Assimilationists of a FeatherRoundup
tags: gay rights, queer history, popular culture, LGBTQ history, Pete Buttigieg
Elliot Friar is a writer from Maine, currently based in Brooklyn, New York.
Travis LaCouter is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford.
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.
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.
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