prejudices]around them, they're challenging straight people… If they live outside the city, they can't help but challenge them in that way. When you talk to gay couples living in the suburbs who might be living what people might [call] a mundane lifestyle, well, yeah, but they're out of the closet , living on a suburban block and everyone on the block knows they're gay. In that way they're more radical than anyone living inside the gay ghetto who don't challenge anybody…They challenge the status quo more.
Evans:What are the most pressing issues, politically, legally, facing the gay public?
Signorile:Looking at what minimal polling we have …Employment and housing are probably the most important things. People want to know that they cannot be fired or thrown out of their [homes.] That is one of the most basic American rights. I then think the marriage issue is important to a lot of people, the sodomy laws are important…these all compliment each other. You can't say they're all separate. One facilitates the other. If you have employment and housing rights it'll be easier to get marriage rights. If you still have a sodomy laws [on the books] it's gonna be harder to get [the others.] It's all very connected. Over all the one most important thing that will hound us is the AIDS crisis. It will continue to have political implications for us if we do not address what is happening in terms of HIV prevention, transmission.
Evans:Did you, in a June 15, 1995 article in LGNY call for government sponsored regulation of sex in public forums (ie bath houses?)
I knew several people who'd written pieces urging GMHC, urging Act Up and other groups to put pressure on the clubs to go back to making sure it was safe, that in the middle of this sudden breakdown [in safer sexual practices] across the country these figures were coming in showing a rise in HV infection that we needed to make the clubs as safe as they [had gotten, at one point] to be. [Neither] ACT UP, or GMHC wanted to do anything about it. GMHC even said something like that's up to the health department to enforce. Gabriel Rotello then wrote a column asking for the Health Department to make them safe.
Evans:That wasn't your [position] …?
Signorile:I met with [Rotello] and a bunch of people in a group that called for the N.Y health department to make sure that the clubs comply with safer sex rules, that the clubs would make sure that they had monitors. This group that I was involved in basically wrote that down in a statement, so, that's what we did. The idea of closure of the clubs was only as a last resort after a club had gotten several warnings…that there was unsafe sex there. Most clubs got safer. Out of, maybe, three hundred-sex establishments in New York, only a handful, maybe something in the teens, were closed. That was in 1995. In 1996, the closings went down dramatically. In 1997, there hasn't been any closure of a club. I think the policy is working.
Evans:But who does the monitoring?
Signorile:People who work for the club, the club's employees; that's how it was in the eighties. The health dept. would make sure that the clubs have monitors and inspect to make sure the monitors were doing their jobs. This is what goes on in San Francisco too. The gay community works with the health dept. to make sure tha the club with their own gay employees make sure that the clubs are safe.
Evans:People can go home just as easily and fuck and it's probably more scrutinized at a bathhouse…Aren't the social pressures of open sexual forums at least as stigmatizing, and as a result as effective, as state regulation?
Signorile:I think sometimes they can be safer there if there's a culture of safety, absolutely. But when there's a culture of unsafety, in that people aren't paying attention to any safer sex guidelines, I think [sex clubs] can encourage people to be unsafe. People have told me how they went to a sex club, saw people fucking without condoms, and just felt it was conventional wisdom that if you fucked without a condom and didn't come that it was ok.[!?] I think the social pressure can go both ways: you can pressure people to think it's totally ok not to use condoms, or you can pressure them into thinking it's not.
In terms of going home, absolutely. Everyone can go home and do whatever they want. The thing about bath houses and sex clubs is, when they're unsafe, you're facilitating multiple partner unsafe sex. That is where you really see the explosion of HIV transmission in a given period of time. The amount of HIV transmission that would happen in a home over a period of two months or something your [seeing in one or two nights.] We're in the middle of an epidemic…I think what people forget is that these are businesses and they're trying to make money off of you and get whatever it can, and doesn't really care if you're unsafe. And that's why the state regulates a lot of things with businesses.
Evans:The myth of "lonely old queen" and the promotion of mentoring is intriguing…let's talk a little about that and its implications/applications.
Signorile:We really do need mixing and sharing among the generations, it really goes a long way in terms of informing people about experiences that they don't know about. So many younger men really don't have a clue about what it's like to be gay and older. They believe in some stereotypes influenced by the heterosexual world about the "lonely old queen", y'know, and they don't want to live to be older. This impacts safer sex, suicides, it certainly impacts drug use; they don't see a future. We just tend to portray stereotypes. We focus on youth and beauty and offer an image to young gay people of older people being sad and lonely and depressed or just invisible. The truth is when you go out and meet older [gay] men they're doing better than straight older people. They come to terms with life crises better than most heterosexuals who really don't have to deal with being alone, for instance, or coming to terms with a major crises until later on when their spouse dies. We are toughened from when we're young by dealing with the closet.
Evans:Can you give a couple of applications [of mentoring?]
Signorile:[A] particular program out of UCLA, I wrote about in OUT, is a formal mentoring program. You have a psychologist on staff there runs the mentoring program and people come and apply to be mentors and she assigns people to be mentees. And they check in and there's a lot of sharing of information. So then this mixing together breaks those stereotypes for a lot of younger people. It also does some great things for older people. A lot of older gay men really want and need interaction with younger people and to pass experiences down, and to feel a sense of helping someone else go through life…This of course is something heterosexuals have because they have children and grand-children. It's not just about helping younger people-it's about helping older people.
Evans:The press release I received with your book says you've lived two years with a boyfriend (and your dog, Simone.) Is this Life Outside for you?
Signorile:I would say that for me, I'm somewhat removed from the scene, at this point, and, uh, I'm in a relationship. Well, we live in NYC. What I was talking about in the second part of the book wasn't necessarily geographic, but a kind of state of mind. I'd say that, yes, in a sense living outside the scene. Although just because I'm in a relationship doesn't mean that that necessarily… there are plenty of people living outside who aren't in relationships who are single. Just because I'm in a relationship doesn't make me living outside. There are plenty of couples also on the scene as you know.
Evans:Would you share the names of a couple of gay literary/historcal figures whom you admire?
Signorile:Vito Russo, Larry Kramer, Gore Vidal…I think it's really interesting that Vidal sees things as acts and doesn't see people as gay or straight, he just sees them as engaging in gay sex or straight sex. I think he was really ahead of his time in that sense. You see that [ideology]coming out of [academia], there talking more in those terms. And you know, if that's the way he wants to look at it, fine. As long as he says he engages in sodomy with men, then he's out , as far as I'm concerned. I like that he really stood up, in a time when it was much worse to be identified as someone who was gay. He just did his work and pushed it through and stood up to the controversy that surrounded it. And that- I really respect people that do that …obviously.
Interviewer David Scott Evans, a staff writer for Badpuppy's GayToday and for Hotspots, Florida's largest gay print media publication, lives in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. His regularly provocative columns can also be read on the Web at:http://www.hotspotsmagazine.com
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