For a while, the future of tech-reviewer turned alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was as bright as his roots were dark. Through his editorial post at Breitbart News, he had cultivated a sizable audience, scored a controversial book deal, indulged in unsettling photo spreads that tagged him a “burgeoning cultural icon,” and recently attracted Richard Spencer levels of public hostility, the promise of his presence inspiring violent protests at University of California, Berkeley; University of California, Davis; and University of Washington during his “Dangerous [Expletive]” tour.
“Milo’s previous tour, which took place in the spring and summer, grabbed headlines across the country as panicked social justice warriors threw tantrums, stormed stages, and held therapy sessions,” crowed a post on Breitbart.com announcing the tour, “all because they couldn’t handle the Dangerous [ahem].”
You can now add Breitbart to the list of panicked warriors unable to handle the palmful of fizzy water that is Yiannopoulos. On a 2016 episode of “The Drunken Peasants” podcast that began recirculating around the Internet over the past week, Yiannopoulos is heard defending relationships between “older men” and “younger boys” in a conversation that, contextually, seemed centered around discussion of 13-year-olds, but which Yiannopoulos would later attempt to clarify, was in reference to his own “relationship” at 17 with a 29-year old. The clip spread like fire, and the Yiannopocalypse was upon us.
In addition to losing his keynote speaking spot at the Conservative Political Action Conference and his book deal from Simon & Schuster, Yiannopoulos resigned from Breitbart in a decision that was “mine alone," according to a statement he sullenly recited at a press conference. Former allies like white nationalist punching bag Spencer disavowed him, and the alt-right superstructure summarily spat him out.
Meanwhile, the rest of gay America went back to whatever it was reading or whatever congressional representative it was calling.
In some ways, Yiannopoulos’s graduation from slightly sassy tech wonk to hypersassy political pundit made little sense. As political perspectives go, his had (oops there I go with the past tense again) all the nuance and depth of a squash court — not much more than a flat surface meant for rebounding other people’s energy in predictable directions: Black Lives Matter is a hate group; trans women are confused men; you’re the racist.
In a defensive apology video posted to (and deleted from) Facebook and at last Tuesday’s press appearance, Yiannopoulos seemed to toggle erratically between identifying as a journalist (who exposes child abusers!) and a performer (who should be allowed to make child abuse jokes!) and struggled publicly to process the discrete expectations of either role. Most significantly, and perhaps for the first time, he identified himself as his sworn foe: a victim.
Specifically, he identified as a victim (twice over) of sexual abuse as a teenager at the hands of older men. This, he offered, is why he so grossly misjudged his own approach to the subject in his signature “sassy gay British” way. Ultimately and swiftly, this revelation was employed as leverage for a head-scratching self-defense: “To be a victim of child abuse, and at the same time be accused of being an apologist for child abuse, is absurd.”
That’s actually exactly what he did. (And to mistake the absurd for the impossible is far more “dangerous” than any of Yiannopoulos’s more conscious utterances.)
More significantly, though, Yiannopoulos unwittingly identified himself as a victim of the alt-right, and really, conservatism at large, for whom he was as useful as a queen on a chess board — able to move freely and take down anyone, as long as she remained on the game board.
Employing Yiannopoulos as a hot young mouthpiece for its tired old bigotry not only provided the alt-right with a human (read: gay) shield and a willing mascot for the happy home the right promises to free-thinking LGB folks (omissions intentional), he gave the movement a way to thrust beyond “alt-” and into the more ostensibly “dangerous” quarters of “queer.”
Careful, he might say the F-word! (The other one.)
Inviting Yiannopoulos to the party lent the alt-right some desperately needed edge that, without him, tapered off drastically like Spencer’s haircut. This extra dose of mall cred gave the movement confidence enough to osmose some gay, throw on some leather and pearls, and consider itself fierce. It’s a tried and true technique that sometimes works. (It once rescued an entire cable network from James Lipton’s dungeon, for instance.) Yiannopoulos let the alt-right pat its own back and enjoy the implicit assurance that its over-the-top militarized masculinity was somehow not at odds with the outsider cool to which it daily aspires. It was probably awesome for a while.
But once Yiannopoulos stepped beyond the line (which, finally, we seem to have located) he was cast off with telling ease by the very movement that nurtured his nasal voice in the first place.
Milo Yiannopoulos let the alt-right pat its own back and enjoy the implicit assurance that its over-the-top militarized masculinity was somehow not at odds with the outsider cool to which it daily aspires.
Yes, his comments were offensive, flip, disturbing, clumsy, wrong — but more importantly, they signaled an outside-the-lines view of sexuality that freaked the right right out. Yiannopoulos was wrong to let his discussion of intergenerational relationships edge past clearly marked legal lines (and unwise to channel his own abuse into anecdote), but he wasn’t wrong that many gay men start out with men who double as mentors. (Raises hand. Hi, W. Call me. Or get e-mail, already.)
But no explanation could wave away the ick factor that plagues the right’s engagement with queer folks from every part of the acronym. Put in the position of weathering the ugly individual truths of its once Sassy Gay Friend, the alt-right said no thank you. But you can almost imagine the classified ad they’re drafting:
“Curious fringe movement seeks safe/sane/masc GM for exploration, possible relationship. No freaks/femmes.”
Some stereotypes are true: Most gays, for instance, harbor some treasured nostalgic niche of specialty — be it ’70s Pyrex patterns, or ’80s sitcom moms, or ’90s shoegaze bands. So I don’t doubt that gays young enough to come of age in an America blessed with protease inhibitors might be more easily seduced into empty simulations of Reagan-era conservatism than their older counterparts — perhaps as a kind of intellectual cosplay. Sometimes romanticizing abuse is a way of dealing with it.
Perhaps the real lesson of the Yiannopoulos debacle is that, angular haircuts and hunger for edge aside, the alt-right can never truly be queered. Yes, you can come to the party; yes, you can say all sorts of crazy stuff; yes, you can be rude and celebrated for it; but no, you can't crash here. It’s just not that into you.
But how could any self-respecting gay feel at home in the alt-right, anyway? It’s an empty bar — all counter and no culture.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.