February 28, 2017
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a white man in possession of a British accent will never fail to attract and hold the attention of the American public. His opinions may be laudably progressive or repugnantly bigoted — Christopher Hitchens was both, before and after the Iraq war — but he will be listened to with rapt attention and considered extremely smart.
Milo Yiannopoulos burst onto the American celebrity scene with an unpronounceable last name (for most Americans), but his foreign-ness was immediately acceptable because he presented as white (Aryan, actually) and had that accent (imagine the fate of someone with darker skin and a thicker accent who said exactly the same things). That, along with his scattershot politics of open hatred, was partly what endeared him to so many in a country he has declared the “greatest” in the world and garnered him first name status, an honour generally bestowed upon women like Beyonce and Madonna. Bigotry, homophobia, and misogyny just sound ever so much more reasonable and elegant when expressed in that accent, don’t you know?
But what explains why his star imploded so quickly? On February 18 came the announcement that Milo would be a keynote speaker at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), and rub shoulders with his idol Donald Trump. Less than 48 hours later, he had been disinvited, his $250,000 book deal with Simon and Schuster was rescinded, and he remains, despite his blustering about a spectacular return, persona non grata, banished to somewhere far beyond even the outermost edges of the known celebrity firmament.
Milo’s precipitous fall came about because he quickly and dramatically transformed from a quirky, loveable (to some) queer firebrand to something far more threatening: a gay man who now embodied the worst fears that straight people have long had about gay men: that they are nothing but pedophiles waiting to rape their children. His spectacular implosion points to the ways in which queerness has moved from a theoretical, academically inflected identity to a widely understood constellation of harmless non-straightness, a set of characteristics that straight people will endure as adorable, sweet, fun traits. Gay, in contrast, has by now been fixed in very particular ways. Gay men in particular have long fought to dissociate themselves from even a hint of the unseemly, the unsightly, the dangerous, and the gay marriage fight, now won or about to be won everywhere, has meant that gay is now fixed as the ultimate in respectability. Gay, the gays insist, means: devoted community members devoted to each other, people willing to fight unjust wars for their countries, good parents to sweet, adorable children.
But that version of the gay as good has never been stable: Milo’s fall demonstrates that the age-old fear that gay men are simply lurking pedophiles has never gone away. In short, Milo fell because he was seen as coming out as gay and was no longer queer.
When Milo appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher (before the fracas erupted), the show’s host described him lovingly as a “little, impish, British fag,” and gay commentators huffed about his use of the term. But by “fag,” Maher wasn’t actually referring to Milo as gay. Rather, he deployed the term to mean queer — “fag” here, linked to “little, impish” and, note, “British,” was a substitute for the Queer Next Door, and meant to signal that Maher was down with the cool kids. For his part, Milo showed up bedecked in pearls but still resolutely male, with a charming smile and hair immaculately styled to look like he had just crept out of bed. “You’re literally the only good [liberal],” he cooed to a preening Maher, who immediately fell for him. Days later, the news would break that Milo had spoken glibly of giving head to a Catholic priest, and the world would erupt into shock and dismay at the phrasing, but at this point, no one seemed to notice that the host was receiving a pretty similar treatment from his guest.
Milo was as successful as he was, even for a short time, because he presented himself as gloriously queer, in the ways that straight America, conservative and progressive, had always conceived the arrival of Queer Christ: A hint of bawdiness, but with a seeming veneration for “America.” If we think of queer in the broadest sense, in the terms in which the word has made its way into mainstream American culture as with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and onwards, if we think of it as a loose amalgamation of things that are Not Quite Straight And Maybe Fun To Try, Milo was the Right’s Favourite Queer.
With Milo, the American Right and several progressives struck gold. The links between homosociality and politics have never been much of a secret in England, with its long history of fostering elites in single sex institutions that have become incubators for immense and far-reaching power; the British Empire was, arguably, built on the backs, so to speak, of homoerotic and homosexual relations between its builders. In England, Milo would probably have languished as just another white fag. In America, he was, in Maher’s words, “the little impish, bratty kid brother”, the Queer Guy For The Straight Bigot. In him, the straight Maher found the perfect wingman, someone who wasn’t too gay to make him uncomfortable, whose fagginess was in full display and whose vile and disgusting politics could be openly echoed by him, as when he, Maher, agreed with him about trans people in bathrooms and called them “weirdos.”
Milo was a gift for progressives like Maher, but especially for the Right. In Milo, the Right found a way to prove that it had some kind of cred, that it was down with the youngs, as we say nowadays, that it was transforming itself. He affirmed the Right’s desire to be seen as the one thumbing its nose at the status quo and, no pun intended, sticking it to the man (roughly translated as being “against political correctness”), to be disrupting norms. He was hip, he was cute, he had that accent and, look how cool we are, he speaks openly of sex with men! Against gay marriage! (So did radical queers, but for reasons that both the Right and Left would rather ignore.) It didn’t matter that he demonstrated no actual political thought and that his politics were indefinable (even he pointed out that he wasn’t actually a conservative), taking aim at any moving target with little purpose other than to make profits and to gain more publicity.
Milo’s particular brand of queerness relied on a slipperiness, a refusal to be pinned down by categorical definitions or politics. Racist? He loves black dick! He dated Muslim men! Milo was a creation of post-gay marriage politics in America, the product of a landscape where the Right and the Left, and gays who exist on both sides and in between, are struggling to understand how to think about the meaning and relevance of gay politics now that all the wildest gay dreams have come true. For his success, Milo relied on a fundamental unknowability, an inauthenticity if you will, a kind of catch-me-if-you-can, will-o’-the-wisp quality: I am never that which you think I am. But if you pay me lots of money, I’ll come and do my little dance for you, and you can try to figure me out.
So it’s deeply ironic that the words which served to hurl Milo’s star out of this vast and profitable firmament should have re-emerged from a podcast named Drunken Peasants where, for about five minutes, he spoke with a degree of authenticity that he has failed to demonstrate before and since.
Let me be clear before continuing: I don’t believe that we need to seek an “authentic” Milo. Milo Yiannopoulos is an authentic dirtbag whose views and work are hideous — whether or not he actually believes what he espouses or whether or not he is secretly, as some bizarrely keep insisting, “sweet” is completely irrelevant. He may well be a delightful dinner companion, but in the end what matters most in any summation of his career is that his words have caused often irrevocable harm and terror for potentially hundreds and thousands of people, a wide swath of the most vulnerable populations. He has deliberately incited the state’s violence against immigrants by calling for people to report the undocumented, and he has worsened an already precarious state of existence for trans people by insisting that they are murderers and predators, and that’s only naming two of the groups he has maligned. Milo deserves no sympathy and no generosity, and we should cheerfully hope that he will now rot in a hell of his own making. In using the word “authentic” here, I’m simply referring to the fact that his words were uttered with a degree of sincerity and historical context unseen at any other time.
So what did he say? It turns out that Milo was trying to explain, to a group of men behaving much like him on an average day — in short, men who demonstrated his brand of extreme and hyperbolic hyper-performativity — that issues around consent were not, as one of them put it, “cut and dry.” In agreeing with that statement, Milo waded into what he apparently did not foresee was the turgid swamp of fear and paranoia that surrounds adolescent and gay sexuality.
The laws about consent, he said, were “about right,” but “there are certainly people who are capable of giving consent at a younger age; I would certainly consider myself to be one of them. People who are sexually active younger. I think it particularly happens in the gay world by the way and in many cases actually — this is one of the many cases [sic] I hate the left: they’ve got this stupid one size fits policing of culture, this arbitrary and oppressive idea of of consent which totally destroys the understanding that many of us have of the complexities and subtleties and complicated nature of many relationships. People are messy and complex and, actually, in the homosexual world particularly some of those relationships, particularly between younger boys and older men, the sort of coming of age relationships, the relationships [in] which those older men help those younger men discover who they are and give them security and safety and provide them with love and a reliable a sort of a rock where they can’t speak to their parents.”
As most queers know, from lived experience and lived and recorded history, all of this is actually true (I’ve written about this here, for instance). But, hilariously, given his hatred of the left, it was this collection of men he must have assumed would be sympaticos who instantly turned upon him, and promptly described him as someone supporting molestation. Milo didn’t help matters, in their eyes, when he spoke about his experience with a “Father Michael,” apparently a priest with whom he had sexual relations: “And you know what? I’m grateful for Father Michael: I wouldn’t give nearly such good head if it wasn’t for him.”
As Nathan J. Robinson points out in his incisive essay in Current Affairs, “It’s absurd to say that he can’t make dark or crass jokes about his priest if it’s his way of dealing with what happened to him.” And it may well be that the event or events were in fact not traumatic for Milo — given his history of reinventing/lying, it will be impossible to know (he has recently insisted that he was in fact abused). But the joke did not go over well, and things have since blown up. Gone is the book contract, gone are the invitations to conservative events like CPAC, gone is his employment at Breitbart, and gone, more likely than not, is his easily inferred dream of becoming a permanent resident or citizen of the United States. In a fit of irony that has to have the Gods of Immigration Law laughing hysterically: It’s quite likely that Yiannopoulos, who has both Greek and British citizenship and who could only be here on a work visa through Breitbart, will soon be undocumented if someone else doesn’t employ him, making him, potentially, one of those on whom he, with such relish, wants people to call ICE.
The allegations surrounding Milo’s appearance are that he endorsed pedophilia. In fact, he said the exact opposite, correcting one of the white men on Peasants (there are about four besides him, and it’s hard to tell who’s speaking when) who stated that Milo was endorsing pedophilia: “No, no, no, you’re misunderstanding what pedophilia means. Pedophilia is not a sexual attraction to somebody 13 years old, who is sexually mature. Pedophilia is attraction to children who have not reached puberty. Pedophilia is attraction to people who don’t have functioning sex organs yet, who have not gone through puberty who are too young to be able to understand where their bodies [indistinct]. That is not what we’re talking about. You don’t understand what pedophilia is if you think I’m defending it, because I’m certainly not.”
Hoist, petard, sow, reap: all the clichés come to mind.
Milo insists that the media and several commentators on all sides have lied about what he said, and he’s absolutely right: they have. But he was brought down by a culture of lies and clickbaiting, a toxic combination — and one that he has been responsible for. Milo’s own words have been misread and hurled back at him, in a tactic that he, ironically, helped to create and has engaged in, on several occasions. On the Maher show, he stated, with no basis in fact (and Maher couldn’t be bothered to refute, check, and dispute) that trans people are “vastly disproportionately involved in sex crimes.”
Milo’s precipitous fall has left several quarters, conservative and progressive, with a sense of relief. And perhaps the most relieved are gay men and women in particular, who were nervous and affected several forms of outrage to insist that, no, absolutely not, gay men were not pedophiles, and went along with the misrepresentation of the facts. The Advocate’s Amanda Kerri, for instance, declared that Milo “defended not only pedophilia but priests abusing boys.”
But gay men are mistaken if they think this is the end of things.
What brought Milo down was not his queerness, which had always been flamboyantly on display and fetishised by the Right and the Left, but that he became, with the few short seconds of a video clip, irrevocably gay.
Let me explain what I mean.
Listen carefully to what he has to say, instead of the hysterical blather that misrepresents his words, and he’s actually right. It is true that, historically, relationships between older and younger gay men have been a part of gay and queer culture for as long as we can remember.
There’s nothing he said that’s inaccurate. In the case of young men, Milo is right to point out that the age of sexual awakening might well be as young as 13. Most of the reputed scientific and sociological literature agrees with this view, so it’s bizarre that gay men and lesbians, who are often hurled out of their homes as children and teens who express their sexual inclinations, should have joined the conservative bandwagon.
But the reason for this is of course obvious: he was talking about gay youth. The only way for culture to conceive of gay male sexuality with an older man is in terms of exploitation and molestation.
The truth is that sex undergirds nearly every aspect of queer life, in ways that few will talk about. Talk to young queers about life on the streets or, hell, talk to any adult who has survived being queer on the streets, and the stories you will hear are inevitably more complicated than the simpler heart-rending ones you hear in media stories. Sex, it turns out is, like, consent, complicated: it’s not just love in a committed relationship and it’s not just brutality in an impermanent one; even in the most idyllic states, it’s about power but also about comfort and shelter. In fact, the same is true of female sex workers and male clients, but in a time when we desire perfect victims with perfect heart-rending stories, the idea of agency is complicated and we would prefer to grant them none. In the narrative about queer youth homelessness (now a popular fundraising topic for otherwise moribund gay organisations), sex for trade and/or money is inevitably portrayed as a tragic fact. The reality is complex, and when pressed and out of the range of eager do-gooders trying to give them even inadequate shelter through official circles, adolescent and adult queers speak of their relationships with older queers and clients in more complicated ways and often with a degree of fondness.
Even more difficult to accept, especially in the straight world, is that sex — fucking itself — is part of the formation of gay (and queer) community. In the straight world, anonymous sex is seen as a stage in life, something you do and leave behind once you “mature” and marry. In the gay world, the truth rarely acknowledged, especially in the wake of gay marriage, is that married gay couples still engage in what can only be mildly described as open relationships and anonymous sex, even as “respectable” parents of adorable children. There’s a reason why Grindr was the template for Tinder and not the other way around.
As Robinson puts it, “You can learn a lot about society’s values and the allocation of power by examining what people get exiled for.” Milo was thrust out for providing a calm, rational, and evenly argued history of gay intergenerational sex.
Which brings me back to my point: Milo survived as long as he did because he performed a safe and assimilable form of queerness. He fell as hard as he did because he revealed, to a suspicious straight audience aided and abetted by a nervous gay community eager to regain its hard won mantle of respectability, that under all that playfulness was nothing but a gay man, a sexual predator waiting to emerge.
This is a reminder that “gay” in America has never actually shifted. Gay people can marry all they want, and adopt as many children from as many poor countries as they want, but at the end of the day, gay still means sexual predator and molester. Gay relief at the fact that Milo has now been disappeared from public view is short-lived. One major story of, say, gay men sexually abusing their children (hardly improbable, statistically speaking), and the entire and carefully wrought edifice of gay respectability will come tumbling down.
A better, more compassionate and intelligent political move would be for gay men and women to come out, as it were, publicly and say, “We condemn his politics in all other matters, but that’s not what he said. Putting Milo aside, this is a massively complicated issue worth discussing.” This could become the start of gays and lesbians finally explaining rather than constantly hiding the history of intergenerational sexuality.
But while this makes more sense, it’s unlikely to happen in a political and cultural climate where even the purported left is too terrified to speak out on such matters.
Queer is flamboyant and fun, and Milo was all that, queer cover for the worst politics. But gay is different. In the public eye, “gay” has always been a dark space, needing the light of respectability to help it survive. Milo’s downfall came about because, for a few minutes he no doubt wishes he could take back, he stopped being queer and fabulous, and was simply gay.
With many, many thanks to Eli Massey, Gautham Reddy, Richard Hoffman Reinhardt, and Matt Simonette for their feedback and edits.
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