Almost a month has passed since allegations by numerous actresses against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein prompted a worldwide discussion about sexually exploitative behaviour. Under the banner of #MeToo, victims have reclaimed a small fraction of the power that was stolen from them. Barely a day has passed without a man in a position of influence being forced to release an apologetic statement.
But Hollywood isn’t finished quite yet. The actor Anthony Rapp has alleged that in 1986, when he was a 14-year-old child actor, House of Cards actor Kevin Spacey, then 26, made unwanted advances towards him at a party, including pressing himself on top of him on a bed.
Spacey, who is renowned for refusing to answer questions relating to his sexuality and private life, quickly responded to the allegations on social media. He claimed not to remember the encounter, but offered Rapp his “sincerest apologies” if he had behaved that way. Spacey went on to address the “stories that are out there” about him, explaining that he has enjoyed relationships with both men and women throughout his life. He then stated publicly for the first time: “I choose now to live as a gay man”.
There is a lot to unpack here. Firstly, and most importantly, there is the response to Rapp’s allegation. The behaviour described isn’t just “inappropriate” – the allegation is that Spacey made sexual advances on a boy below the age of consent. Alcohol is absolutely never an excuse for sexually predatory behaviour.
Next, there’s Spacey’s use of the word “choose”. As I’m sure Spacey of all people knows, being gay is not a choice. Insinuating otherwise only plays into the hands of people who oppose LGBT+ rights.
Finally is Spacey’s decision to come out of the closet publicly at the same time as addressing allegations of sexual misconduct with an underage teenager. Whatever his intentions, this move has been met with outrage, particularly from within the LGBT+ community.
To understand the reaction, it is important to appreciate the significance of “coming out” in queer culture. It can be life-defining – there’s nothing quite like the moment when you realise friends and family still love you, no matter who you fancy. Exploiting such a precious moment seems wrong.
The concept of “the closet”, though, presents its own challenges. Just because someone isn’t “out” publicly, it doesn’t mean that they are any less queer than a person who is. Yet the closet, an easy-to-understand binary created by the heterosexual majority, forces us to look to straight people to validate our existence.
The closet has also long been used to create atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust. Gay men in particular have traditionally been painted as sexually deviant and predatory. This still goes on. Campaigners against same-sex marriage in Ireland frequently tried to create a link between paedophilia and gay people. Most recently, in Australia, a leaflet entitled “Stop the fags” falsely claimed that 90 per cent of children raised by same-sex couples are abused. In homophobic countries like Russia, there is virtually no distinction between public understanding of paedophilia and homosexuality. Similarly, throughout the Caribbean and parts of Africa, evangelical faith leaders use this message to incite hatred and violence against LGBT+ people. In choosing this moment to announce that he is gay, Spacey is (perhaps unintentionally) reinforcing this narrative.
In the UK and the US, public perception of gay people has changed dramatically since 1986, the year the incident between Spacey and Rapp took place. Young people like me, who now enjoy extended rights and freedoms, owe this to generations of queer people who fought for our rights. But although the big fights like Section 28 and gay adoption are behind us, LGBT+ individuals face smaller battles every day.
Every time we come out to someone, or are outed against our will, we have to ready ourselves to change hearts and minds by challenging the pre-conceived notions of what we are. Some gay men lower our voices or dress differently in certain social situations,for example, all to prove that we’re not like the stereotypes.
Throughout his years in the closet, Spacey avoided these daily battles. Yet I’m not particularly fussed that he has come out late in life, or by his past denials. The closet is a lonely place, and everyone has their own journey.
But just like his alleged behaviour towards Anthony Rapp, the way that Spacey has revealed his sexuality is unforgivable. His statement promotes a dangerous myth that generations of LGBT+ people have worked tirelessly to shatter.