Kevin Spacey's Coming Out and the Politics of Gay Victimhood
I remember when social media exploded over Kevin Spacey’s controversial coming out statement. I didn’t read it immediately—the sense I got was he did it wrong, and I assumed that was all I needed to know. Of course, this coming out was different. In a Twitter message, Spacey finally confirmed decades of rumors by stating that he “loved and had romantic encounters with men throughout [his] life,” and now chooses “to live as a gay man.”1 Alone, this public disclosure of his sexuality—in many ways indicative of the iconic “coming out” on a grand scale—might have inspired me and countless others to laud his declaration as an act of bravery, the addition of yet another influential Hollywood persona to our growing list of advocates who would continue to convince the diminishing, though lingering, naysayers that we are “just like everyone else.”
Unfortunately, Spacey’s declaration was more than just an admission of his gay identity. It was also a callous attempt at apologizing for sexually assaulting then fourteen-year-old actor Anthony Rapp some thirty years ago—callous because he appears to apologize for a crime he rhetorically constructed as hypothetical, and for which he failed to accept responsibility. “I do not remember the encounter,” Spacey said, furthering that he owes Rapp an apology only “if I did behave then as he describes.”2 The rhetorical work of that “if ” commits a particular act of violence by inspiring doubt over the accusation as Rapp presents it. In effect, Spacey masterfully produces a gaslighting effect, framing Rapp’s recollection of events as a story that Spacey then tries to overwrite. Brit Marling offered a succinct summary of the sexism rampant in Hollywood that applies equally well here: “straight, white men tend to tell stories from their perspective, as one [End Page 66] naturally does, which means the women are generally underwritten.”3 Slightly reworked, her statement speaks to a related issue: sexual predators tend to tell stories from their perspective, which means the victims are generally underwritten. The surge of sexual assault accusations emerging from Hollywood, the power of the #MeToo campaign, and the legitimacy these claims are finally being afforded speak to the frustration and powerlessness assault survivors have felt in the face of systemic forces that silence their perspectives. Spacey’s apology alone makes him complicit in perpetuating these forces, as he recuses himself from accountability, misattributes the motivation behind his actions, and expresses remorse for the feelings his actions inspired, not the actions themselves. The power of his “if” works to undermine the credibility of Rapp’s accusation; it forcefully and rhetorically creates a space in which an alternate plot unfolds. In this new story, Spacey is the protagonist plagued by the proverbial closet. This new villain takes the blame for Spacey’s misguided behavior; despite setbacks, he emerges as the triumphant yet humble victor—or so he hoped. What Spacey accomplishes in declaring his sexuality is more than just cementing a new identity—he attempts to lay claim to some degree of marginality with, I suspect, the intent to displace some modicum of privilege and make his actions more difficult to critique. His rhetorical work is a painful illustration of the wrongs committed by cisgender white gay men against the rest of us at the margins of society.
QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking
Rudnick, J. (2018). Kevin Spacey's coming out and the politics of gay victimhood. QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, 5(2), 66-71. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/704201
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