He’s a crude provocateur whose racism, sexism, misogyny, and other reactionary ideas disgust me to no end. Yet as a queer writer who generally believes the absolute opposite of Milo Yiannopoulos on most issues I can only offer a robust defense of him.
The first reason is plain decency. After his now infamous appearance on the Bill Maher show, Republican smear merchants trotted out a video of Yiannopoulos expressing jesting glee for an alleged instance of sex with an older man when he was a minor child, a discussion that apparently led him to say consent laws should be reduced to the age of thirteen.
To be absolutely clear, I find that idea irresponsible and mistaken. Youths should only engage in sexual activity with members of their same age cohort and any claim to the contrary is bothersome to my way of thinking.
At the same time, the Republicans who brought forward these charges against Yiannopoulos are hardly proponents of child welfare. In fact, they are the very agents of the profound social trauma that young people in America are experiencing today.
Here in Providence thousands are on edge because their undocumented parents could be deported at any moment by a federal government that has embraced a bizarre form of reactionary nativism. Countless more face daily condemnation for being LGBTQQI from the same Republican Party that claims, in Milo’s case, to have children’s welfare foremost in mind. The fact that liberal and progressive Democrats jumped onto this bandwagon reveals them to be total political opportunists.
This sort of discussion is not new. During the AIDS crisis, Harry Hay, the founder of the first gay men’s organization, the Mattachine Society, defended the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). While he never was a member of NAMBLA, he was disgusted by assimilationist strands in gay politics that hemmed ever-rightward in order to curry favor with homophobic politicians and, as part of that strategy, attacked NAMBLA.
When I interviewed Sally Hay, the niece that cared for Harry in his final years, we found that we both adamantly disagreed with Harry about consent laws. But the debate about elder gay men “mentoring” the young dates back to Plato and The Symposium, where Athenians gathered to discuss the meaning of eros and agape wine and dine with dainty teenagers. In a curious way, Milo’s fall is not just an attack on a raunchy, disgusting bigot, it is an attack on queerness itself.
The second reason for my defense is purely tactical. Sure, Yiannopoulos strikes me as a strange crossbreed of Boy George and Roy Cohn but he and other queer Republicans can only be openly gay in America (and married if desired) because of the blood, sweat, and tears of black and brown LGBTQQI martyrs. The best illustration of this was rendered in Tony Kushner’s epic gay fantasia on national themes, Angels in America, where Roy Cohn discusses his sexual orientation with the physician who has just diagnosed him with HIV/AIDS but refuses to identify as a homosexual because the community does not have “clout.”
The first openly gay candidate for elected office in America, José Julio Sarria, was a Latinx drag queen that performed his famous rendition of the opera Carmen while serving drinks at San Francisco’s Black Cat Bar, a bohemian hangout patronized by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and John Steinbeck. The Stonewall riots were begun by another drag performer and trans woman of color named Marsha P. Johnson. Both Sarria and Johnson were part of the cornerstone that defined the political ascent of Harvey Milk — the first openly gay elected official in California, when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — and the eventual birth of a wider gay electoral political action in America.
Furthermore, while film director Gus Van Sant would have viewers believe Milk was killed by a confused, potentially bisexual Dan White, who was frightened by his same sex attractions, the reality is quite different. Throughout his political career, Milk defined himself as a New Dealer, at one point saying during an interview that his politics were akin to Adlai Stevenson.
Milk was often at loggerheads with corporate Democrats like former San Francisco mayor (and later senator) Dianne Feinstein. He worked to build a broad united front of rank and file union members, LGBTQQI people, seniors, Asians, and other minority groups in San Francisco. By contrast, the base of Dan White, the city supervisor who killed Milk, was a mix of conservative white voters and powerful real estate and financial interests that were looking to gentrify the city and regain the clout they had lost to popular democracy.
One could argue that Milk was a foe of encroaching urban neoliberalism in California and that he was killed for it. His proud to be gay electoral politics were part of a bigger project that opposed the very contours of the political system that emerged in the 1970s and now defines our society.
What’s so interesting now is how Bill Maher continues to defend giving Yiannopoulos a public platform for his chauvinistic views. Consider Maher’s comments in a recent interview:
Q: When he said that transgender people have a “psychiatric disorder,” do you just move on from that?
A: Move on? It dominated the entire [online] segment. The other guests attacked him. When I say, “That’s not unreasonable” [to not want to share a bathroom with a transgender person] it’s because women have said that to me: “I want to know,” or “I’m not comfortable with someone in the bathroom, even if they, in their minds, have decided they are a woman.” Doesn’t that opinion count at all?
Q: But you don’t agree that transgender people have a psychiatric disorder.
A: No, I don’t agree with that. But I don’t know that much about the situation. If somebody feels like they’re a woman, fine, then you’re a woman. I’m O.K. with that. If they’ve studied that, and they say it’s not a psychiatric disorder, I’m O.K. with that too. If that’s what scientists decided, that it’s not any psychological disorder, it’s fine with me.
The blatant apathy towards trans issues borders on outright loathing, especially in light of statistics about trans homelessness and violence against them. And it further reveals the real tragedy of Milo’s downfall, namely that his ghastly ideas have been left unchallenged. I can easily envision him soon using this entire episode to stage a comeback.
If I had been given the opportunity to debate Milo as a queer writer like him, I would have noted the glaring contradictions surrounding his public persona. While he said on Maher’s show that he is Jewish owing to his maternal grandmother, he is in fact a practicing Catholic and previously has espoused a set of beliefs about his own sexuality that can only be described as self-loathing.
Some of his statements read as if they were taken verbatim from the mouths of Jesse Helms, Pat Buchanan, and Cardinal O’Connor at the height of the AIDS crisis. One is forced to ask whether his over-the-top homosexual persona, wed to a blatantly racist objectification of his African boyfriends, is nothing more than a clever and wicked ruse to further poison the gay body politic with conservative politics.
The community has already slid quite far to the right, as exemplified by its praise for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy for a few lines in his opinion legalizing gay marriage while ignoring decades of his anti-worker opinions. Could Milo be nothing more than a stage character whose identity politics fail to recognize class, in both senses of that word? Or perhaps as an antithesis, is it possible that he could move towards a genuine liberationary gay politics? Could he be changed from an heir of Roy Cohn to a successor of Harry Hay?
Those are question that liberals like Bill Maher will never ask.