Case Study: How Michelangelo Signorile Put a Dent in Hollywood’s Homophobia

Michelangelo Signorile (Wikipedia, website) is the author of Queer in America: Sex, the Media, and the Closets of Power. In this passage, he describes how activists cut through the fog of irrelevant First Amendment arguments to get Hollywood moguls to take responsibility for their messages:

We were under siege at the time, and I was operating with a siege mentality. Friends were dying every week. The AIDS crisis was escalating and the right wing was turning its screws on Washington. Meanwhile, Hollywood–our supposed “liberal” friend–was demonizing queers…

Week after week throughout 1990, I continued my capital-letter attacks on the Hollywood establishment. In June, I went after Diller, Geffen, and others who were behind the controversial comedian Andrew Dice Clay, whose act was viciously antigay. Diller had given Clay a three-picture deal at 20th Century Fox, and Geffen Records was the distributor for his live album…

When I called Geffen’s office for comment, letting them know I was writing a column about the Vanity Fair article [which had been generally positive about Clay], his PR person, Bryn Bridenthal, was very accommodating. Only weeks earlier, before my assault on him regarding Guns N’ Roses that had elicited phone calls and attacks from the public, she had been quite nasty and had released a statement about the First Amendment. Now she assured me that Geffen was trying to distance himself from Clay… She also said that he was “contractually bound to distribute all Def American records” but that, for the first time, Geffen had taken his company’s name off a record. The Geffen logo would not appear on Clay’s live album, just being released. Bridenthal said that was their “protest”, their way of “expressing” their opinion of the record…

People were beginning to squirm. The tactics were working…

Meanwhile, the mainstream media, spurred by such activism, were pummeling Clay, interviewing feminists and queers about his bigoted brand of comedy. This only bolstered the use of in-your-face tactics: The mainstream media, so afraid of offending those in power in Hollywood, wouldn’t do stories on their own, but would do stories when activists launched attacks.

By mid-July, Diller had killed Clay’s three-picture deal; he was offended by Clay’s act and afraid of the brouhaha that might ensue, sources said, after the live concert film was released. The film had a lot of antigay material. By September, Geffen had dumped a band whose album he was about to distribute, the Geto Boys, because some of their lyrics attacked people with AIDS and advocated shooting them and chopping them up with chain saws. In a press release, Geffen articulated the difference between his actions and censorship, saying that as a private company and not a government entity he had the right to distribute or not distribute what he deemed insensitive. It was a proper decision, although many anticensorhip types weren’t happy.

The censorship issue is the one that gets many purists, especially on the left, riled up about queers’ and others’ attacks on pop culture. The critics fail to see that this is less about censorship and more about promoting homophobia for the sake of making money.

Perhaps, as some liberals and civil libertarians say, more speech is the best speech, and we have all become much too “sensitive”. Perhaps it is better to hear the extremes of all sides on a debate than no sides at all. This rationale, however, is utopian. It assumes that “more speech” also means that all sides are represented in the debate. Unfortunately, in this society–a capitalist one–that is not the case. “More speech” all too often means more hate speech, which, it seems, can always be mass-marketed and exploited. While the Andrew Dice Clays and Sam Kinisons were becoming superstars in the eighties, no major record company had signed and vigorously promoted an openly lesbian or gay comedian who attacked homophobes (though there certainly are many talented and hilarious gay comics). Similarly, while gays were turning up as villains in film after film, no films showed gays as heroes.

That is the essence of queers’ attacks on pop culture: Contrary to what many have perceived as our goals, it is not censorship of the ugliness that is sought, but rather a serving up of something else–the full reality of gay lives would be a nice start–that offers balance. However, as gay-bashing and AIDS hysteria escalated in the late eighties, the entertainment industry and the mass media refused to offer that balance. Geffen’s actions were a good start… (pages 303-306)

See also:

Free Speech Coalition Newsletter: “Anti-Porn Group Targets Massachussetts Video Store” [sic] (6/22/07)
“The store in Springfield Massachusetts is in full compliance with all local ordinances, and has operated without incident for many years,” Rich told AVN. “Last October, certain deficiencies were pointed out by local authorities, and Amazing immediately corrected all such problems. The NoPornNorthampton website is dedicated to censoring the rights of adults to view sexual materials. It appears that they are upset that Amazing prevailed in the City of Northampton, and this is just a retaliatory action.”

How the Supreme Court Reconciles Adult-Use Zoning with the First Amendment

Since what is ultimately at stake is nothing more than a limitation on the place where adult films may be exhibited, [n35] even though the determination of whether a [p72]
particular film fits that characterization turns on the nature of its
content, we conclude that the city’s interest in the present and future
character of its neighborhoods adequately supports its classification
of motion pictures. We hold that the zoning ordinances requiring that
adult [p73] motion picture theaters not be located within 1,000
feet of two other regulated uses does not violate the Equal Protection
Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment

WMass Librarians: No Sign of Censorship Following Adult-Use Zoning
We believe that these libraries’ experience strengthens our case that
local citizens can be trusted to implement modest regulations on adult
businesses, without harming the cultural vibrancy of Northampton.

Harvard Law Professor Frederick Schauer’s “The Boundaries of the First Amendment”; Government Regulates Many Kinds of Speech
Although the First Amendment refers to freedom of “speech,” much speech
remains totally untouched by it. Antitrust law, securities regulation,
the law of criminal solicitation, and most of the law of evidence, for
example, involve legal control of speech lying well beyond the
boundaries of the First Amendment’s concern. It is not that such
regulation satisfies a higher burden of justification imposed by the
First Amendment. Rather, the First Amendment does not even show up in
the analysis. The explanation for lack of First Amendment coverage lies
not in a theory of free speech or in legal doctrine, but instead in an
often serendipitous array of political, cultural, and economic factors
determining what makes the First Amendment salient in some instances of
speech regulation but not in others. Because the First Amendment’s
cultural magnetism attracts a wide variety of claims, nonlegal factors,
far more than legal ones, determine which opportunistic claims to First
Amendment attention will succeed and which will not. Legal doctrine and
free speech theory may explain what is protected within the First
Amendment’s boundaries, but the location of the boundaries
themselves–the threshold determination of what is a First Amendment
case and what is not–is less a doctrinal matter than a political,
economic, social, and cultural one.

Hampden Superior Court Lets Capital Video Reopen Viewing Booths in Springfield; A Proposed Solution
How much does Capital Video care about the health of its customers? A search of the term barebacking on its website today brings up the following and more:

Bisexual Barebacking #6
Barebacking Tag Team
Unsafe Sex with Transsexuals Barebacking #2
Raw Bois #3 – A Twink Barebacking Adventure
Adventures in Barebacking

title below was prominently on display at an store in
Massachusetts on September 28. The character at the bottom of the box
cover says, “Go Forth And Be Unsafe My Son!”

What Porn Is: Selections from Mainstream Porn (explicit language)
“A Cum Sucking Whore Named Kimberly” is a 2003 release from Anabolic
Video Productions… [the last scene is] “Gang Bang Girl #32.” In this
scene a frustrated football coach berates his players after practice,
asking them whether they are “football players or fags.” He says they
will lose the game the next day, which he wouldn’t mind if his players
were men — he just hates to lose with fags. He turns to the assistant
coach and says, “prove to me they’re not fags” before walking away. The
proof will be in the 13 players having sex with Kimberly, one of the
cheerleaders in the stands…

Hustler Cartoons: Racism, Misogyny, Anti-Semitism, Homophobia, Pedophilia, Incest, Ridicule of Disabled People… (explicit)

small, nervous man going door-to-door for the “A.I.D.S. Relief Fund” is
greeted by a large man holding a beer bottle and a crowbar. The large
man has a swastika tattoo and a shirt that says, “Death To All Fags!”
The caption reads, “Sorry, wrong house!”

The Imus Affair: Criticizing Speech is Not Censorship
Besides being wedded to the fallacy that porn is exclusively about consenting adults, many of our opponents try to equate citizen activism and criticism of another’s speech with state censorship that violates the First Amendment. Nadine Strossen is one of the more prominent employers of this approach.

One commenter claims that asking businesses to avoid profiting from suffering is “dangerous territory” that “smacks of harassment”. Perhaps this person is not familiar with the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the divestment campaign that influenced South Africa. Were those actions harassment or peaceful resistance to oppression?

With respect to Don Imus, who recently called members of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos”,
citizen activism and private economic pressure appear to be doing a
good job of responding to bad speech. After a vigorous outcry from Al Sharpton,
feminists, and many others, eight advertisers withdrew their campaigns
from Imus’s show on MSNBC. MSNBC then decided to cancel its Imus
simulcast yesterday. Today CBS, owner of Imus flagship station WFAN-AM,
delivered the “finale” by firing Imus.

Testimony in Los Angeles: Peter Bogdanovich on Porn and Hollywood
The pornographers and their supporters are so powerful, and the
connection between the pornography industry and the legitimate
entertainment industry is so intimate, that directors and producers and
writers and creative people of all kinds do not feel able to take a
stand against pornography because they’re going to be blackmailed by
legitimate studios, distribution houses, etc. Some say, “Just wait till
I get this distributed, then I’ll be free to go down and tell you what
I know,” or “I’m waiting to sell a TV show…” The real story is that
people are intimidated out of speaking by those in power over their

Testimony in Minneapolis: Prostitutes and Porn (explicit language)
It is very amazing to me what happens when a group of ex-prostitutes
get together in one room and tell stories. One of the things we
discovered was that the men we had serviced were very powerful men in
this community. Especially interesting to us are the amounts of men
involved in the media in this community that use prostitutes and
pornography. These are the same men that perpetuate the myth that
Minneapolis is a clean city with exceptional morals and a high quality
of life.