Space to Perform: Milo Yiannopoulos, Gender Performance, and Trans-Critical Feminism

This past week, the white male sector of the internet finally discovered who Milo Yiannopoulos is. Or rather, they finally realized that taking a position in favor of him may actually cost them their professional reputation—a fairly ironic move considering so many marginalized people had been warning folks about Yiannopoulos’ harmful and dangerous viewpoints for literally years.

For those readers who may not know who he is, a brief primer: Milo Yiannopoulos is a British gay man who has made a name for himself in American conservatism. He is an editor at Breitbart (and allegedly had a team of 40+ interns who write his work for him). He has become a lightning rod for the “free speech even for despicable speech!” crowd, a symbol of that argument that you should be able to say anything and everything because Free Speech. In this vein, Milo himself frequently claims that people should not take him seriously, that he simply is working to test how far those snowflake liberals will go to be offended. He made his name by jumping into GamerGate and declaring feminists are authoritarian bullies, and he has since reveled in declarations of anti-black, anti-trans, misogynistic provocation.

In particular, Yiannopoulos delights in both playing up his sexuality as a gay man, and downplaying it in ways that indicate he is uncomfortable with his sexuality. He has commented in the past that if he could choose to be heterosexual, he would. He seems to believe, in part, that his sexuality is legitimate, but also that it is an aberration and one in which people should not necessarily take pride.

That contradictory position, however, does not seem to impact how Yiannopoulos chooses to present himself to the public. Indeed, as someone who allegedly believes in strict gendered roles, he seems not to examine very closely what gendered performance means (I say allegedly because his belief seems to fall more on that women are inherently inferior scale, rather than the complementarian idea that men and women have strict roles to play).

This is where a lot of different elements collide, including media analysis/portrayal, and a lot of feminist theory and our basic conceptions of gender as a performative social construct.

But first, why we’re talking about this man in the first place: this last Friday, Yiannopoulos was a guest on Real Time with Bill Maher—a booking that caused at least one other panelist to abdicate their position on the panel. On Saturday, the huge conservative voters conference, CPAC, announced Yiannopoulos as a keynote speaker. And on Sunday, videos from Yiannopoulos’ past got wide recirculation, specifically because he advocated for the normalizing of pedophiliac relationships between 13-year-old boys and older men. As of this writing, CPAC has been pressured into dropping Yiannopoulos as a speaker, and his publisher, Simon and Schuster, have canceled his book deal.

But in the weeks before this, Yiannopoulos had already been making headlines on his “Dangerous F*ggot” tour of college campuses, thanks in large part to the massive protests that erupted at nearly all his tour stops. These protests were designed to shut Yiannopoulos down, as he used his platform to out a transgender woman, and, had he not been canceled at Berekley, to offer a training session on reporting undocumented immigrants to ICE.

Yiannopoulos, as one could suspect, views himself as the victim in all this—the victim of a vociferous leftist movement to suppress speech with which they disagree. His delight in offending people—his trolling—is essentially harmless, he argues, and protected speech regardless. It is important to note that he argues this in America, as his native Britain has laws punishing verbal abuse and hate speech while the United States is still catching up on that front.

But, I would argue, it is just as frustrating and baffling to examine how Yiannopoulos presents himself while he is engaging in hateful and dangerous speech. Many who are just learning about Yiannopoulos may have a very mistaken idea of what he looks like, as most media outlets use images that present him in a traditionally masculine light: in a suit, wearing sunglasses and a tie (see gallery below).

This image of Yiannopoulos is 1. Old, and 2. An inaccurate representation of how Yiannopoulos chooses to present himself when given the opportunity to play with his performed gender.

In one stop on his most recent tour, for example, Yiannopoulos came out on stage in full drag. In his appearance on Bill Maher, he wore several pearl necklaces and bracelets and what appeared to be a woman’s cardigan. In a photo shoot for a profile in OUT magazine, he once again appears dressed as a woman, wrapping himself in the flag as though it’s a strapless dress.

His penchant for costumes that lean feminine is not a mistake: he is deliberately presenting himself in supposedly outrageous ways to provoke a conservative audience into thinking they’re edgy for liking an unabashed racist and misogynist just because he’s dressed in drag.

Yiannopoulos costumed presentation is hypocritical. The very thing that makes it possible for him to present as effeminate and wearing women's clothing is the very thing that gives space for the transgender people he so deeply hates. During his time on Real Time with Bill Maher this past week, he used his platform to accuse transgender women of being men dressed like women in order to assault people in bathrooms (this is a common trope raised against trans inclusion. It is false.). Additionally, during his visit to the U of Wisconsin, he singled out and dead-named a transgender student—who happened to be in the audience at his show.

In nicer parlance, he may be called ‘trans-critical.’ In regular parlance, he’s transphobic. Yiannopoulos critiques of transgender people are actually rebutted by his own costuming choices and decisions in how he presents his gender. The very same theory that gives us theoretical understandings of transgender identity is the very same theory that gives Yiannopoulos the room to show up to an event in drag and have that be accepted as part of his presentation. Though Yiannopoulos’ costuming is deliberately positioned to provoke, his assertion of it as part of his “fashion,” as part of his expression of himself is made possible by the very feminism he despises.

Feminist theory of the twentieth century, particularly the theory presented by Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler, positions gender as a performative part of human expression. We perform femininity or masculinity depending on any number of social cues and pressures. This realization of gender as a social performance and therefore as a construct that nonetheless affects daily life, decouples gender from biology and places it within the sphere of socialization and performance.

To be clear, the advent of such theory did not create transgender identity, but rather created theoretical room for understanding it within the academy. The theory acts as a method of explanation, not of creation.

Still, academic feminist theory is a great interpretative lens for understanding what gender looks like in modern society, and helpfully gives us ways to interpret femme and butch and other gender expressions that otherwise cross boundaries between the feminine and the masculine. The understanding of Yiannopoulos coding as a gay man who plays with and defies gender stereotypes in his expression of himself is only possible through the lens of feminist theory. Indeed, the feminism he so despises is what enables him to move through the world wearing pearls and a blouse. (And if he thinks dressing like a woman is somehow a provocative or offensive gesture toward liberals, he has sorely misunderstood much of what the progressive left stands for).

Widening this lens out for a moment, this inherent performativity of gender that allows Milo the room to play with gender presentation is the very same undoing of Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists. TERFs, as they are frequently called, believe that transgender identity—particularly transgender women—are tools of the patriarchy because they are men attempting to infiltrate feminine ranks. TERFs attack trans women as enforcing a feminine/femme idea of Woman, as most of our popular images of transgender women feature those who are overtly feminine in their presentation.

TERFs also tend toward the position that feminists must reject feminine gender presentation as participation in male oppression, and therefore the wearing of things like nail polish, high heels, or make up are viewed as betraying the feminist cause (see racialized versions of this in critiques of Serena Williams’ swimsuit photo shoot and the like).

Again, feminist theory provides for a trans-inclusive position on gender performativity. While many of the femme-coded symbols in American culture are part and parcel of patriarchal history, many have also become vital performance pieces in our everyday expressions of who we are as people. We do not have to de facto reject the feminine because it has been used as oppressive, just as we do not have to de facto reject the term “queer” because it was once used as a slur. Reclamation is possible.

It may seem like this is a futile exercise: Milo is such a despicable personality that examining his sexuality and gender presentation feel beside the point. And to some extent, that's true: Milo's gender presentation does not erase his reprehensible viewpoint and ideas from the world, and there's plenty of reason to reject him without delving into gender.

But, I write this work not just to connect Milo to larger movements of trans-critical/trans-exclusive feminism, but also to point to the hypocrisy and purposeful dig at trans people that his gender presentation suggests. Solidarity within the LGBT community means recognizing ways in which white gay men betray their trans family. You cannot use queer theory to create yourself, and then reject it when others do the same.

We are not rid of Yiannopoulos. Not by a long shot. But recognizing his actions here can arm us for the next battle. We in the LGBT community—especially in America—owe many of our rights to the work of transgender women of color. And we're not about to let some cis gay dude in a pearl necklace take that away.