Another facet to the sexual abuse and harassment scandal sweeping through the entertainment industry (and beyond) emerged recently in a BuzzFeed article. The piece contained allegations from the openly gay actor, Anthony Rapp, against the two-time Oscar winning, House of Cards star, Kevin Spacey. During a party in Spacey’s apartment in 1986 when Rapp was 14, Rapp claims the older actor came into the bedroom where he had gone to watch TV, scooped him onto the bed then lay on top of him, holding him down by force until Rapp managed to “squirm” away.
Whilst Rapp’s accusations were no doubt prompted by the saga of sexual predation stories dominating the headlines, there is a significant difference in this case – this is a claim of same-sex assault against a celebrity long rumoured to be gay. Within hours of the story being published, Spacey issued a statement: “[I]f I did behave then as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behaviour”. However, it was the next paragraph that made Spacey’s statement not only more complicated, but greatly disturbing. The allegations have prompted him to “address other things about my life…[that] I choose now to live as a gay man”.
The word “choose” is significant. Exposing his homosexuality is a calculated choice. As Josh Rivers, editor of the Gay Times, told the Press Association: “It would make more sense for him to come out as an alcoholic”. Indeed, Spacey himself is keen to highlight his “deeply inappropriate drunken behaviour”. So, the question we should be asking, among others, is why Spacey decided to reveal his homosexuality in the wake of this abuse scandal? What does this achieve from his point of view? How does he benefit?
In deciding to come out, Spacey is playing upon a complex relationship between gender and homosexuality to undermine the horror of this abuse claim.
Spacey is, in reality, drawing upon deeply engrained prejudices surrounding homosexuality to protect himself from the oncoming scandal. His statement reveals an alarming manipulation of the gendered perception of ‘gayness’, which in turn reinforces troubling gender stereotypes and constraints. In foregrounding the ambiguous nature of his sexuality, Spacey dredges up a historic affiliation between homosexuality and sexual perversity. All this brings a sickening blow to gay people, whilst shielding Spacey himself.
In deciding to come out, Spacey is playing upon a complex relationship between gender and homosexuality to undermine the horror of this abuse claim. To acknowledge this link, you only need to use your imagination: if the ideas of what is ‘male’ and ‘female’ played no part in our culture, if genders roles were fluid and men and women were equal, the gender of a person’s partner would be irrelevant in defining their sexuality. The categories ‘homosexual’, ‘heterosexual’ and ‘bisexual’ would be obsolete. Because this society is a fantasy – our culture contains rigid gender roles and inequality – we have gendered perceptions of homosexuality. Because women tend to desire men, homosexual men tend to be perceived as ‘feminine’. Social surveys support this pattern, showing how people attribute characteristics of the opposite sex to homosexual people. This accounts for gay men being generally seen as ‘weak’ or ‘submissive’.
Unsurprisingly, homophobes tend to stereotype the sexes and attribute homosexuality to a man if he shows feminine characteristics. It is interesting that these people also tend to adhere to traditional sexual roles, disapprove of gender equality, and hold traditional beliefs around what constitutes ‘female’. This is what Spacey is exploiting. In drawing upon this gendered view of homosexuality, Spacey is using gender stereotypes and homophobia as a means to blunt the allegations by representing himself as weaker, more submissive and less predatory. The implication being, that a gay sexual predator is less dangerous than a straight one.
Because same-sex desire has historically been covert and concealed – the term ‘closeted’ epitomising this – ambiguity is branded into our culture’s perception of homosexuality. The whole reason behind this secrecy was society’s decree that same-sex desire was ‘perverse’ – outlaw passion and hail in furtive glances, ‘cruising’ and codes. Yet this secrecy can breed problems. As Michael Schulman wrote in The New Yorker following Spacey’s statement: “Ambiguity can also be a cover for predation; in the darkness of the closet, it can be hard to separate good secrets from bad secrets”.
It is little wonder then, that Spacey’s decision to bring together the sexual abuse of a child and ‘gayness’ has simply reinforced a historical conflation of same-sex desire, sexual deviancy and perversity. So why do this? In dredging up these disturbing connotations, Spacey is using his sexuality to hide a truth that is harder to face than being gay – that is, his abuse of power that often comes with fame and success. In replacing the word ‘power’ with ‘sexuality’, Spacey has thrown the gay people he’s decided to join under the bus.