When the Kevin Spacey story first broke last week, my first thought was: What took so long?
I started hearing disturbing Spacey stories 18 years ago from people who separately worked with him on a film and a stage play that year. Each talked openly about Spacey’s seeming penchant for very young men, some of whom appeared to be young enough that sexual activity would be illegal. I didn’t witness this, but I found it pretty compelling that people who didn’t know each other were independently describing the same behavior. Both felt hamstrung. What could they do? Card the young men who appeared on set or backstage? Poll these boys to see how they felt about it?
Since I felt like I couldn’t credibly report their stories, I did what I always do: I wrote about it. In my play Wonderland, I didn’t call the protagonist “Kevin,” but it turns out that I didn’t have to: after readings in three different cities, strangers came up to me to share their own tales about Spacey. In fact, over the years since, it became something of a truism in theater that “everyone has a Kevin Spacey story.”
So how is it possible that this went unreported for decades? Short answer: he knew how to weaponize a closet.
It was not much of a closet in some ways, as pictures of him with a young stud appeared in 2000, and author after author tried to address his orientation. There were jokes on TV shows and he even made one himself at the Oscars. But he never addressed whether or not he was in the closet. Rather, he always argued that any discussion of closets was a problem, something that wounded him and cheapened the person who raised it. It was the perfect maneuver, allowing him to enjoy all the material benefits of a closeted life, while feigning piety about privacy.
Staying in the closet is always about privacy to some degree, but Spacey appears to have turned the dynamic around for purposes of offense, not defense. The closet allowed him to move through the world accruing the power most afforded to straight white men; this allowed access to celebrity and wealth, which both increased his power. If the current news is true, it is clear that he used his power on those who had less: young actors on the rise, busboys, employees of his theatre and film productions.
All the while, his public posture—an aggrieved man standing up for dignity—helped entangle reporters in questions about which stories they could and couldn’t print. Some say they were fearful of “outing” him, considered a journalistic sin, while others worried privately that if the rumors of his sexuality were true, so might be rumors of predilections for underage boys, which was something else entirely. Spacey’s closet confounded even the people you’d think were best positioned to expose him.
As a result, every passing year, every unchecked rise in status, seems to have allowed him to act more and more confidently: an arc that led from the reported private assault at home to public groping at cast parties. He may well have believed that there would likely never be an accuser with the kind of power he possessed.
As the reports come in now, from an alleged sexual relationship with a 14 year-old to harassment on the House of Cards set, it is clear just how many of his targets bought into the notion that they could not speak at the time. What would one young man say in the face of an Oscar-winning, Tony-winning, Emmy-nominated, multi-millionaire TV and film producer? Who would dare take him on?
Anthony Rapp finally did. Immediately, Spacey treated the assault story much the way he handled the notion of the closet: he didn’t confirm or deny its existence; instead, he redirected attention to his own plight, making sure we knew that he’d endured years of people wondering about his orientation. And then, in the ultimate diversion, he came out, announcing that he “chooses” to live his life as a gay man.
That was the ultimate weaponizing of the closet. In two faux humble paragraphs which are as arrogant as they are intellectually and morally suspect, Spacey tries to neutralize Rapp’s story by elevating himself, using his old life in the closet as an excuse for any misdeeds it made possible. Worse, the one-two set-up of his statement implies that, even if there had been an assault, it was all part of his long coming out process. That link is not only specious but incredibly damaging, the kind of lie that feeds rabid homophobia and still gets gay men killed around the world.
Perhaps to his surprise, his statement only worsened things for him, and he’s been eloquently called out for it. So he’s off to “treatment,” whatever that means. (He has the free time now that he’s been banned from set.) His goal, I imagine, is to return to public life eventually with another statement about his growth. But in the post-Weinstein, #MeToo era, I think he’s going to find the terrain somewhat changed. Neither the old “straight” lie or his new “out” status will protect him any longer. More people than ever are calling assault by its name, and orientation alone offers no cover.
Perhaps because he has so badly misfired this last round, Spacey will discover that his closet is finally disarmed. The great shame is that it took so long.