Why Grifters Return to God
Milo Yiannopoulos’ latest con is also a confession that there is no place for queerness in the conservative movement.
Earlier this month conservative activist-in-exile Milo Yiannopoulos announced in an interview with a Christian news site that he no longer identifies as gay and plans to rehabilitate conversion therapy, the debunked practice of “curing” same-sex attraction, by opening a conversion facility in Florida.
The announcement was met with much-deserved derision as Yiannopoulos is a notorious alt-right internet troll and provocateur, having lead the racist online harassment campaign against Black actress Leslie Jones that ended with him getting banned from Twitter. He also made a name for himself touring college campuses to give intentionally incendiary speeches against feminism and antiracism. On one such occasion at the University of California at Berkeley, an organized demonstration against his visit ended in violence. But the shock-jock routine finally caught up with Yiannopoulos in 2017 when videos surfaced of him defending adult men having sexual relationships with underage boys. To make matters worse, Yiannopoulos specifically rejected the idea that such relationships are abusive, claiming that he consented to sex with a priest when he was a teenaged boy.
Yiannopoulos’ endorsement of pedophilia was a bridge too far even for the more ludicrous free speech defenders on the right. He lost a book deal with Simon & Schuster, an invitation to speak at CPAC, and his staff position with the right-wing news site Breitbart. Now, in renouncing his queerness and embracing a widely discredited cure for same-sex attraction, Yiannopoulos hopes to regain his status in the conservative media world — and he’s notably relying on the religious right, not Trumpism or its conspiracist corollaries, to get him there.
As I wrote back in 2017 following the UC-Berkeley campus demonstrations, Yiannopoulos’ entrance into the mainstream of conservative politics reflected an increasingly secularized approach to social conservative activism, as activists began to speak in the language of rights rather than religion to defend harmful policies and hate speech against marginalized groups. This shift was not just about making social conservatism more palatable to the mainstream — it also reflected the cultural anxieties of those with privilege who were not necessarily conservative. The present-day panic over trans female athletes competing in sports alongside cis female athletes has crossover appeal in part because conservatives frame their opposition to trans female athletes in the language of feminist empowerment — that is to say, girls shouldn’t have to face unfair competition from boys in sports designed for them.
Secularizing their causes might have been the best way for conservatives to combat the left on Twitter or cable TV, but Yiannopoulos’ latest con is also a confession that there is no place for queerness in the conservative movement because white patriarchal Christianity is its unifying cause.
Much was made of Donald Trump’s seemingly moderate attitudes on LGBT rights when he ran for president in 2016. In a sharp break from past Republican nominees, Trump specifically mentioned his support for the LGBT community in his RNC acceptance speech, and would often attack his opponent, Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton, on the basis that her support of immigration and internationalism aligned Americans with anti-gay societies. But once in office, Trump quickly pivoted to division, pitting gays and lesbians against trans people by joining the chorus of conservatives panicking over which bathrooms trans people use. Whatever coalition Trump thought he could form by moderating on LGBT issues during his 2016 campaign was no match for the support of evangelical Christians who saw their cause in his own and would therefore defend him against anything, including sexual assault.
Yiannopoulos is looking for the same kind of support in his latest attempt to return to relevance — and to make some money along the way. “This has been the easiest thing to raise money for that I’ve ever done,” Yiannopoulos told the New York Post following his announcement that he wants to make conversion therapy cool again. “There is an enormous demand for this among people who believe they’ve been led astray by…the gay establishment.”
In his fall from conservative stardom, Yiannopoulos learned that his brand of subversive queerness — embracing the worst stereotypes and fears about gay men in order to troll the left — was not that important to the conservative movement he once monopolized with his antics. Evangelicals still hold veto power over who gets to be a conservative, and like Trump, Yiannopoulos is falling in line.