Pop Tart spokesperson Jonathan Van Ness. | YouTube

Assimilationists of a Feather

Old politics lurk underneath chic new packaging

Pop Tart spokesperson Jonathan Van Ness. | YouTube
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Recounting the post-Stonewall history of gay liberation for the Monthly Review in 2001, Benjamin Shepard wrote of a decisive split between the assimilationists and the queers: it was the divide, in short, between those “who thought the only thing wrong with American society [was] that [it] excluded gays,” and those who believed that homophobia was but a single symptom of the broader capitalist system of institutionalized racism, sexism, and imperialism. The assimilationists—typically white, urban, and upper-middle-class—were content with an incrementalist pursuit of civil rights. They blended into mainstream American life, dressing conservatively and voting Democrat (except when they didn’t). This group, call them the “Old A-Gays,” sought respectability above all else, and often looked down upon their queer brothers, who for their part dressed more conspicuously, fucked more promiscuously, and preferred more radical politics. For them, genuine liberation—not just for gays but for everyone—required tearing down the whole rotten edifice.

For a long time, the split was easy enough to detect, but with particular rapidity after the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, the cultural signifiers distinguishing the radicals from the assimilationists have begun to blur. Enter the “New A-Gays,” who adopt the aesthetic of radical queers but nevertheless practice a highly individualized form of identity politics. Much like their khaki-clad forebears, the New A-Gays’ fantasies are circumscribed by the dominating structures of capital and commodity culture; they, too, would like a seat at the table of power, with only a few superficial adjustments to the guest list and table setting. In this age of pink capitalism, the radical/assimilationist divide persists—only the packaging has changed, allowing for material benefits to accrue to companies, influencers, politicians, and hangers-on who signal (a certain sort of) cosmetic queerness.

The New A-Gays’ fantasies are circumscribed by the dominating structures of capital and commodity culture; they, too, would like a seat at the table.

Shepard’s distinction between “the suits and the sluts” still explains a lot, though. The (temporarily) thwarted ambitions of Pete Buttigieg, for instance, were modeled obsessively on the old assimilationist strategy. America’s first openly gay presidential candidate may have offered no distinctive policy ideas or, despite the strained comparisons to Obama, any discernible degree of charisma—but he sure did have a squeaky-clean image. As a young man, he seized on his God-given right to pick up arms in defense of our decaying empire. As a candidate, he conspicuously denounced the “revolutionary politics of the 1960s” (a politics that, as many noted, made his candidacy possible). He was even petty enough to cancel a fundraiser at a Rhode Island gay bar after the owners declined to remove a dance pole from the space. Buttigieg embodied what Greta LaFleur described as “heterosexuality without women,” and he was rewarded for it with fawning media coverage and an outsized role in a race crowded with other tedious moderates.

Even the New A-Gays saw this craven gambit for what it was and called foul: “Mayo Pete” didn’t represent gay liberation, they insisted. And they were right—Buttigieg is obviously a corporate hack, an eerie simulacrum of a human politician born in a focus group and sustained only by his graceless craze for power. By his own admission he has little interest in the intersectional, emancipatory politics of Stonewall. But it requires no great insight to see this. The more difficult question is whether or not those very online, millennial gay men who (rightly!) denounced Buttigieg as “not gay enough” are the liberationists’ true heirs, especially since they so often do invoke the legacy of Stonewall, queer counterculture, and socialist rhetoric. It’s precisely this kind of political drag that enthralls our New A-Gays, who build their brands through performative self-disclosure and relentless virtue-signaling but so often renounce more radical demands.

Consider some examples. In 2018, Netflix resurrected Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a frightful piece of early-aughts pop culture premised on the idea that gay men could make themselves useful by doing the things straight people always assumed gay men did well: dressing, decorating, and emoting. The show’s ostensible queer eye was thus anything but; this power hour of consumerism merely put “gay style expertise to work to reform a heterosexual masculinity compatible with neoliberalism,” as Katherine Sender wrote in 2006. So when Netflix unveiled Queer Eye, the show made sure we knew it knew how much things had changed: the new “Fab Five” made over a trans man and a Trump supporter, and they (gently) called out the offensive language of the straight men on the show. The formula was a huge success, earning the show’s five leads the largest social-media boosts of any Netflix talent in 2018—particularly “grooming expert”/Pop Tart spokesperson Jonathan Van Ness (or “JVN” as they’re known to their nearly five million Instagram followers). 

But old politics lurk underneath the chic new packaging. One year into Trump’s presidency, the Fab Five turned their withering gaze on Bernie Sanders. Karamo Brown, the show’s “culture” coach, was adamant: “I am not about this, that hair, that suit, and quietly, not about them politics—Hillary all the way.” JVN agreed: “I do actually feel exactly the same way,” they said, before also deriding Sanders’s hair and clothes. Then, in a bizarre comparison, Van Ness, who is HIV-positive, invoked the Republican president whose administration’s response to the AIDS crisis was a hearty chuckle: “And, Ronald Reagan, could he be bothered to mention HIV/AIDS? No, but he could be bothered to put some gel in his hair, and I just feel like that is a thing.” 

While Van Ness later claimed they were joking, the incident nonetheless suggests the New A-Gays view politics as an impressionistic undertaking, one in which voting is an emotional/aesthetic affirmation rather than a concrete strategic action; strategy comes after style, if at all. This anemic vision of politics downplays notions of solidarity, since it’s driven by an affective individualism swayed more by the fact that Bernie Sanders wears frumpy suits than by the fact that his is the only health care plan that eliminates out of pocket costs for life-saving drugs, such as those Van Ness depends upon to manage their viral load.

Politics-as-aesthetics doesn’t just suffer from blind spots; it generates unnecessary and counterproductive antagonisms that fracture the movement along class lines. For example, JVN recently became involved in a minor but revealing Twitter spat involving Ben Mora, a low-level field organizer for the Sanders campaign who moonlights as a shitposter among the gay contingent of the “dirtbag left.” Mora had skewered JVN’s Reagan reminiscence via a locked Twitter account, which a tabloid reporter gleefully documented, publicized, and denounced as “toxic.” Van Ness and a slew of civility-minded gays piled on, and Mora was quickly fired from Sanders’s campaign. That Mora was posting privately to his friends, lost an organizing job advancing a progressive agenda, and was reduced to collecting Venmo donations to pay rent—none of this gave pause to the high-powered A-Gays who condemned him. The fact that Van Ness was allowed to appeal to humor to explain away their original comments (“If I didn’t make jokes . . . I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning”), while the same excuse proved useless for the working-class Mora, shows which gay personalities the market protects: those who wield “clout” and adhere to the profit-minded contours of pink capitalism. 

To acquire such clout today, New A-Gays are presented with the awkward task of reconciling their ascendant class status with a radical queer aesthetic that implies abnormality and marginality. The solution to this conundrum has typically been to impress the importance of “visibility” above all else within the broader capitalist landscape. Not only does this strategy require elevating some gay voices over others (as the Mora controversy suggests), but, as Rosemary Hennessy warned over twenty years ago, “visibility in commodity culture . . . is a limited victory,” since liberation from capital’s driving logic remains deferred in favor of the homosexual subject’s recognition as a “consumer subject.” Witness here not just the Fab Five but the person whose job it currently is to dream up the next JVN: Fran Tirado, self-described expert on “all things queer” and gatekeeper for LGBTQ+ strategy and content at Netflix. But the “queer” media Netflix and other content mills churn out is decadent and derivative: Trixie and Katya watch Netflix; the Cock Destroyers teach sex-ed and watch Netflix; the stars of Cheer . . . watch Netflix. Queer messaging of this ilk only reinforces the broader logic of the market, producing a tidy feedback loop of consumption.

The New A-Gays view politics as an impressionistic undertaking, one in which voting is an emotional/aesthetic affirmation rather than a concrete strategic action.

To be clear, we’re not interested in “cancelling” JVN, Tirado, or any of the other New A-Gays who currently dominate our timelines. Hell, we love dangly earrings! But when capitalist media systems elevate certain individuals based solely on their public performance of queerness, and when these same individuals then use their position to perpetuate the prevailing patterns of production and consumption, we have to ask, cui bono? If the radical queer project is about anything, it’s about resisting the system of commodification that underwrites so many other forms of domination. It is this system and its logic that governs our bodies, poisons our planet, and imperils our collective future. In our struggle against it, there are enemies, there are allies, and there are comrades. A comrade, as Jodi Dean argues, is someone on the same side of a given political struggle who can appeal to a common cause when debating tactics. If the New A-Gays are our comrades, they would do well to consider how their complicity with the economies of social capital and commodity production subverts the overall struggle against those very same systems. They might consider that fighting for “visibility” isn’t an effective strategy when it requires validating the market’s authority to determine who gets to be seen and who doesn’t. 

If, however, the New A-Gays are content merely “navigating the neoliberal environment of privilege and oppression,” rather than dismantling it, then they are what Dean calls allies. Allies are often useful, but they can only be counted on for so much, since they perceive affect as a form of action and politics as the realm of “individual conviction and choice.” But if the New A-Gays persist in naturalizing a system that is premised on our collective exploitation and marginalization, then they are not even allies but enemies. We do not welcome this possibility, and yet if the history of gay liberation has taught us anything, it’s that assimilationism is one hell of a drug.

Elliot Friar is a writer from Maine, currently based in Brooklyn, New York.

Travis LaCouter is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford.

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