The President of the United States is enmeshed in scandal this week. So is Kevin Spacey. It feels a characteristic irony of 2017 that even as a real-life President fights allegations that could remove him from office, our most notorious fictional President is removed from the air. Netflix announced on Wednesday that “House of Cards,” in which Kevin Spacey plays the corrupt President Underwood, will not be renewed for further seasons. That Spacey is now facing accusations of serious sexual misconduct, Netflix assures us, is purely coincidental.
The accusations against Spacey are serious. Even in our post-Weinstein era, it was shocking to read the actor Anthony Rapp’s recollection of how the double Academy-Award winner invited him to an adult party when Rapp was a child star. Sometime toward the end of the night, Rapp alleges he found himself sitting on Spacey’s bed, whereupon Spacey entered the room, “picked me up like a groom picks up the bride over the threshold,” and made a sexual advance. Rapp was 14 at the time; Spacey was 26.
In response to Rapp’s claims, Spacey released a statement in which he insisted he couldn’t recall the night in question, and then said: “But if I did behave then as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.” This is an apology that will make its way into the great hall of historic nondenial denials. But the recourse to blaming Bacchus isn’t even the worst of it.
In his statement, Spacey went on to confirm another rumor: “I choose now to live as a gay man.” Great. Welcome out of the closet, Kevin. But is that 2,000 years of homophobic stereotype I hear in the background? What could be the purpose for any man of coming out as gay in the same breath as apologizing for the attempted assault of a minor? Is Spacey, shamelessly, trying to shift the focus of an international news story? Multiple media outlets came under fire for leading their coverage with Spacey’s coming out, rather than Rapp’s allegations — surely better for Spacey’s PR than some of the more critical coverage that has followed.
Or is this, even worse, an attempt to suggest Spacey’s attraction to underage men is intrinsic to his homosexuality? Those who endorse such existing and discriminatory stereotypes will be eager to read it as such. In that context, a statement that even hints at such an association merits only condemnation. Few prejudices have done more damage to gay people than the myth that there is any link between sex with or sexual assault of a minor and same-sex attraction.
It matters when Hollywood stars peddle this old lie or any semblance of it. Because it is a lie that has caused real harm. In 1978, Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative, appeared on the California ballot. It was part of a movement to bar gay men and women from working in schools. Even teachers who “advocated” LGBTQ rights might have faced losing their jobs. The measure was eventually defeated at the ballot box, thanks to the work of campaigners like Harvey Milk. But those who pushed for it, like California legislator John Briggs, stoked the fears of parents as they spread stories about the predator nature of homosexuals.
Even as recently as 2013, when the Boy Scouts of America debated whether to permit gay men to join their movement, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council appeared on CNN to argue against their inclusion. His argument? That the Boy Scouts needed to “create an environment that is protective of children” and that abuse by pedophiles disproportionately involves “male on boy” abuse. After much debate, the Scouts concluded that the presence of gay Scouts and leaders posed no threat; they agreed to accept gay Scouts from 2014 onward, and gay leaders from 2015, but thanks in part to the arguments by men like Perkins, some parents choose now to enroll their sons in rival Christian programs.
Now that a high-profile Hollywood star has chosen to publicly conflate his homosexuality with alleged sexual misconduct with a minor, how many more parents in small towns will whisper warnings to their children about their blameless gay teacher or lesbian church leader?
Spacey’s story matters because it may continue to grow. Here in London, where I work as a theater critic, it’s possible that stories will surface concerning Spacey’s behavior during his time as artistic director of the Old Vic theater. Monday morning, on the flagship BBC “Today” program, a leading British theater director, when asked about the allegations made by Rapp, said, “I think that many people in the theater and in the creative industries have been aware of many stories of many people over a lot of years,” noting that “Kevin Spacey would be one of the people that people have had concerns about, yes.”
Spacey’s attempt to refocus the narrative with his purported apology feels like a hamfisted attempt to head off more stories before they emerge. But if the Spacey scandal gets worse, it would be a particularly cruel injustice should other gay men end up paying the price for his deployment of pernicious stereotypes.