On Sunday night—as everyone was headed to bed, bracing for indictment o’clock—a strange and startling new chapter of the post-Harvey Weinstein saga played out with dizzying speed. Just after 9:30 P.M., BuzzFeed posted a story by Adam B. Vary containing an allegation by the openly gay actor Anthony Rapp (of “Rent”) against the two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey. One night in 1986, Rapp says, Spacey invited him to a party at his apartment, where Rapp got bored and started watching TV in the bedroom. At the end of the night, an apparently drunk Spacey appeared in the doorway, scooped Rapp onto the bed, and lay on top of him. Rapp managed to “squirm” away, he recalled. Both actors were in Broadway shows at the time. Spacey was twenty-six. Rapp was fourteen.
The story, reported diligently, has similarities with some of the other sexual-predation stories in the news lately—most tellingly, the years of lingering shame and confusion that Rapp experienced afterward. (Rapp was inspired by the wave of abuse victims speaking up, he told Vary: “The only way these things can continue is if there’s no attention being paid to it, if it’s getting forgotten.”) Clearly, the encounter has haunted Rapp, and the public recounting of it took courage. The difference, of course, is that the allegation is of a same-sex violation, against a celebrity long rumored to be gay. When Spacey hosted the Tony Awards, in June, he made a running joke out of his own wink-wink approach to his sexuality, with awkward “in the closet” gags that seemed unfrozen from the Paul Lynde era.
Within hours of the BuzzFeed piece, Spacey—who had ignored Vary’s requests for comment—issued a statement. “I’m beyond horrified to hear his story,” Spacey wrote, claiming that he had no memory of the encounter more than three decades later. “But if I did behave then as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior, and I am sorry for the feelings he describes having carried with him all these years.” If you take both Rapp and Spacey at their word, this seems like a decent response: an immediate apology, not just for behavior that Spacey doesn’t recall but for the emotional toll it took on Rapp.
It was the next paragraph that made Spacey’s statement something more complicated and troubling. “This story has encouraged me to address other things about my life,” he wrote. “I know that there are stories out there about me and that some have been fueled by the fact that I have been so protective of my privacy. As those closest to me know, in my life I have had relationships with both men and women. I have loved and had romantic encounters with men throughout my life, and I choose now to live as a gay man. I want to deal with this honestly and openly and that starts with examining my own behavior.”
Read generously, the statement reflects the problem of Spacey acknowledging the accusation without clarifying his sexuality in general. If he’d apologized and left it at that, it might have raised more questions: is making a pass at a fourteen-year-old boy something a straight man would do? Probably not, but the implication was that it’s something a gay man might do, which is why the statement landed in the gay community with a thud. “Nope to Kevin Spacey’s statement. Nope,” Dan Savage tweeted. “There’s no amount of drunk or closeted that excuses or explains away assaulting a 14-year-old child.” “How dare you implicate us all in this,” Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson tweeted. At Esquire, Tyler Coates wrote, “Spacey’s misguided statement only gives fuel to anti-LGBT activists, who have long used fear-mongering tactics invoking pedophilia as ammunition against queer people, particularly gay men.”
Read cynically, Spacey’s statement was a misdirection technique worthy of Frank Underwood, designed to supplant Rapp’s allegation with his own coming out—the type of celebrity revelation that the media is used to celebrating. To some extent, it worked, producing headlines such as “Actor Kevin Spacey declares he lives life as a gay man.” From his statement, Spacey’s sexuality sounds, like most people’s, complex: he’s had relationships with men and women, and part of the reason that he’s stayed quiet for so long may be a discomfort with a label like “gay.” (I don’t object, as some commenters have, to the phrasing “I choose now to live as a gay man.” We don’t choose our sexual orientations, but we do choose the words to describe them.) But all that has little to do with how an adult treats an adolescent, particularly a wide-eyed newcomer to show business attempting to learn the ropes from a more established actor.
Since the Weinstein story broke, there’s been some speculation that the next scandal would have to do with gay pedophilia rings in Hollywood, especially after the former child actor Corey Feldman vowed to release a list of predators. For a number of reasons, it’s fraught territory: a 2014 lawsuit by the former teen model Michael Egan against the director Bryan Singer and others was withdrawn, before Egan pleaded guilty to charges in connection to investment fraud. If there is more scandal to come, it will be imperative to separate assault or harassment accusations (of minors or otherwise) from casual homophobia—and to keep both of these things far from the self-satisfied “everybody knew” joshing that attaches itself to late-out-of-the-closet celebrities. In rolling it all up into one late-night package, Spacey did the gay community no favors.
Because same-sex relationships have historically been clandestine, ambiguity is baked into the commerce of gay sexuality. In the bygone era of furtive glances and hanky codes, the risk was that consensual sex, if exposed, would be considered “perverse.” But 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. The truth is that many young gay men have positive, formative relationships with older men at the beginning of their sexual lives. The sublime new film “Call Me by Your Name” depicts an explosive affair between a seventeen-year-old and his father’s twenty-four-year-old intern in early-eighties Italy. The relationship is both sensual and consensual, but that didn’t stop the conservative actor James Woods from decrying the erosion of “the last barriers of decency.” (On Twitter, the film’s star, Armie Hammer, shot back, “Didn’t you date a 19 year old when you were 60…….?”) As the movie elegantly shows, marginalization breeds an unspoken language of desire that can lead in wild directions, sometimes for good. But the responsibility falls squarely on the older man not to take advantage of youthful curiosity, and to model healthy sexuality and gay pride. We now live in a world where (in many places) gay men and women can come out with confidence, even joy. For whatever reasons, Spacey chose not to take that route, and he wound up getting pushed out in a way that feels dispiritingly retro—and that muddies waters gay men have long fought to clarify.