Coming out isn’t what it used to be. One of the many dividends of a rapid series of culture-shaking advances for the LGBT community, is that celebrities who might once have risked livelihoods by admitting they were gay now experience little to no blowback. Coming out can even fuel a career renaissance. (Being seen as open, honest, and happy in their personal lives has seemed to benefit the careers of gay performers like Neil Patrick Harris.) Coming-out has changed along with the broader culture. What was once a splashy, daring decision that, say, sold magazines, has become something that happens more and more in an amiably low-key way—an aside in an interview or a few words in a post on social media. Given the benefits, to individuals and to society, when life is lived openly, that’s generally a very positive thing.
Which is what makes Kevin Spacey’s coming out so frustrating. It’s hard to remember a recent case quite like the one of the House of Cards star—that is to say a case in which the general goodwill around coming out seemed to be used as a manner to distract from another scandal. Spacey, the 58-year-old actor who was the subject of rumor and innuendo for years but who was protected by longstanding media prohibitions against outing, came out via Twitter within hours of a BuzzFeed News report of an alleged 1986 assault against actor Anthony Rapp, then 14 years old. In a statement, Spacey said he couldn’t recall the incident due to the time that has elapsed and because he was under the influence of alcohol at the time. The actor went on to say that he was ready to openly “live as a gay man” in order to “deal with this honestly and openly.”
There’s an odd and ugly bit of rhetorical jiujitsu seemingly at work here. Spacey implies that the first step in dealing with the allegation against him is to admit to being gay, as though that would explain why an adult might assault a 14-year-old. Furthermore, Spacey seems to be grabbing onto language of a movement he’s long dismissed. For years, he repeatedly told interviewers he didn’t care to talk about his sexuality. More recently, as host of the 2017 Tony Awards, Spacey made jokes suggesting that he’d never come out of the closet.
That’s his right. But to come out at the very moment he was accused of child predation is particularly unseemly. Not to mention it runs the risk of connecting what he may have done 31 years ago to one of the nastiest misconceptions about homosexuality: That being gay inherently makes you a potential predator. Spacey’s alleged behavior, if true, is far worse than latching onto a movement toward inclusiveness at a wrong time. But the latching also does harm.
This episode brings to mind the unfortunate case of former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey. Under fire for offenses not strictly related to being gay in 2004, McGreevey gave a speech in which he declared himself “a gay American” before resigning. Being gay came to be seen as the reason that McGreevey had been subject to persecution, even though it presumably had little to do with inappropriately appointing his lover to be the state’s homeland security adviser. Spacey seems to be operating from a playbook that might have worked a decade ago.
It won’t work. For one, coming out has changed since 2004. For another, Spacey is running into the buzzsaw of another trend that’s exploded recently. Bill Cosby. Fox News. Harvey Weinstein. And all the rest. Allegations of sexual assault against public figures are no longer an ancillary part of the story, the thing we talk about for a while before the movie gets released or the election happens or the star comes out. They are the story. For so long unwilling to be a part of social change around coming out, Spacey’s now been wildly outpaced by history. And coming out can’t keep him from being a part of that story now.