“I choose now to live as a gay man,” Kevin Spacey solemnly acknowledged in a tweet. By "now," he means the crucial first moment after he was accused of sexual assault by a man who was, at the time, a minor. By "now," he means when it is most opportune. After reports surfaced of Spacey allegedly molesting Anthony Rapp in 1986, when Rapp was 14, the world awaited Spacey’s statement with bated breath, wondering how the notoriously private actor would respond to the explosive allegations. The answer, perhaps, is best summed up by comedian Billy Eichner on Twitter, “Kevin Spacey has just invented something that has never existed before: a bad time to come out.”
As college students in an institution that makes the effort to put us through programs like Not Anymore! to reduce interpersonal violence, we are educated enough to know for certain that some things Spacey did were not acceptable. For instance, his apology, while seemingly sincere, pertains merely to “inappropriate drunken behavior,” and we are taught repeatedly that alcohol acts as neither a cause nor an excuse for assault. But beyond this, it is unlikely that all students would be able to pinpoint other problematic aspects of the situation, as in different backgrounds, the amount of education provided on such issues differs vastly. However, as complex issues such as gender identity or sexuality and preferences become more pertinent topics of conversation, these are as crucial to include in sensitivity training programs as issues of interpersonal violence.
First and foremost, while Spacey’s identity as a gay man is not invalidated by the time he chose to come out, his announcement shifted focus from his admittance of child molestation to his sexual orientation. Multiple news outlets chose to report the story as one of a celebrated actor being gay. Interestingly, Reuters began with the headline “Actor Kevin Spacey Declares He Lives Life as a Gay Man” and soon updated it to read “Kevin Spacey Apologizes After Actor Describes Sexual Advance at 14”. This, in essence, was Spacey’s objective, whether with malicious intent or not. He used his status and the public intrigue that has always swarmed around his personal life to shift focus from serious allegations to issues that, whilst not petty, are personal. It creates an awkward contradiction in which he associates his identity with his assault and fuels harmful rhetoric around the LGBTQ community. For instance, a commonly heard criticism used to delegitimize LGBTQ persons is that they are ‘playing the minority card’ or using their identity to gain leverage or deflect criticism. Undoubtedly, this narrative is counterproductive to society’s progress towards the equal treatment and perception of LGBTQ persons. Thus, it begs the question of whether Spacey is helping or harming the LGBTQ community he claims to be a part of. It is not his prerogative to further their cause, but the inauspicious moment he chose to appropriate their marginalized status fed into the narrative working to keep them on the fringe of acceptance by conflating homosexuality and pedophilia.
Choosing the moment he is accused of child molestation to come out as gay has connotations that feed into age-old stereotypes that plague homosexuality. Earlier this year, this topic became relevant when former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos defended relations between older men and young boys as sources of security, safety, “love and a reliable sort of rock.” While the connection Spacey created is far less direct and malicious, the associations that it raises in its audience’s minds feed into the same myths of homosexuality, sexual deviancy and pedophilia that have been historically weaponized to oppose LGBTQ rights.
The idea of there being a “right” time to come out is dangerous. Still, the timing of Spacey’s confession is pertinent for it illustrates the existence of a “wrong time”. However, an alarmingly miniscule section of people receive the education that is required to understand and recognize social issues of identity and preference. In the varied environment that college invariably is, this is clearly an issue. Gender identity, sexuality, and other topics of this ilk are more widely discussed today than ever before. College students come from varied cultures with different standards of awareness and acceptance regarding these issues, but it is no longer possible to pretend they will not be exposed to a discussion surrounding them in their lifetimes. It is time that colleges play their role as stalwarts of education in mediating this discourse.
Not Anymore!, SHARE, and other resources on campus create a safer, more supportive environment and are important first steps. However, the University must look towards making information on sensitivity to issues like gender, sexuality and identity more widely available, ideally even mandatory, in our sensitivity training programs. Currently, resources that exist on campus such as the Women’s Center or the LGBT Center provide support to those students that choose to seek them out. But, a counterpart to this process of supporting LGBTQ people is the education of fellow students, their potential allies. The University has a chance here to pioneer the most important step towards creating real change in society: education. It can choose to help students from different backgrounds receive the support and perhaps the information they need. Whether this is to help them grapple with personal identity issues or at least be enlightened in issues that others they meet in college or life might struggle with, it is no longer sufficient to stick our heads in the sand and pretend social issues are niche enough to bypass entirely.
Aparna Shankar is a first-year from New Delhi, India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.